In Sri Lanka, the interplay between archaeology and photography dates back to the mid 19th century. These were years when there was a sudden renewal of interest in archaeology, which coincided with the earliest days of photography in this country. The apparent reality - and objectivity - of the photographic image greatly altered the way in which man saw himself. This was one of the factors which shaped the new ideas being formulated on archaeology -which was being studied with the new tools of science and technology.
James Fergusson (1808-1886), the British architectural historian of Indian art in his pre- eminent work History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, (1876) made a critical comment on Sri Lankan archaeology. He was of the view that of all the Asian countries it was here in Sri Lanka that there existed a continuous series of Buddhist monuments that could be traced back from the time of Emperor Asoka (c273-232B.C).
He also referred to the chronicle – Mahavamsa which he described as a unique historic document that not only contains the detailed authentic history of these structures but also their period of construction, with tolerable precision. Fergusson was a staunch critic of the colonial government for its negligence and indifference to the heritage of the ancient archaeological sites; partly, it was his criticism that was the catalyst that triggered a series of events that culminated in the founding of the Archaeological Commission by the British authorities in 1868.
Whatever the early photographers focused their cameras on, whether on man made early landscapes, or on man himself, they were providing indispensable images for future study by archaeologists. The use of photography to record the details of rock inscriptions by Captain J.R. Hogg and the documentary photographs of the early Buddhist sites by Joseph Lawton, are two very different examples of photographs with archaeological content.
South Asia’s photographic historians rank Joseph Lawton, as one of the most outstanding and versatile photographers of the 19th century. He is best known for his evocative images of Sri Lanka’s ancient archaeological sites.
In Sri Lanka, Lawton is best remembered for his images of ancient Buddhist and Hindu archaeological sites particularly those of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya. Within a brief period that lasted from 1866 to his death in 1872, Lawton produced a formidable body of work known not only for its consistent quality but also for its prodigious quantity. Sadly, many of his original glass plates and negatives have been lost, broken or destroyed.
The publication ‘Archaelogy and Photography the early years 1868-1880’ by Ismeth Raheem for the first time records some of the most important aspects of his work and reproduces almost a hundred of his best images of archaeological sites dating back to 1868.
The publication was launched on July 30, at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology and the Chief Guest was the French Ambassador Michel Lummaux.
Copies of the publication can be obtained from the National Trust or from the author Ismeth Raheem (mobile-077-3411170)