Police in a pre-dawn raid on Tuesday arrested three people at Wilgamuwa in the Matale District while they were on a treasure-hunting mission.
In their possession were dynamite, a detonator, drills and books of ‘manthras’. The suspects were produced before the Naula Magistrate and remanded.
The raid came a day after four more suspects were nabbed while they were digging for treasure at Wavulgala in Deraniyagala, about 15 km east of Avissawella.
On the same day another alleged treasure hunter was arrested while he was excavating inside a reserve near a tank in Mihintale.
Last Sunday, police took a person into custody following a tip off that he was hiring out a modified metal detector to treasure hunters.
These cases which the Police recorded during the past seven days have added to the worries of the Archaeological Department.
Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana admitted that there had been an increase in treasure hunting cases with at least two cases being reported daily.
“We are appealing to the trustees of temples and shrines to be vigilant and take extra measures to protect archaeologically important items in them,” SP Rohana said.
Alarmed by the increasing number of treasure hunting cases, Archaeology Department Director General Senarath Dissanayake told the Sunday Times they were were worried over the damage caused to archaeologically important sites.
“There are as many as 250,000 recognized archeological sites in Sri Lanka and damage caused to these sites will be irreversible,” he said.
Dr. Dissanayake said that in some instances, frustrated treasure hunters deliberately damaged Buddha statues and shrines at places where they found nothing after excavation.
He said the Department received 220 complaints on illegal excavations last year as against 190 in 2010. So far this year, the department has received 26 complaints.
The Archaeology Chief said the complaints had increased because the people understood the importance of preserving artefacts and archeologically important sites. He said they would launch a programme to educate the public and schoolchildren on the importance of protecting archeological items.
|The special police unit for safeguarding antiquities.
Pix by Athula Devapriya
Although the Archeological sites are found throughout the country, the department has only 2,300 employees. They include 100 watchers, a strength woefully inadequate to guard the 250,000 sites. The department, therefore, hires people from the areas where archaeological sites are found. They are paid Rs. 2,000 a month.
Apart from the security problem, Dr. Dissanayake said the inadequacy of the laws had also made their task difficult.
Under the current laws, persons found guilty of causing damage to archaeological items are imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 or jailed for two years.
“Generally persons guilty of such offences are wealthy and therefore a Rs. 50,000 fine is no deterrent to prevent the crime,” Dr. Dissanayake said adding that they had recommended the imposition of both the enhanced fine of Rs 500,000 and the two-year jail term.
Metal detector at the centre of probe
Police Superintendent W.M.N. Wanigasekara, who is in charge of the Special Task Force (STF) camp at Mahabulankulama in Anuradhapura, last week received a tip-off about a man transporting a metal detector used in mine clearance.
STF personnel from the camp intercepted the vehicle and took into custody a modified metal detector.
Investigations revealed that the man in possession of the equipment worked as a driver at the Health Ministry. He left his job six months ago to engage in the business of hiring out the modified metal detector to treasure hunters.
His clients were not only treasure hunters. Those who were looking for precious metals such as gold and hidden military hardware of the LTTE in the North and East also hired his metal detector, a detective in charge of the investigations said.
The suspect said he had bought the modified equipment for Rs 1.5 million from a person at Madiwela in Kotte. Police are on the lookout for this suspect to find out how he came into possession of the equipment.
“The equipment in its original form was meant to detect mines which are buried about two to three feet underground. But the modified equipment could trace metal lying 35 feet underground. A monitor added to the equipment displays the area in which the metal is spread out.
The equipment had been modified in such a manner that when the collapsible antenna is raised the depth of the area it scans underground proportionately increases,” the detective said.
He said their investigations were focused on who used the equipment for what and where.