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Special Assignment

13th September 1998

Look! There is no such treasure

By Tharuka Dissanaike

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That most of these ancient artefacts don't have the so-called treasure apparently has little effect on the fortune hunters

D.M Piyatilleke, OIC Archaeological Unit at Polonnaruwa was apologetic. He had to rush off.

"Look," he said pointing to the telephone messages that were left on his table. "Four complaints of treasure hunting this morning. The Police are impatient. They want the Department to come and determine if the site is an important one."

Complaining that he had no time to attend to his normal work schedule any more, Mr. Piyatilleke and an assistant left for a remote tank in the interior, where treasure hunters have reportedly dug 30-feet deep in search of elusive riches.

The Department puzzles to the increased incidence of plundering of sacred site and artefacts.

"In Polonnaruwa it has increased to alarming proportions," Mr. Piyatilleke said. "For years we did not hear of a serious incident. Now in just one month there were six incidents- not counting the complaints I received today."

Is it really an unusual increase, or are the media merely reporting it more often?

"I think the media are focusing more on these stories now," Archaeology Department Director General Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala said.

"More serious incidents which happened earlier received little publicity compared to recent media attention on treasure hunters."

Senerath Dissnayake, a Director of the Department said that sometimes the publicity worked adversely.

"People get ideas too of treasure hunting when stories about it appear."

Treasure hunting is not a new phenomenon.Through the years, treasure hunting existed, old temples and ancient monuments falling prey to unscrupulous thieves. But in the nineties, especially 1991 onwards, the incidents increased dramatically.

From1991 January to 1998 September the number of incidents of plundering old sites and theft of artefacts rose to 145. It was in the last quarter of 1997, it increased to alarming levels.

So far the most number of incidents, 23, were reported from Kurunegala. Closely following Kurunegala are Ratnapura, Moneragala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts.

The Department believes that whatever the valuables were deposited in old cheithyas and statues they are nowhere near what these hunters expect.

Judging by the scale of recent trail of incidents, the treasure hunting gang seem to expect the proverbial pot of gold and handfuls of sapphires and rubies under or in ancient artefacts and monuments.

But ironically what they would find are small bronze, silver or gold plated statues and symbols.

In the old days, Buddha statues did have eyes of sapphire, Department officials said. But by the time they were rediscovered and restored rarely was a statue's eyes found intact.

But the lack of treasure apparently has little effect on the treasure hunters. So what can be done to curb the trend, that is robbing the country of thousands of years of well preserved history?

"The amendments to the law will help. That is the only way to bring these people to book and deter others who might have similar ideas," Dr. Deraniyagala said.

The amendments to the antiquities law, gazetted in May 1998, made the offence unbailable. Punishment was increased to a fine of Rs.50,000 and/or a three year jail term.

Although a significant improvement to what was the law regarding antiquities, the Department feels that even this is insufficient comparing to what is offered to those who give accurate information about treasure hunters.

The Department is now compiling a list of incidents from 1991 onwards to see if there is a pattern in the thefts.

It also took out advertisements in the papers to educate the public on the issue. "Since then the number of complaints have dropped from around four a day to less than one," Senerath Dissanayake said.

"It has to be stopped. These people have no sense of value. They are damaging our own heritage," Dr. Deraniyagala said.

"Our children will not be able to see Medirigiriya as it should have looked. It's a shame," Mr. Piyatilleke said.

The irony of this kind of treasure hunting is that there really is no treasure.

Going going gone!

List of important artefacts stolen and plundered by thieves

1) Smashing the chest of Buddha statue at Yatala Vihare in Tissamaharamaya.

"It was one of the five best Buddha statues in the country," Dr. Deraniyagala said.

2) Stealing four 18th century canvas paintings from the Dembawa Devale in Matale in 1997 March

3) Stealing ivory carvings from Ridivihare

4) Stealing the bronze statue, gold and ivory casket and a diamond stone from the Hakuruwela temple in Tangalle.

5)Disappearance of artefacts from the Paramananda Royal Library at Moragala, Kalutara in 1994.

6) Damaging two Buddha statues and a Vishnu statue at Niyadawane Raja Maha Vihare in Polpithigama, Kurunegala in 1996.

7) Disappearance of Lion figures from the Mirisavetiya western gate in Anuradhapura reserve in 1997.

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