Protecting tangible, intangible and mixed heritage of humanity


Acceptance speech delivered at the awards ceremony of the Archaeological Institute of America on January 4, 2013, Seattle USA by Prof Sudarshan Seneviratne (Professor of Archaeology. University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, Edward F Arnold Professor of Archaeology. Whitman College. WA. USA (2012-2013).

President Bartman, members and professionals of the AIA, Ladies and Gentlemen!

I was honoured to receive a communication from President Bartman stating my name as recipient of the 2013 Award for Best Practice in Conservation and Heritage Management. It also gratified me to note that heritage initiatives carried out in Sri Lanka during the past few decades have been recognized by one of the oldest standing professional bodies of heritage in the world and by the community of global heritage professionals at large. Our commitment towards professional excellence was seen as an investment for the future protecting the tangible, intangible and mixed heritage of humanity. By doing so, we placed a high premium bench-marking best practice for the next generation of archaeologists and heritage managers. Among a wide range of initiatives undertaken I wish to make special reference to: surface, sub-surface and maritime heritage excavation and conservation achievements at World Heritage sites; establishment of state of the art museums unfolding the inclusiveness and diversity of an island society; multiple programs on heritage empowerment, capacity-building and revitalization; sustainable heritage tourism; heritage as an outreach program for conflict resolution and reconciliation and peace.

Heritage practice as a team effort

While thanking you most sincerely for this recognition conferred upon me, I do not stand here today to be honoured as an individual. We archaeologists and heritage managers are team players. It is with a solemn sense of gratitude that I note the professional investment made by my predecessors in the fields of archaeology and heritage management in Sri Lanka. Our present achievements are "constructed" upon their vision, experience and dedication. I also accept this honour on behalf of the University of Peradeniya; Archaeology, Conservation and Administrative Directors, young archaeologists, architects, engineers, site managers, research officers and especially on behalf of thousands of nameless site workers of the Central Cultural Fund (the Custodian Organization for UNESCO Declared world Heritage Sites) in Sri Lanka. They stood by me as we placed our vision plan for heritage initiatives on track and carried them out to a logical conclusion. It is due to the concerted and dedicated engagement by all of them, as a team, that enabled the launching of ambitious and impressive projects showcasing Sri Lanka’s heritage to the world.

Heritage initiatives

Our tasks were undertaken and implemented while Sri Lanka was reeling under the bloody carnage of a 30 year old civil war. Under such negative conditions we needed to work with a positively pro active mind set. We mobilized professional, intellectual, material and financial support from the public sector in Sri Lanka, UNESCO, ICCROM, ICOMOS, and foreign missions, especially the Netherlands and Japan. Public - private sector partnership participation through Corporate Social Responsibility was initiated and awareness programs were carried out beyond the metropolitan areas through stake holder UNESCO school-clubs and people to people connectivity. In addition, out-reach overseas heritage exhibitions were launched while artifact replica reproduction was fine tuned and trilingual heritage publications revitalized. Such multiple activities ensured that our UNESCO declared World Heritage sites do not have a stand-alone policy but also incorporate all stake-holders and maintain a ripple and counter-ripple momentum.

Sri Lanka is now reaping the benefits of such heritage initiatives during the post war period. In just four years after the conclusion of the war, Sri Lanka is recognized as one of the ten most sought-after destinations for eco and heritage tourism in the world. Today the 4th Century AC World Heritage site of the Sigiriya rock palace alone nets US$ 10 to 15,000 per day during the high season. Similarly, the 17th Century AC World Heritage Site of Galle Dutch Fort is not only a vibrant multi cultural hub blending tradition and modernity but also a high-end tourist destination and a portal of convergence for international art and literary activities.

Heritage, identity and contested spaces

There are however short and long term ground realities, concerns and implications on the qualitative sustenance and application of the science of archaeology and heritage management. In my part of the world an archaeologist and heritage manager plays multiple roles. He or she is a professional field practitioner, teacher, mentor and social activist - all blended into a single personality. This is inevitable. Heritage practitioners of today are faced with critical challenges over their intellectual and professional space as reading the past itself is under siege in a global context.

Contemporary heritage practitioner has therefore to resolve his or her professional status with ‘competing interest’. The professional is challenged by individuals, groups and even by regimes in power that have appropriated the task of retrieving, interpreting and reinventing the past. Such individuals and organizations are increasingly realizing the functional value of subverting the past sustaining ideologies of legitimation and domination negating diversity and plurality. As a consequence, this process quite definitely does marginalize, hegemonize and even expunge the memory and histories of the "Other". In the long run, it imposes from above, an "imagined" racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious homogeneity over contested spaces. Conversely, the reactive response to this is a surge of embedded reverse racism and ultra nationalism represented by various shades of fundamentalist and social fascist ideologies of centrifugal forces that invent their own versions of "reconstructed" pasts and "imagined communities". Add to this, there is an unabated displacement and looting of heritage and cultural property perpetrated by in-country socially affluent as well as other rapacious interest groups aided and abetted by global museums and collectors. These three dynamics ultimately undermine, in an irreparable manner, the scientific and humane application of archeology and heritage initiatives investigating and presenting the past. This abysmal situation is now a shared tragedy by many developing countries.

Professional purview

In view of this, the professionals reading the past are now required to redefine their intellectual space and are forced towards a paradigm shift in their craft safeguarding scientific skills and the enterprise of knowledge harvesting the past. As such, the contemporary discourse needs to hinge on the intervention and claims of defining, owning, protecting, managing, interpreting and experiencing the archaeological heritage. Today, we need to resort to the dual strategy of humanizing, decolonizing and de-politicizing archaeology and heritage management on the one hand and advancing country and culture specific applications in historically evolved multi cultural societies on the other.

Implementing such strategies must essentially be the purview of independent professional bodies of scientific archaeologists and conservators. There must be less or non involvement of amateur archaeologists who are in most instances the ideologues of fundamentalist "tribal" organizations; the regimes in power that often subvert the past and also predatory sections of the private sector seeking purely an investment venture. Our pledge must be to excavate and present truth for a futuristic vision plan beyond boundaries of parochialism and contours of inverted political and financial agendas. If properly applied, the "archaeology of heritage" is perhaps the most sensitive and enlightened medium to reach out and foster greater understanding and appreciation among diverse communities of their cultural pasts and shared heritage of human achievements and thereby rectify misunderstood histories. It is critical that we cross this chasm for the profession to survive in a meaningful and productive manner. I note with humility my own contribution as an engaged professional, humanist and social activist to contest negative ends and to promote positive initiatives of archaeology and heritage management.

Conclusion and mission statement

In conclusion, the Mission Statement I inscribed in 1996, for the next generation of archaeologists is noted here. The next generation essentially needs to grasp the dialectics of "present in the past and past in the present" as the very foundation of the humanistic heritage professional.

"The science of archaeology is problem-oriented and issue-related. It is essentially a multi disciplinary study investigating, documenting, interpreting and presenting human expressions, experiences and behaviour patterns of the past to its rightful inheritors - the next generation. The archaeologist investigating the past is a scientist who is objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Above all, an archaeologist is a humanist and social activist who does not fear the past or compromises the future".

President Bartman, I wish to convey my appreciative sentiments to the AIA and good wishes for its future endeavors sustaining, both, the scientific application and aesthetic appreciation of archaeology and heritage initiatives.

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