Politics of archaeology: The case of Sri Lanka

This interesting article from The Times underscores the politics of archaeology in Sri Lanka and the conflict between the ethnic Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority in the country. One complaint from the ethnic Tamil minority is the emphasis on finding and discovering Buddhist sites associated with the Sinhalese to bolster the claim of a Sinhalese homeland, as well as the marginalisation of minority archaeologists and Hindu sites to weaken claims against a Tamil homeland.

Archaeology sparks new conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese

The Times, 06 April 2010

So begins a new chapter in a dispute that began with the birth of archaeology in Sri Lanka, under the British in the 19th century, and that grew into a civil war that lasted 26 years and killed 100,000 people.

When the British took control of the country in 1815, they were unsure of its ancient history but soon embraced the legend of the Mahavamsa — a text written by Buddhist monks in about AD500.

It suggests that the Sinhalese are descended from Prince Vijaya, an Aryan prince exiled from northern India in about 500BC, and that Tamils did not migrate from southern India until 200 years later.

That theory — still taught in schools — underpins the Sinhalese chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle for an independent homeland in 1983.

In fact, archaeologists had discredited that after independence by excavating settlements in the north that dated from long before 500BC and showed similarities to sites in southern India — suggesting a much earlier migration.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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