Archaeologist Vies for UNESCO's Top Post
September 8, 1999
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb
In its more than 50 years of existence, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which publishes the cultural preservationist's canon, the World Heritage List, has had among its eight leaders a zoologist, a poet, and a lawyer, but never an archaeologist. The October election for Director-General features (among a longish short-list) Koichiro Matshura, Japan's ambassador to France; M. Makadiansar of Indonesia; Gareth Evans, Australia's former foreign minister; and Senake Bandaranayake, a Sri Lankan archaeologist who currently serves as his country's ambassador to France and permanent delegate to UNESCO. An active member of ICOMOS, the International Council of Monuments and Sites, Bandaranayake has directed the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Project and taught at the University of Kelaniya. ARCHAEOLOGY caught up with Ambassador Bandaranayake by telephone, New York to Paris.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Has an archaeologist contended for the Director-Generalship before?
Senake Bandaranayake: I don't think so. As far as I know, this is the first time someone with a hands-on background in heritage management has been in the running.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What about archaeology interests you most?
SB: I began by studying the archaeology of Buddhist monastic remains in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. Soon, that broadened to include the living architectural traditions beyond Asia. As my view expanded, more and more theoretical questions arose and I wanted to study them in the field. All this has opened up the research concept of total archaeological landscape: examining all signs of human activity, past and present, in a wide settlement context. That has stretched to incorporate an interest in paleobotany at one end of the spectrum and art history at the other.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What are UNESCO's most important contributions to archaeology?
SB: Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle Program, an international campaign for the safeguarding of Sri Lanka's monuments, is a wonderful model. This program, while supplying financial support for training, has developed the important perspective that Sri Lanka, through local and international archaeological tourism, should be able to raise its own research and maintenance funds. This is the essence of cultural heritage management. Instead of focusing on money, the program has created a forum for international collaboration to invite outside expertise and peer review, technical assistance, and policy-making support. A major goal of the program is to nurture an entire generation of young archaeologists, including such aspects as gender parity. The Cultural Triangle hasn't been good about marketing its success, so others have been slow to follow our lead. What we need is more interaction between countries from the bottom up and from the top down to keep UNESCO on the cutting edge.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What international steps can be taken to ensure that important sites are identified, scientifically excavated, and protected?
SB: ICOMOS must continue its consciousness-raising efforts while UNESCO's World Heritage Center could play a proactive role in setting international priorities. And each country must give greater priority to archaeological heritage, research, and protection to renew its contact with the past.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What's the biggest threat now facing the world's archaeological resources?
SB: For a start, the illicit trade in antiquities. UNESCO must pave the way for each country to emphasize the importance of its archaeological heritage. Environmentalists have been able to make the environment a major issue, with a positive effect on policy and on people's behavior. Archaeologists still have a lot of work to do, and quickly. Every archaeological data set is unique and absolutely irreplaceable.
© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America