The Department of Archaeology commenced its duties 1890. However, the ground-work related to archaeological activities took place many years before, during the governance of Sir Hercules Robinson. In 1868, seven years after the initiation of a archaeological survey in India, the Ceylon Government (now Sri Lanka), appointed a Committee to obtain information regarding the ancient architectural works of Ceylon. In 1871, an excellent series of photographs of the principle structures of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa was taken with the financial and other assistance provided by the Government of the Island.
In the year 1873, Governor Sir William Gregory issued instructions for a complete survey to be undertaken. Therefore, a site survey of ancient Anuradhapura began during this year. The pioneering work carried out by J.G. Smither, titled “Architectural Remains of Anuradhapura”, comprising information of dagabas and certain other ruined structures, was released in 1894.
Between 1875-1879 a partial search of ancient inscriptions and original records was carried out and they were collected under Government Authority, by Professor P. Goldschmidt who became the founder of Sinhalese Epigraphy. E. Muller and Maha Mudaliyar. L.W. de Zoysa continued this work.
During the years 1884-1886, Mr. Burrows (of Ceylon Civil Service) was assigned the responsibility of supervising the archaeological matters related to monuments and other antiquities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The thick jungle had to be cleared. Old roads were restored. New roads were constructed. Schemes for further excavations were drawn up. Exploration was encouraged by supplying information regarding archaeological sites and objects. A local Museum was opened to house the “Curios” (then called) and preserve the sculptures and paintings that had escaped destruction by the ravages of time and the rapacious hands of vandals.
Much work had been done thereafter by way of preliminary investigations. On the 07th of July, 1890, Sir Arthur Gordon, then Governor of Ceylon, directed Mr. H.C.P. Bell (of Ceylon Civil Service) to commence archaeological operations of the North Central Province. This marked the official birthday of scientific archaeology in the Island.
Mr. H.C.P. Bell commenced his duties by dividing the field of Archaeology into various sections. However, his main duties dealt with exploration. Thus the archaeological excavations revealed artefacts of exceptional value. Attention continued to be paid to rock inscriptions as well as the study of rock inscriptions. Explorations undertaken at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa yielded results of exceptional interest. The discovery of murals in 1897 at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa proved most rewarding. In 1898, a Commission was appointed to consider the whole field of Archaeological activities.
Archaeological activities of Sri Lanka, can be categorized into two periods of time. The initial period is the Colonial period whilst the latter is the Independent period. The Colonial period was administered by British officers where as the Independent period was managed and administered by Sri Lankans. The first Sri Lankan to be appointed the head of the Department was Dr. S. Paranavithana.
The list of Heads of the Department of Archaeology
Year Name of the Officer
1884-1886 Mr. S.M. Burrows
1890-1892 Mr. H.C.P. Bell
1892 Mr. Levers (Acting)
1893-1912 Mr. H.C.P. Bell
1912-1913 Mr. R. Ayrton
1913-1914 Mr. B. Constantine (Acting)
1914-1918 Mr. H. R. Freeman (Acting)
1918-1920 Mr. F.G. Tyrrel (Acting)
1920-1921 Mr. A.W. Seymour (Acting)
1921-1922 Mr. G.F.R. Browning (Acting)
1922-1923 Mr. A.M. Hocart
1923-1924 Mr. A.M. Hocart Mr. F. Bartlett (Acting)
1924-1925 Mr. M. Wedderburn (Acting) Mr. E.R. Sudbury (Acting)
1925-1927 Mr. A.M. Hocart
1927-1928 Mr. E.T. Dyson (Acting)
1928-1929 Mr. C.F. Winzer (Acting)
1929-1930 Mr. J. Pearson (Acting)
1930-1931 Mr. C.F. Winzer (Acting)
1931-1934 Mr. S. Paranavitana (Acting)
1934-1939 Mr. A.H. Longhurst
1940-1956 Dr. S. Paranavitana
1956-1967 Dr. C.E. Godakumbura
1967-1979 Dr. R.H. de Silva
1979-1983 Dr. Saddhamangala Karunarathna
1983-1990 Dr. Roland Silva
1990-1992 Mr. M.H. Sirisoma
1992-2001 Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala
2001-2004 Dr. W.H. Wijayapala
2004-2017 June Prof. Senerath Dissanayake
2017 June-2020 Jan Prof. P.B. Mandawala(Acting)
2020 Jan-2020 Dec Prof. Senerath Dissanayake
2021 Jan-to date Prof. Anura Manatunga