Ceylon’s FirstArchaeological Commissioner
Harry Charles Purvis Bell

Pioneer of systematic archaeological work and antiquarian research in Ceylon

Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana

Harry Charles Purvis Bell was born in British India on the 21st of September 1851. He belonged to a ‘caste ‘ of Englishmen – or rather of Britons, for his great-grandfather came from Dublin - which regarded service in the East as the normal way of life. His ancestors had long been soldiers and civil servants in India. Bell arrived in Sri Lanka in 1873 as a 22 year old civil servant.
Working in Ceylon

Until he was appointed as the Archaeological Commissioner in 1890, Bell was assigned a variety of posts in the civil service. Bell was interested in the history and the culture of Sri Lanka, and whatever task he was assigned to he was inclined to do research in antiquarian interest. Bell enrolled as a member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1880. That same year he was elected as the editor of the society’s journal and held the position for thirty four years till he relinquished it in 1914.

Joining the Archaeological Commission

In 1890, Sir Arthur William Gorden, the then Governor of Ceylon established the Archaeological Survey Department. It was Bell who was selected to lead the new establishment. At the time Bell was the District Judge in Kegalle and his first assignment was to survey the antiquities of the same district. The report he produced as a result of this survey is still considered as an authoritative work on the subject. In 1889 Sir Arthur Gorden, devoted funds to make some systematic examination of the interesting remains at Sigiriya and to commence a survey on a modest scale before the rapidly disappearing monuments altogether perished. Bell was chosen as the officer seconded to the project in February 1890.

Time in Sigiriya

In 1895 Bell began clearing work at Sigiriya and a massive excavation and conservation programme followed. He first unearthed the ruins on the summit of Sigiriya Rock and then paid attention to the terraces at the foot of the rock. The Chief Draftsman was deployed to copy the Sigiriya paintings. Bell took measures to conserve the painting and made arrangements to preserve them from further deterioration. The wall of the gallery (katapath paura) and the Lion’s paw were among the most important conservation work done by Bell at Sigiriya. Bell’s ingenuity saw him reach the top of the hitherto inaccessible Sigiriya by using ladders made from jungle wood. During the first days the workmen, despite being attacked by swarms of bees and battling the oppressive heat, worked under the leadership of Bell and unearthed the multitude of archaeological treasures that are viewed to date.

The sacred cities

Bell was also fascinated by the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. He began to undertake extensive archaeological excavations and uncovered ancient objects and remains of exceptional artistic and cultural value. Bell began excavations in Polonnaruwa in 1900. There he encountered massive brick buildings which were in danger of collapse. He launched an extensive conservation programme along with the excavations of monuments in Polonnaruwa. In Anuradhapura, Bell started work with a workforce of 20 labourers. The team, was known as the Bell Party and it became a popular name for the Archaeological Survey Department among the rural villagers. With the help of Government Surveyors, Bell prepared a survey map of Anuradhapura showing ruins and made a scale drawing of selected sites. His first extensive excavation was at the ‘Jetavana Monastery’ where he unearthed about 40 buildings, Among these buildings, the ‘Buddhist railings’ were conserved as a classic example for ancient stone work of the island.

Bell’s other accomplishments
After retirement, he also investigated the archaeology and epigraphy of the Maldives, where he had been earlier in his life and studied the linguistics of the Maldivian language. Bell had developed a good friendship with the king of the Maldives, who put his own royal schooner Fath-ul-Majid at his disposition to carry out archaeological research in certain atolls south of Malé. He set up a Commission to coordinate the archaeological excavations in 1898 and started to publish a journal, ‘Epigraphia Zeylanica’ to detail the inscriptions discovered through his department’s work. This work showed the world the culture of the civilisations of Ceylon and the influence that they still exerted on the people of the island. This was not a dead culture from the mists of time, but part of a continuum that carried on to the present day.

His legacy

Bell’s own legacy is a lasting one. He is remembered not only for having laid the massive foundations of organised archaeology in Ceylon, but as a remarkable personality. Moreover, the love he had for the land, its culture and its people led him never to uproot himself from them. Bell passed away on 1937 in Sri Lanka having spent his lifetime engaged in tireless industry and continued zeal which enabled him to execute conservation work which has enabled countless generations across the world to marvel at the rich history and culture of Sri Lanka.
Special thanks to HCP Bell’s grand daughter Christobel Ondaatjie and great grand daughter Angeline Ondaatjie for assisting with this article.