July 7th 1890 is regarded as the date on which the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka was established. Accordingly, the Department of Archaeology completes its 125th Anniversary this year. Although it was established in 1890, archaeological activities in Sri Lanka commenced a number of years before that.
Taking photographs of the ruins in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had been started in 1861 and during 1875-1879, explorations of ancient inscriptions had taken place. During the period 1884-1886 surveys on monuments and other antiquities in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had started and the National Museum too was constructed. Mr. H. C .P. Bell was assigned by the then governor of Sri Lanka, Sir Arthur Gordon, the task of conducting archaeological activities in the Northern Province, Mr. Bell, who was an officer in the Sri Lanka Administrative Service at that time, went to Anuradhapura and assumed duties officially on 07th July, 1890. This is considered to be the date of birth of the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka.
The full name of Mr. Bell who was born in 1851 is Harry Charles Pervice Bell. Having come to Sri Lanka in 1873, he served in the Kachcheris of Kandy and Colombo and later served as a Judge in the Kalutara court. Before his visit to Anuradhapura he performed his official duties as a judge in the Kegalle District. During that period he studied the ancient sites and monuments and wrote the report known as the Kegalle report.
Having visited Anuradhapura to conduct archaeological activities, he commenced exploration activities on 15th July, 1890. The services done by Mr. Bell for 22 years since then until 1912 as the Commissioner of Archaeology to protect the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka are unprecedented and excellent. During this period archaeological sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya were cleared conservation activities of structures were carried out. Being engaged in extremely risky operations, he took steps to protect the pocket of the Sigiri frescoes by an iron enclosure and to construct a spiral iron stair case to climb to see the frescoes. Apart from these archaeological sites, the identification and clearing of archaeological sites at Ritigala, Mihintale, Medirigiriya, Thiriyaya, Sitavaka, Nalanda, Manakanda etc. too were conducted under his directions and guidance. Having rendered a yeoman service for the protection of the Sri Lankan archaeological heritage by devoting a considerable period of his life, he breathed his last in 1937.