The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka in recent years made available online thousands of inscriptions from this important Indian Ocean island. Inscriptions, some of many lines, others consisting only of a few words, can be found all over the island, in caves and at archaeological sites. They are frequently associated with monastic spaces, such as caves hollowed out and donated to monasteries for monks to live in. They might also, however, record decrees of the kings of ancient Lanka or donations of movable goods to monastic institutions.
They date from the first centuries B.C. to the modern period, and can often be dated quite closely on the basis of letter forms or, more rarely, reference to a figure of known historical date. Ancient Lanka’s tradition of chronicle writing (especially in the form of the ‘Great’ Chronicle, or Mahavamsa and its later continuation, known as the Lesser Chronicle or Culavamsa) means that the political history of the island, though hotly debated, can be set into a tighter and fuller chronological framework than arguably anywhere else in south and southeast Asia.
These inscriptions are an invaluable source for economic, social and cultural historical studies of ancient and medieval Lanka. Inscriptions, especially of donations to monasteries, often include descriptions of individuals and their family relationships, information about changing religious habits and insights into trade, craft professions and gender relations. The sheer volume of inscriptions also makes possible quantitative approaches to such social-cultural questions, which are often not available for historians of the pre-modern world. How many women donated property to monasteries (and recorded it inscriptionally) in the first millennium on the island in comparison to men, for example? And how many men described themselves as traders in comparison to metalworkers, or identified themselves by their father’s name in comparison to their mother’s name, their place of origin or their profession? When dealing with a corpus of over 10,000 inscriptions, answers to such questions have the potential to be stastically meaningful.
For me, references to the use of money, to people identified as foreigners on the island and insights into the arrangement of commercial communities have provided food for thought and form the basis for a developing publication project.
Any such publication, however, recently got a lot harder, as the digital form of these inscriptions has vanished more rapidly than it came. This online respository has for many months now been inaccessible and shows no sign of returning. The inscriptions are still available in a number of publications, but these are significantly more difficult to get hold of and, of course, do not include easily exportable and usable images.
While this is an excellent opportunity to highlight an extraordinary body of source materials and the books in which it can be explored further, therefore, it is also a chance to reflect on the possible difficulties of online archiving and project publication, and potential solutions to them, especially in the case of research coming out of, being presented to or concerning the global south. This is precisely where the possibilities for online scholarship, in the forms of (among others) wider dissemination, greater opportunity for collaboration without prohibitive travel costs, and reduced concern over the physical maintenance and preservation of books and paper collide with the difficulty of gaining and maintaining funding. As the discussion section of an earlier project in which I as involved pointed out, the web may be open but research is not free. Maintenance of digital material is an ongoing commitment as surely as any library, with its own costs in terms of skills, time and often expense, whether to maintain a server or pay a webstie subscription.
.As a vehicle for the movement of images, the web and the role of the digital forms a cross-over point for many discussions within the Bilderfahrzeuge group. It will be among the topics discussed by various group members with colleagues from Central St Martin’s and beyond at a symposium at the British School in Rome in June, ‘ Headstone to Hard Drive III. Soplia, Relic, Data’, growing out of earlier collaborations with Mick Finch and Martin Westwood of CSM. My own work with the Barber Institute of Fine Arts Collection in Birmingham means that I am delighted to announce the recent (and continuing) expansion of its digital archive of its magnificent coin collection. This online resource will form the basis for new research and new ways of researching coins, as digital collections make many more types more easily comparable and visually available than ever before. And one of my own projects, the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive (of which more later), in collaboration with Daniel Reynolds at the University of Birmingham is taking me into the pragmatic territory of online resource management alongside the theoretical questions of image migration, public access and data preservation. These are all questions which at the moment have no answers, but consideration of the ways in which images move through digital space, are shared, transformed, translated (and mistranslated) will continue to frame interactions with the digital. For now, watch all of these spaces, but for those that are currently empty, there is still paper… The inscriptions of Sri Lanka can substantially be found in published form in the following volumes:
Müller, E. (1883), Ancient inscriptions in Ceylon, collected and published for the government (London: Trübner and co. ).
Paranavitana, S. (1970), Inscriptions of Ceylon, vol. 1 containing cave inscriptions from 3rd century B.C. to 1st century A.D. and other inscriptions in the early Brahmi script. (Colombo: Department of Archaeology).
Paranavitana, Senarat (1983), Inscriptions of Ceylon, vol. 2 part 1, Late Brahmi inscriptions (Colombo: Archaeological Survey).
The ongoing series (published irregularly since 1904) Epigraphia Zeylanica