Naomi Gunasekara delves into the mysteries of the deep in Galle
Snapshots from shipwrecks
The old harbour was empty except for a cautious diver or two watching the rough sea despondently. Rainy weather has not augured well for diving and the young archaeologists cum divers are deprived of the pleasure of diving to the sea bed in search of lost wonders.

Anchors recovered from shipwrecks Pix. M. A. Pushpa Kumara

"Maritime archaeology is a relatively new field of study," says diver Chandana Weerasena, watching the sea water splash onto the jetty. "It will lead us towards a whole new dimension in historical research."

Maritime archaeology or underwater archaeology, also known as nautical archaeology, is the archaeology of ships and seafaring. Marine archaeologists seek to understand the role of ships and seafaring in history and prehistory all over the world by carrying out different explorations on identified wreckage sites. Through careful excavation of these sites and accurate record-keeping, archaeologists in this century have uncovered mountains of information about ancient and not-so-ancient cultures.

A Maritime Archaeology Unit was established in Galle by the Mutual Heritage Centre managed by the Central Cultural Fund in co-operation with the Amsterdam Historical Museum and the University of Amsterdam to explore the heritage buried in our deep seas.

Started on an experimental basis in 1992 and continued for an year before a second project was launched in 1996, the current project was established in 2001 with the assistance of the West Australian Maritime Museum and funded by the Netherlands Cultural Fund. "One of the biggest problems we faced was lack of consistent financial support. But we have funds to carry out work till 2004 under this project," said Additional Director General H.D.S. Hettipathirana attributing the failure of former projects to lack of financial support.

"The project promises great potential for the development of archaeological studies in Sri Lanka as the unit in Galle is the first of its kind to be established in South Asia. In a country where inland archaeology activities have gone on for over 110 years without touching the underwater aspect, I feel the establishment of this unit will shed new light on unexplored regions of history."

Located between Arabia and East Asia, at the crossroads of navigational routes, the Galle harbour has an impressive number of heritage sites, some dating back to the Dutch period and beyond. Several stone anchors of Indo-Arabian origin have been discovered from this region along with several anchors containing Mediterranean patterns similar to those used in the Roman times.

"The port town of Galle has a splendid natural harbour and it has been in use in pre-Christian times, but gained importance after the 12th century," explained Gamini Saman elaborating on why the project was launched in Galle following years of experimentation. "By the 14th century it was the most important port in the country and reports indicate that even Chinese Admiral Zheng visited the Galle port."

From a trade and historical point of view, therefore, Galle seems to carry much significance. Six Dutch ships are known to have sunk in and around the harbour and these are believed to provide vital information as to the socio-cultural and socio-economic heritage of the country.

The project, started in 2001, is carried out at three different stages, namely, diving, conserving and research and involves a number of young archaeological graduates including six especially trained in diving.

"Maritime archaeology depends heavily on diving, conservation of artefacts and research. Diving involves the utilisation of special equipment and energy. And out of the large number of archaeologists who sought training in diving, only six are left today," said Weerasena, who loves exploring the hidden treasures of the ocean.

The main objectives of the project include the establishment of a maritime archaeology museum at the Galle Fort, training archaeological divers, having exchange programmes with other South Asian countries and covering all sea routes and wreckage sites situated around the country in areas like Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Tangalle, Mirissa and Hambantota. Said Hettipathirana; "This will take 50-60 years but we plan to lay the foundation for solid research and development work."

The first major programme under this project is the excavation of the Avondster, known as the Chicken's Foot Wreck, wrecked near the Galle harbour in the early 17th century. Originally an English ship captured by the Dutch, the Avondster lies in the heart of the Galle harbour, 50 metres from the rocky shoreline of the marine drive. (See boxes for more details)

Prior to excavation, there has been no immediate evidence of human disturbance on this site. However, given the readily accessible location, it is likely that exposed artefacts have been recovered. "Diving is no easy job. You must be physically fit and know what you are doing. It involves a lot of hard work," said Weerasena who has been a diver since the project's inception.

Choosing an unusual area of archaeological study has been a challenge to him as a fresh graduate as it was for conservator Anusha Kasthuri, who spends her time conducting conductivity tests and labelling artefacts. But they both enjoy searching for artefacts from shipwrecks and preserving them.

"Shipwrecks frequently represent a 'snapshot' in time. With some exceptions, an archaeologist can usually be certain that all the artefacts at a site were deposited at the same time. In some cases, however, types of artefacts have been found together on shipwrecks that were previously thought to have been used only in widely separated time periods. These discoveries tend to revolutionise our understanding of a culture's history and make our jobs all the more interesting," said an enthusiastic Weerasena who looks forward to more and more excavation work.

History of the Avondster
The Avondster was wrecked on June 23, 1659 while it was in the service of the Dutch East India Company. An English ship, named 'John and Thomas' by her purchaser, the English East India Company, in 1641 she was renamed 'The Blessing' and despatched to Java before she was captured by the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch wars.

She was anchored near the Black Fort for loading when she slipped her anchor and hit the shore north-east of the anchorage. Broken in two, she was soon submerged in the soft sand. According to an eye-witness account found in the Dutch Records of Colombo, a sailor on deck had discovered the vessel drifting and informed a negligent skipper, whose failure to take action had caused the loss. He was later arrested and convicted along with his first mate.

At the time she was wrecked, the Avondster had been loading cargo for India and once the ship was lost, there had been no other vessels of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to transport the cargo left on the shore. VOC officials had permitted the Burghers to buy the cargo on condition that it was sold for a fixed price.

Finds from the Avondster
Beard-man jugs - These jugs commonly used for storing liquids had been produced along the river Rhine in Germany. Also known as Bellarmine jugs, the jugs contain heraldic decorations.

Cannons and cannon balls - Several iron cannons have been discovered from the wreckage indicating the presence of threats from other vessels.

Lead shots - Archaeologists believe that these shots may have been used for handheld firearm like pistols. These shots may also have been fired from canons by packing them in bags.

Medicine jars - Some of these have contained mercury, used in the seventeenth century for treating a whole range of ailments including sexually transmitted diseases.

Combs - Two combs have been found together in the same area as the medicine jars. A barber's bowl, with a recess on the rim to fit the neck has also been found and archaeologists believe that the ship may have had a barber-surgeon, a common combination in ships.

Arecanuts - They were an important cargo item in the early 16th and 17th centuries. Often incorrectly known as betel nuts, they were mixed with betel leaf and lime for chewing. The resultant mixture, a mild stimulant, was popular in many Asian countries. Perhaps the nuts were meant for the Indian market where the Avondster was heading.

Blue and white ceramics - Mostly low-grade trade-ware. None of our wrecks carried ceramics as official cargo, but many employees of the Dutch East India Company are reported to have been small-scale traders. A porcelain vase found in the stern of the Avondster, where the officers lived, is believed to have been part of such a collection.

Rope remains - Neatly coiled ropes have been found from the below decks in the bow section, the normal place for their storage. The ropes found are of varying diameter. Some of them have been 'sheeted' or bound with smaller ropes for protection. The binding could be replaced when necessary, protecting the main rope.

Yellow bricks - These helped archaeologists to identify Dutch ships. The bricks have been carried as ballast to Asia and used for construction.

Storage jars - They have been used as containers for sugar, salt, tea, salted fish, fruit, butter, oil, wine, spirits, opium and even holy water and mud. Often they were used to store drinking water and are believed to have been made in Burma.

Wooden barrels - Most of the barrels found have been dilapidated with no indication of contents. They have been surrounded by wooden branches and dung to prevent movement.

Plates and spoons - A plate and two spoons have also been found amidst the wreckage. The spoons are of copper alloy.

Human skull - Found in 1999, the skull has come as a surprise because eye-witness accounts of the shipwreck had recorded no casualties. Forensic, archaeological and archival research is yet to solve the mystery of the human skull.

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