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.
recovered from shipwrecks Pix. M. A. Pushpa Kumara
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
cannon balls - Several iron cannons have been discovered from the
wreckage indicating the presence of threats from other vessels.
- 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.
- Some of these have contained mercury, used in the seventeenth
century for treating a whole range of ailments including sexually
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.
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.
- 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.
- These helped archaeologists to identify Dutch ships. The bricks
have been carried as ballast to Asia and used for construction.
- 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.
- 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.
spoons - A plate and two spoons have also been found amidst the
wreckage. The spoons are of copper alloy.
- 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.