found, lost again
Ancient treasures that were retrieved
from the seas and housed in Galle have to be salvaged once again
after the tsunami devastation. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports
Blue and white
ceramics, grape shot, cannon balls, lead shot, ointment jars, leech
combs, coils of rope and a skull…painstakingly and carefully
these are the ancient "treasures" being salvaged for the
second time in the historic and picturesque city of Galle with its
distinctive Dutch flavour, spiced up by many other cultures including
those of Arabia.
first-time-round, divers spent hours underwater in the old Galle
harbour exploring the seabed to bring up thousands of items as small
as a cracked clay pipe and as big as a stone anchor, weighing a
ton and resembling a heavy pillar. All in a pioneering effort to
shed light on the wonders of Sri Lanka's history, now lying in the
murky waters of the ancient harbour of Galle.
was progressing systematically at the Maritime Archaeological Unit
(MAU), with the artifacts of the undersea explorations being housed
in a building near the old jetty, cheek by jowl with the tunnel
entrance of the Galle Fort, when the tsunami struck on December
26, 2004. (See box for project)
officer N.L.D. Nimal Rexcy and Supply Officer K.S.B. Samaratunga
who were at the site narrowly escaped. Samaratunga, who was having
a shower at an outdoor tap meant for divers, managed to clamber
up a huge nuga tree, with soap all over his body.
the gate and wall which proudly lays claim to being the Avondster
project with the emblem of the VOC (the Dutch East India Company)
under it, are torn asunder - mute witnesses to and victims of the
devastation caused by the relentless tsunami. The large stone anchor
of Indo-Arabian style and a heavy bell are just a few of the artifacts
that have been able to withstand the ferocity of the waves.
percent of the artifacts and much more have been washed away by
the tsunami. The computer units, the diving equipment, the dinghies,
the meticulously drawn sketches and lengthy reports - the list goes
on. Even the boat used by the divers has been damaged. The losses
are estimated at Rs. 13 million.
were so many artifacts including a prized find of a lead bar used
by sailors hundreds of years ago to measure the depth of the water.
All are gone," says conservator K.Y. Gamini Saman, explaining
that they were being preserved through a process of immersion in
chemicals for desalination.
these artifacts were retrieved through toil and sweat, with divers
going on daily expeditions, says Nandadasa Samaraweera, Officer-in-Charge
and archaeological diver. They had gone on two dives a day and stayed
underwater one-and-a-half-hours at a time.
hada gaththa daruwek nethiwuna wage," he sighs. "Mulu
collection ekama ahimi vuna. Api tsunamiyen passé then then
wala gihilla ekathu kara." Incidentally, a 15-member team of
Dutch and Australian experts had been on a special expedition since
November 2004, leaving Galle only on December 22, four days before
unearthed some stuff through the excavation of the Captain's rooms
of the Avondster," says Samaraweera listing the finds of that
expedition as a sailor's belt, pistol holders and a shoe and slipper
rack very similar to the ones we use today.
Gamini in despair, "We had a lot of data stored in our computers
about ship building and ship excavations and seafaring reports and
books. There were detailed drawings of shipwrecks. They are gone
the initial shock of seeing their precious lives' work washed away
by the sea, they immediately started picking up the artifacts from
among the rubble. Terrified that the chemicals they were using to
clean and preserve the artifacts would have been scattered about
by the tsunami, they were relieved to find the massive container
with the chemicals balanced precariously atop a tree fork, intact.
taken stock and collected whatever they could recover from the sand
covered mess left behind by the tsunami, the staff at the MAU have
overcome their feelings of hopelessness and are hoping to begin
the dives once again at the end of March with a Dutch team.
we will be able to salvage more artifacts and also check out what
damage the tsunami has wrought on the undersea excavation sites
particularly the Avondster," says archaeological diver Rasika
Muthucumarana. Explaining that the MAU is considered one of its
kind not only in Sri Lanka but also South Asia, H.D.S. Hettipathirana,
former Additional Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund
now serving as the Sri Lanka Representative for the Avondster project
said, "It was a long felt need".
Dr. Hans Bonka from Netherlands, a consultant to the Avondster project,
"The conservation room where the cleaning, sorting, marking
and registration were being done, was the first to get hit by the
we heard it in Holland there was big shock and also a big reaction.
People have promised to help. They have promised more money to re-equip
the MAU," he says.
again, that should be the spirit, even though it may be from scratch
and will entail long hours of underwater exploration. First one
dive, then another until Sri Lanka is not only able add to its rich
historical tapestry through the finds at Galle harbour but also
strengthen its maritime archaeology expertise to cover the other
The Maritime Archaeology Unit
Taking into account Sri Lanka's seafaring history, archaeological
riches of land sites and the possibility of underwater sites proving
comparably fascinating, the Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) was
established under the Mutual Heritage Centre in 2001.
Mutual Heritage Centre is managed by the Central Cultural Fund,
the Department of Archaeology and the Post-graduate Institute of
Archaeology in cooperation with the Amsterdam Historical Museum,
the University of Amsterdam and the Western Australian Maritime
Museum. It is partly sponsored by the Netherlands Cultural Fund.
first major project of the MAU is the excavation of the Avondster,
one of many Dutch ships wrecked in and outside the Galle harbour.
Underwater surveys have also found 26 archaeological sites dating
from the 13th century to modern times.
Avondster had originally been an English ship captured and modified
by the Dutch, relegated after a long career to short-haul coastal
voyages and wrecked in 1659 while at anchor in Galle.
Sunday Times learns that the UNESCO Asia Office had decided to utilize
the MAU as a field school in underwater archaeology to train archaeologists,
conservators and researchers of the region. It was to be in operation
from January 2005 but has now been put on hold until the unit starts
functioning at capacity after recovering from the tsunami. A Maritime
Museum for Galle is also on the cards.