Lost, 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.

The 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.

Work 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)

Security 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.

Now 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.

Eighty 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.

"There 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.

All 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.

"Thama 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 the tsunami.

"We 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.

Adds 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 forever."

After 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.

Having 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.

"Then 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".

Adds 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 tsunami".

"When 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.

Starting 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 ancient ports.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.