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 Post subject: Maritime Archaeology - Revival of the ocean’s treasures
 Post Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2005 12:32 am 
Maritime Archaeology
Revival of the ocean’s treasures


By Damitha Hemachandra

Seafarers across the globe who came to Sri Lanka have left us many memories in the ground and in the depths of the oceans making the country rich and famous for wrecks.

It is estimated that the country’s continental shelf holds nearly 300 wrecks of Dutch, British and Indian ships. The country had its fair share of glorious wrecks including the Moghul’s treasure, one of the wealthiest treasures in the world, which was in Great Basses, and was discovered by pioneer wreck diver trio-Arthur C. Clarke, the late Rodney Jonklass and the late Mike Wilson in Admiralty Floating Dock 23 in Trincomalee -one of the largest shipwrecks in the world.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke in his Blue Planet Trilogy speaks of the early eras of wreck diving, when it was more of an adventurous treasure drive than systematic marine archaeological extraction and conservation.

Rodney Jonklaas, a renowned spear fisher, pioneered scuba-diving locally. Jonklaas teamed up with Arthur C. Clarke and his friend, a young ex-Merchant Navy diver called Mike Wilson. Clarke and Wilson’s first dive in Sri Lanka was off Akurala Reef near Galle. Within months they had explored six underwater wrecks, two of which had gone down off the environs of Akurala Reef. One of these was the Earl of Shaftsbury, which sank in 1893. The other was The Conch, one of the first oil tankers of the Shell Company, which sank in 1903. They also explored a Danish wreck, a cargo passenger ship called the Elsia, which had caught fire before sinking in 1939. Then came contemporary wrecks to explore as well, for in early 1956, the Greek freighter Aenos, carrying 6,000 tons of manganese, struck Rala Gala Reef north of Galle and sank. The crew was rescued by local fishermen, who then proceeded to plunder the upper parts of the ship, which remained above water. Clarke and Wilson arrived five days late to see what they could bring up from beneath the waves. This was limited to several tool chests and some coffee jugs.

Meanwhile, the accidental discovery of a ‘silver wreck’ with Moghul Silver and cannons in 1962 by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson sparked further interest in shipwrecks and encouraged treasure hunting while opening the eyes of archaeologists. The wreck of unknown origin found in the Great Basses Reef, contained several cannons and thousands of silver Moghul Rupees, all dated 1702.

The Jonklaas, Clarke and Wilson trio created another first this time in marine archaeology when Jonklaas and Wilson dived at Swami Rock ,Trincomalee in 1962. While using the site as a film location for Ranmuthu Duwa, Wilson went for a dive during a camera break and suddenly perceived a perfectly circular pillar, the ‘lingam. He delivered the lingam to the temple where it was enshrined and has been worshipped ever since.

So began modern day wreck diving and marine archaeology pursuits with less knowledge on conservation and much concentration on treasure hunting and under water adventure.

A joint Sri Lanka – Australian project commenced in 1992 with the objective of training a batch Sri Lankan trainee archaeologists from university. The development of a data-base of shipwrecks in the historic port of Galle was undertaken by the same coalition as a first step towards developing the Marine Archeology Unit in the country. Divers and conservators were trained, a comprehensive report was published and work continued into unearthing and rescuing many items of archeological value. Meanwhile, new legislature to deal with marine archaeological sites and items were drafted denying the treasure hunters’ request to obtain legitimacy on a profit-sharing basis as being against archaeological policy.

In 2001 the Avondster Project began with the assistance of the Amsterdam Historical Museum to unearth the Dutch ship Avondster from the ocean depths of Galle. This ship was loaded with arecanuts when it sank after slipping anchor and hitting the shore. By the end of 2003 marine archaeologists had discovered nearly 4000 marine artefacts belonging to British and Portuguese ships wrecked at Galle Fort. The artefacts were restored to their ancient glory in the Galle Maritime Museum and there they lay until the tsunami.

The tsunami scattered the artefacts that archaeologists had spent nine years in trawling the sea bed for and only 20% of the treasures remain today.

Today, marine archaeologist Rasika Muthukumarana is dreaming of retracing the twice lost treasures. While the main concern is to conserve what was saved from the debris, Muthukumarana is dreaming of a time when the marine archaeology team of the Central Cultural Fund could evolve into the richer wreck fields in Eastern Sri Lanka.

“We would like to uncover wrecks dating older than the Dutch and Portuguese era which would have timber frames,” he said adding that Trincomalee is the ideal place to go searching for old age wrecks. The tsunami has greatly delayed hopes of the new generation Sir Lankan marine archaeologists while the ocean seems to be reluctant to part with the treasures it hides.


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