By Sandun Jayawardana - The Nation
Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in the India Ocean attracted seafarers here for thousands of years.
Many shipwrecks from various ages that are found in the sea around the island have served as testament as to how the country was an important meeting point for cultures from across the world throughout history.
These wrecks serve as veritable ‘time capsules’ for archeologists, as they provide fascinating insights to bygone eras.
The Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) in Galle, managed by the Central Cultural Fund, and functioning under the Department of Archeology, is Sri Lanka’s first specific unit dedicated to exploring these underwater treasures.
The unit had its initial beginnings in 1992, when exploration work was undertaken with foreign assistance as part of the Galle Harbor Project.
The project was initiated with the aim of training a core group of maritime archeologists. These efforts were overseen by Professor Jeremy Green of the Western Australian Maritime Museum.
While work was suspended from 1994 to 1995 due to lack of funds, exploration work was undertaken after funding resumed led to extensive surveying of the seabed in the Galle harbor from 1996 to 1998, with 26 sites of archeological interest being identified by 1998.
Ten of these sites were confirmed shipwrecks.
When the project began in 1992, there were no trained divers among maritime archeologists in Sri Lanka.
The initial work on the Sri Lankan side was undertaken by amateur divers attached to the ‘Sub Aqua’ diving club and a team from the navy.
However, later on during the project, some undergraduates who were doing honors degrees in Archeology at Sri Lankan universities started training in maritime archeology.
Thus, by 1996, a permanent core group of maritime archeologists had been trained in Sri Lanka. Maritime archeology in the country finally became more institutionalized with the forming of the Maritime Archeology Unit and conservation laboratory in 2001, explained Research Officer and Maritime Archeologist at MAU, Rasika Muthukumarana, detailing how the unit first came into being.
The MAU has been responsible for locating, identifying and documenting dozens of shipwrecks throughout the island since the unit’s inception.
Some of the vessels that archeologists at the unit helped locate and identify include several ships belonging to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), including the Avondster which was wrecked on July 2, 1659 while anchored in the Galle harbor and Hercules, which sank in 1661.
The SS Conch, one of the world’s first oil transporting ships and wrecked in 1903 near Akurala on the southern coast, was also identified by the MAU.
The steamer SS John Jackson, which sank off the coast of Batticaloa in 1908, was also identified by a team from the unit recently. The John Jackson has been identified as being the largest such shipwreck discovered off Sri Lankan waters.
Some these projects, such as the Avondster exploration, were funded by the Netherlands government.