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The dawn of Maritime Archaeology in Sri Lanka


Over 350 years under the silt had not damaged this rope

From outside, it is just a 'shed' built at the water's edge in the Bay of Galle. Step inside, and one finds people busier than the bees; Two groups of people from two countries, Sri Lanka and Netherlands are busy working on their dream - 'Evenstar', imparting knowledge and recovering the heritage of two countries. We are at the Conservation Laboratory of the Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) formed under the Mutual Heritage Programme, a collaboration between the governments of Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

Paradoxical. But, true. It is an evenstar that marks the dawn of maritime archaeology in Sri Lanka. No, not one that fades off quickly. But, one which stands her ground even after 350 years of its demise and gains international fame. 

Anchor lying in the sea

One, that saw many a voyage across continents in its hay day. A treasure trove "not of silver or gold but of knowledge and archaeological value" according to Lieutenant Commander, Somasiri Devendra, a specialist in maritime archaeology, 'De Avondster' or the evening star, a Dutch jacht wrecked in the Galle harbour on the night of June 23, 1659 has become a milestone in the establishment of a maritime archaeology unit in Sri Lanka.

Lying in her watery grave, surprisingly close to the shore just 50 meters off Marine Drive in the shallow waters, Avondster's two significant artifacts an anchor and one of her six cannons, were salvaged last week to mark 400 years of bilateral relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

"Now, we are at a new era of cultural, developmental and economic corporation between the two countries, says the Ambassador for the Netherlands, Susan Blankhart, sharing her views on the event of excavating Avondster's significant artifacts. The excavation will be "an opportunity to study the bilateral relations between the two countries at that time and will promote Sri Lanka as a cultural destination for European tourists", agreeing with the ambassador, Minister of Human Resources, Education and Cultural Affairs Dr. Karunasena Kodithuwakku opines.

The team of divers - (left to right) W. M. Chandraratne, Palitha Weerasinghe, Pradeep Thennegedera, A. M. A. Dayananda, Rasika Muthukumarana and Chandana Weerasena (team leader)

Their expectations echo in the five weathered brown faces smiling at us, returning from a dive they had just carried out. The team consists of seven young divers from the Archaeology Department, five of whom already have been undergoing training since 1992. Armed with special degrees in archaeology they are confident and enthusiastic of being the pioneers of Maritime Archaeology in Sri Lanka. They were first year students in the university, when they started training. Later on, they got involved with the diving and salvaging operations with the team of divers and conservators surveying and recording the underwater 'heritage' in the Bay of Galle. They mapped 26 shipwrecks within the 62 hectares of the Bay of Galle, and carried out excavating operations on a small scale. There is so much we can do in this field," they explain. "Underwater photography, video, drawing, survey, excavation, conservation and so on are all part and parcel of marine archaeology and provide so much potential."

We begin to see anew. A young girl, J. D. Samanthilaka sits on a stool, methodically recording the haul. Though she is a trainee who joined only a few months back, nothing escapes her eye. Even a small piece of wood of about 2 inches is "very important". Indrani and Anusha discuss with their colleague from Netherlands, some finer points in the preservation of what is recovered. Some of the plastic boxes, lying on the ground and neatly arranged on shelves contain fresh water. Others contain chemicals such as Potassium Sulphate (NaSo4). Submerged therein are various items, bricks, iron balls and pieces of wood. A total of 331 artefacts including a well preserved rope, cannon balls of 03 sizes, yellow Dutch bricks, barrels, medicinal jars, storage jars, jugs, bottles, a plate and spoons have been recovered from the site so far.

Shrouded in mystery; the skull excavated from beneath the layers of the 17th Century silt.

A human skull was also excavated from beneath the 17th century layers of dust and debris raising speculation, for no casualties are accounted in the contemporary records of the wreck. Questions arise as to whether it belongs to a stowaway, a lady of the port, or an early salvage diver? However, it is immaterial whether those sensational questions are answered.

Lying beneath just 5 meters of murky water covering an area 40 meters long and 10 meters wide and surprisingly undisturbed, Avondster is expected to reveal much about the construction details of ships in the 17th Century and the organization of Asian trade by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at the time. Avondster, or evening star with an unrecorded history and 12 years of service with the English East India Company, was deemed an 'old yatch' and used in regional trade, making comparatively short voyages, by the VOC which captured the ship from the English in 1653.

Avondster is the first major project undertaken by the Maritime Archaeology Unit formed under the Mutual Heritage Centre, managed by the Central Cultural Fund in cooperation with the Amsterdam Historical Museum & the University of Amsterdam. This co-operation project in maritime geological activities is one in a variety of events organized by the governments of the Netherlands and Sri Lanka, to commemorate their long standing bilateral relations. Started with the sponsorship of Rs. 66 million from the Dutch Cultural Fund in November, 2001 the project will continue till 2004, "by which time the MAU will be able to operate on its own" expect maritime experts from both countries.

Avondster provides a "good training site" says Miranda Vos who volunteered to be in Sri Lanka for the second time, assisting Robert Parthesius, Director Amsterdam Historical Museum who is in charge of the work at Avondster site. Shallow waters make it easy for divers who are new to maritime archaeology and conservation. Its closeness to the shore eases the financial burden of excavation operations which could be carried out from shore.

Lying on a gently shelving sea bed, under the silt of sand and finer sediments, Avondster is "an exceptionally well preserved site" agrees, Mike Nash, another volunteer Maritime Archaeologist.

Apart from the torn off stern section, agreeing with the contemporary records of the ship breaking into two when it sank, the hull is complete upto the gun deck on one side, say the team who carried out diving operations at the Avondster site. The slow degradation is believed to be due to the fresh water inflow at her location. Avondster perished at a river mouth according to the contemporary records of its owners, the VOC.

The ship recorded a capacity of over 250 tons and needed a crew of 65 on her long voyages. Of English origin, the English East India Company called her "Blessing" and employed it in the voyages between Europe and Asia in 1641. She was captured by the VOC in 1953 and was renamed "Avondster" in 1953. On the fateful night of June 23, 1659, when she was loading cargo for India anchored at Black Fort, Galle, she slipped her anchor, drifted off in the perilous rocky area and sank in the soft sand before anything was done.

Artefacts from the Dutch era had been an attraction of tourists visiting Galle for a long time. The Mutual Heritage Programme will also look into the potential of preserving the cultural values in the Dutch Forte area in Galle. Some renovations have already been carried out in the hallmark buildings within the Fort such as the Dutch Reformed Church built in 1682. Avondster along with six other VOC shipwrecks in and around the Bay of Galle will also enhance the potential in promoting Sri Lanka as a cultural destination, and bringing the people of the two countries closer.