This is extracted from a report by an early member of the Maritime Archaeology Unit
In the early 1960s, the chance discovery of a wreck with silver coins near the Great Basses lighthouse of the South east Sri Lanka by sports divers Arthur C. Clarke, Mike Wilson and Rodney Jonklaas (Clarke, 1964: 19-21) gave a start to this field activity. It was called the “Silver Wreck” because she was carried a cargo of sacks of Mogul silver coins minted in Surat, India in 1702 A.D. It was a wooden wreck, most probably a ship with Asian origin. They got the Archaeological Department interested and together they brought down a well-known archaeologist, Peter Throckmorton, who studied the site and published his papers in academic journals. Much of the silver has been taken out of the island and sold by many divers. Arthur C.Clarke himself, who had got the Archaeological Department interested in maritime archaeology, himself obtained several lumps of concreted coins on loan for study but, until he died, he never returned them. It is known that some are in the Smithsonian Institute and the rest are at his home in England. There are no large concreted lumps in Sri Lanka. The great majority was stolen, or advertised for sale as from “the land of Arthur C. Clarke”, or kept in private hands. They were made into jewellery and sols abroad by auction, and sometimes secretly sold inSri Lanka, even today. However, this information was entered in to their records and books by some of the early divers which later became significant evidence about those sites. In his book the 'The Treasure of the Great Reef' (Clarke, 1964) the late Arthur C. Clark describes in detail not only the treasures recovered, but also the complexity of legal ownership of the artefacts recovered.
Following this incident, the Department of Archaeology invited Mr. Peter Throckmorton to make a systematic survey on Great Basses area. This became the first underwater archaeological field work carried out in Sri Lanka. But evidently there was no efficient programme to follow-up this work and ended as isolated incidents.
Another start was made in 1986, this time by the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR). At the ‘First National Archaeological Congress’ P. U. Weerawardhana, of the Department of Archaeology, presented a paper on ‘A Theoretical Frame-work for Maritime Archaeology and the Maritime History of Sri Lanka’. The interest generated by this paper led Senaka Bandaranayeke, Director PGIAR, to call an informal meeting of divers, archaeologists and enthusiasts from other disciplines to formulate an action plan. Among the participants were two associations: the Maritime Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka (MHT) and the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club (SLSAC). Lack of funds, however, continued to inhibit further positive action. Nevertheless, these incidents helped strengthen the popularity of the subject in Sri Lanka. In 1990 to celebrate the centenary of the Archaeological department, the lectures delivered by Lt.Cdr. Somasiri Devendra, Dr. Malik Fernando and Mr. Gihan Jayathilaka were very informative and encouraging in the same way.
In the early 90’s Maritime Archaeology was popular in universities, though not established as a subject. Even before, there were some explorations done without proper learning with the help of some institutions, such as the Maritime Heritage Trust and the co-operation of some scientists.
Sri Lankan maritime archaeology was greatly influenced by the explorations done in the Indian Ocean in 1992. Some of the maritime archaeologists from Western Australian Maritime Museum assisted and directed maritime archaeological activities in a beneficial way under the observation of Prof. Senake Bandaranayke. During this era archaeological students of some universities, especially from Kelaniya University, were very enthusiastic about starting Maritime Archaeology as a subject. Some compiled study reports on this subject. In 1993 a student provided a dissertation for final year examination under the topic of “Maritime Archaeology”. It was accepted by Prof. Senake Bandaranayke, who was the Department head, and he persuaded university students to take maritime archaeology as a new subject. More than 30 students from this university were encouraged by him to conduct further research in the subject. Also he provided an opportunity for the students to get involved with underwater activities through the PGIAR. In 1992, a Joint Sri Lanka-Australian initiative, the “Galle Harbour Project – 1992” was launched by the Department of Archaeology, the Central Cultural Fund, the Western Australian Maritime Museum and the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology in 1992. As the first season was successful, it was decided to follow the Recommendation made in the Report and train a group of archaeology students in maritime archaeology and that the Universities should conduct courses in the subject. At the same time the maritime archaeologists from the Western Australian Maritime Museum (WAMM) explored the seabed of Galle from 1992 as it was a port of great historical significance.
Following on the Recommendations Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake, the Director of the PGIAR at that time of the Department of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya summoned the students and discussed with them the importance of establishing an underwater archaeology programme in mid 1993. There they began some workshops including practical sessions applying to maritime archaeology and some lectures with the help of Lt Cdr. Somasiri Devendra, Dr. Malik Fernando, Mr. Gihan Jayatilaka and Mr. Srilal Perera. The training was conducted at the Sub-Aqua club at Wellawatta. At the very beginning the number of students was reduced to 10 on the basics of their qualifications. The selected were then directed in further training. Among those were some enthusiastic students K.D.S. Silva, Indrajith Kuruppu, Pradeep Thannegedara, Palitha Weerasinha, W.M. Chandraratne, Asoka Perera, A.M. Dayananda, Channa Jayasinghe, Kamal de Zoysa, Gamini Kumara. Mr. Raj Somadeva of the PGIAR functioned as the co-ordinator in this programme. Trainees commenced their training in swimming pool and were gradually transferred to the sea, where they were introduced in to further technical aspects by Lt Cdr. Somasiri devendra, Dr malic Fernando, Srilal Perera and Gihan Jayathilaka (members of the Sub Aqua club). Subsequently the Department of Archaeological, Central Cultural fund, PGIAR, Maritime Heritage Trust and Sub aqua club get them under their wing and the marine archaeologists from Western Australian Maritime Museum gave their help to make this training a successful. From then onwards maritime archaeology activities in Sri Lanka were conducted under the supervision of the Department of Archaeology. The director general Dr. Shiran Daraniyagala and Mr. Senarath Dissanayaka, the co-ordinator, gave their utmost assistance in these activities.
In 1996 the National Museum Department also joined in this process. In that year, the training was extended to coastal areas such as Wellawatta, Mount –Lavinia, Unawatuna and Galle. Afterwards the trainees came under the observation of two experts: Lotti Beichert (‘Lotti’) and & Parakrama Thomas (‘Prakey’), a married couple who live in Sri Lanka. The team was trained at workshops in the Galle harbour, where they joined with the Navy diving team of the Galle division. Finally they were trained by a diving instructor Karan Millar from Australia. With her, they continued the archaeological exploration in Galle harbour, staying at the ‘Nooit Gedacht’ hotel in Unawatuna. In the same year the trainees were joined with the archaeologists from Western Australian Museum who were exploring the Galle harbour with side-scan sonar and magneto meter. They also excavated some sites, raised artefacts and gathered some important information. During thecourse of these activities Mr. Rukshan Amal Jayawardana joined the project as an archaeologist. In the same year they continued the 2nd step of the training program which was designed give more knowledge and practice in maritime archaeology. At the end of the year, with the conclusion of the training, they were advised to obtain the ‘PADI’ international certificate for diving. With the help of the ministry of cultural affaires, the relative departments joined together and directed the training program in a beneficial manner.
In 1997, the Archaeological Department obtained the services of Mr. Michel Water, a professional trainer to train the team of trainees to the ‘PADI’ open water diving certificate level. During this training program, explorations and activities were done in more deep waters in Hikkaduwa area. The team finished their training with some unforgettable memories. On the 2nd of May in1997 the Diving certificates were awarded to K.D.S. Silva, Pradeep Thannegedara, A.M.A. Dayananda, W. Chandraratne, Palitha Weerasinha, Chandana Weerasena and Asoka Perera.
After that they were called to the sunken wreck of the ‘Avondster’. Joining with the foreign team they explored many other shipwrecks in the Galle harbour and submitted the reports. In 1999 they were given the opportunity to participate to a workshop concerned with the ‘Avondster’. In this manner they were trained to perform their work without any assistance. There they did their basic explorations and drew plans. Moreover they were trained further to lift the excavated artefacts, conserve them and to make the essential reports. During that period the team was trained in underwater photography and video too.
The activities performed during 2001-2004 were very beneficial and important for this maritime archaeological team. From 2001 the Sri Lankan maritime archaeological activities were managed under the CCF (Central Cultural Fund). In November 2001 with the help of the Netherlands the Avondster project was started by bringing all the trained archaeologists and conservators together. This three-year project was expected to create a permanent and well trained archaeological and conservation team for Sri Lanka. Working with Dutch and Australian experts, the team had the advantage of gathering further essential knowledge and experience. The team was directed to do more planning, explorations, excavations and conservations on their own. At the beginning of 2003 they were trained to excavate heavier objects such as anchors and cannons; furthermore they were trained in artefacts registration, public relations, museology, exhibitions, first aid, life saving and many other related subjects.
This team of archaeologists and conservators formed under the Maritime Archaeology Unit have been performing their activities progressively to the end of year 2004. In the same way the utmost co-operation and the guidance of the foreign team as well as the invaluable assistance and the devotion of Lt Cdr. Somali Devendra has been strength of the team. From the CCF side, Dr. Mohan Abeyratne, H.D.S. Hettipathirana and the board directors gave all the necessary support to the team. Since 2004 the local team is independently doing every aspect of activities in underwater archaeology, including planning and researching.………….. (Thannegedara, K., April 2005)