Monday, March 21, 2005


Sri Lanka's maritime museum hopes fade after tsunami reclaims sea treasures


Yahoo News
March 19, 2005

AFP Photo

GALLE, Sri Lanka (AFP) - Marine archeologists spent nine years trawling the seabed of Sri Lanka's Galle port to collect thousands of centuries-old treasures buried underwater in shipwrecks.
But it took just a few seconds for them to be reclaimed by the ocean when a tsunami battered the shores of this island nation on December 26 and swept away everything in its path, including hopes of opening the country's first maritime museum.

The collection of priceless artefacts -- including spoons, jars, jugs, bottles, cannons and leather belts -- were to be exhibited to showcase the maritime heritage Sri Lanka shared with European invaders and Arab traders.

But only 20 percent of 3,600 objects salvaged from shipwrecks within the waters of Galle port from about 1996 appeared to have survived the tsunami, said S. M. Nandadasa, the officer in charge of the project.
Authorities are now trying to trace the twice-lost treasures.

"We have found some of the artefacts among the debris ... (and) our main concern right now is to try and conserve what was saved," said Nandadasa.

He said the long-term plan was to get foreign help to go ahead with its goal of establishing the maritime archaeological museum on the island nation that had been a key transit point in east-west trade centuries ago.

Galle, 72 miles (112 kilometres) south of Colombo and located along the ancient silk sea route, is rich grounds for marine archaeological exploration.

The authorities have identified 26 locations, including 15 shipwrecks, within the small Galle port and its immediate environs.

Nandadasa said Sri Lanka was also seeking foreign help to re-establish the devastated Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU), which had been housed in a single storied building on a jetty at the old section of the Galle port and was where the artefacts were being stored.

Sri Lanka's Central Cultural Fund was to take over the running of the MAU from Dutch and Australian experts at the end of December, but after the tsunamis it was left literally picking up the pieces.

"My first reaction was everything is lost -- the maritime archaeological unit is gone," said former director, Robert Parthesius, a Dutch national who has helped the MAU from its inception.

Parthesius has been helping set up the marine archaeological operations since 1992.

"We lost 80 percent of our collection (of artefacts)," Parthesius told AFP here. "Fortunately, not a single life was lost. Buildings were lost, but we have not lost the Sri Lankan expertise we developed over the years."

The jewel in the proposed maritime archaeological museum was to be artefacts found on the wreck of the Avondster, a Dutch ship which slipped anchor and hit the shore, broke in two and submerged in the soft sand on July 2, 1659, according to historical records.

Blue and white ceramic ware, spoons, jars, jugs, cannons and cannon balls and leather belts were hauled by divers from the Avondster together with some of the areca nut cargo that it was loading 346 years ago.

Marine archaeologist Rasika Muthukumarana last week carried out his first dive after the tsunamis to check if the Avondster, had shifted from its position.

"A bit of the galley was sticking out of the sand and some of the bricks had come off, but there was no major damage," Muthukumarana said, adding that sand had been dumped on the wreck.

"That is a good thing from our point of view because it helps to preserve the wreck. We have no intention of pulling it out because we don't have the money or the expertise right now to preserve it (out of the water)."

One of the most intriguing finds was a skull inside Avondster despite historic records making no mention of casualties when it ran aground while loading a cargo of areca nuts for India.

"We have established it is a male in his early 30s but we have not been establish his race," Parthesius said. "We don't know for sure, but it could have been a stowaway or a slave or even an early diver looking for treasures."

The skull was also lost after the tsunamis, but miraculously found again among the rubble of the MAU building and is now safely locked away in a safe.

The December 26 tsunamis that killed 31,000 people across Sri Lanka and left a million people homeless, also shifted some of the heavy artefacts that had been brought ashore.

A huge stone anchor from an Omani ship was shifted and broken but put together again by workers. It is to be moved to the Galle Fort, which also suffered flood damage in the sea surge, but was spared the fury of the waves thanks to the centuries old ramparts.

The Fort is a world heritage site and was built by Portuguese invaders who arrived on the island in 1505 while trying to intercept Moorish spice vessels.

The Portuguese-built fort here was later captured by the Dutch who lost it to the British. The British ruled the island till 1948.

Parthesius said Galle was a "treasure-trove" of maritime history as the port was strategically located in the Indian Ocean and had been a busy port.

"Sri Lanka's strategic placing in the Indian Ocean has made it an important junction in shipping and trade. The stone anchor of the Omani ship shows the Arabic influence before the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British."

Marine conservationist Anusha Kasthuriarachchi said they had almost completed their cataloguing of the thousands of artefacts when the tsunamis washed out years of painstaking work.

"All our records and logs have been destroyed," Kasthuriarachchi said pointing to stacks of books covered in mud that was dumped inside her laboratory after the tsunami. She is now shifting to a new location within the Galle Fort.


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