Galle Harbour Project 1992


The project was initiated with the prime objective to train a core group of maritime archaeologist by Jeremy Green and other maritime archaeologists from Australia with the Sri Lankan counterpart team of amateur divers from SLSAC(Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club) led by late Gihan Jayatilake and a team of naval divers coordinated by Green and Devendra (Meritime Heritage Trust). Training was also carried-out in the conservation of water-logged objects, scientific recording, underwater photography and the setting up of a conservation laboratory.

In the late part of the year, a handful of Archaeology students started training in underwater archaeology. During this training 11 archaeologically significant sites were discovered, including a significant wreck with a fairly well preserved hull, which was lately identified as VOC Avondster sunk in the Galle harbour. With the involvement of the Netherlands, the project extended to joint project involving Sri Lanka, Australia and the Netherlands.

During the period from 1994 – 1995, due to the lack of funds in Sri Lanka & Australia, work was suspended, however Green and Devendra continued on a modest scale with whatever funds they could gather. However, the preliminary and final reports on the work were published not only in Sri Lanka but also in prestigious journals in India, Australia and U.K. During this period, the government’s intention to build a major container yard and transhipment port in Galle bay resulted in several institutions and individuals raising questions concerning the impact of the plan on the ecology and the environment in the Galle harbour. The idea of carrying out an archaeological impact assessment was discussed but was not put into action. Finally, a rescue project was carried-out.

During the period from 1996 – 1998 in a visit to Galle, Hon. Lakshman Jayakody, then Minister of Cultural Affairs, realised the harbour development project would have an adverse effect and instructed that the Galle Bay be surveyed for shipwrecks before a new port was built there. The funds were allocated; the work was undertaken by a Sri Lankan-Australian team. CCF provided most of the conservators, archaeologists and the facilities for this work. The whole seabed of the Galle bay was surveyed using side scan sonar and a magnetometer. 26 archaeologically important sites were located, including five wooden shipwrecks and seven iron shipwrecks. Many important items were also found. In the year 1998 a significant the legislative framework was also formulated. The Department of Archaeology proposed several amendments (such as powers to control archaeological work in the territorial waters and to obtain funds for AIA’s with 1% of the development project cost) to the Antiquities Ordinance. In May 1998 these amendments were passed.

By 1998, a total of 26 sites had been identified. Of them the most important, archaeologically, are the following:

Site C: A large iron wreck, possibly “SS Rangoon” which sank at anchor.
Site D: A large iron vessel approximately 40m long and badly broken up not yet identified.
Site O: An iron wreck, approx. 30m long and 10m wide, possibly the “SS Agra”. Lies at 13.8 m depth, amid considerable turbulence.
Site S: Iron wreck at 12m depth with concretions over an area of 5 sq.m.
Site Y: Highly degraded iron wreck in shallow water, not yet investigated.
Site R & T:Large iron anchors, at old anchorage site. The site itself and its potential is greater than the anchors themselves, as it is part of the late medieval harbour.
Site W : Iron wreck, probably that of the “Effort”, discovered by magnetometer survey.
Site G: Wooden wreck, of a Dutch East Indiaman, possibly the “Gienwens” which has much historical value, though the remains are not extensive.
Site K: Iron wreck, possibly the “Marion”.
Site F: The “Hercules” site, historically important but extensively damaged in the process of building the existing breakwater in the 1960s. Ship’s bell, and sounding leads have been recovered, but at least 30 cannon have been located but not yet retrieved. In addition to this, since a large number of sailors died in the sinking, this was named “Hercules Kirkopf”: this means a Churchyard or Graveyard.
Sites U & V: These are accretion sites, where many loose artifacts are found in good condition. They border the western limit of the channel and some very historically valuable material has been found here. Extensively looted in the past.
Site E: Remnants of the bottom part of a wooden ship, dateable to mid-19th century.
Site A: The site of a large iron wreck, valuable as it is an accretion site for a wide variety of artifacts conveyed here by currents. So far, artifacts ranging from 15th century Chinese bowls to 19th century clay pipes have been discovered in large quantities. The site needs to be extensively and continuously explored as it is an important indicator of the archaeological diversity of Galle Bay.
Site J: Another accretion site, with many ceramic shards, situated in the historic anchorages area. Important for the finding of a religious statue; others may be still there. Site full of promise and has to be kept inviolate, as in the case of all other sites in the anchorage area.
Site L: The “Avonster” site: most important single site. The remains of a Dutch ship, identified and studied in depth achivally, which will have to be preserved underwater for many years for seasonal exploration to carry on.
Site P: The site where there is a collection of Arabic and Mediterranean type stone anchors and, therefore, both the oldest site in the harbour and the site of the original Galle harbour.

The most promising shipwreck site is Site L, that of the “Avondster”, which is a “time capsule” in every sense of the word. It is premature to comment on it, although much is given in the Report for 1996-1997. A significant find was a typical Dutch galley, made of brick with lead sheeting. The ”Avondster” was a European vessel sailing under a European country in the Inter Asian trade. While historical sources provide information on the logistics (food, crew, armaments etc.) and structure of ships sailing between Asia and Europe, little is known about those used in the inter-Asian trade. Due to the complete nature of the site (up to the ship’s main deck), it is expected to make a valuable contribution to nautical archaeology.