Ancient port city of Godawaya and the recent discovery of the unknown wooden wreck with Black & Red Ware .

Godawaya is a small fishing village, located in the Hambantota district close to Ambalantota near the old estuary of the Walawe River, the fourth longest river of the island. However, the mouth of river near Godawaya in blocked by sand deposit and now the river is debouching in the sea at Ambalantota 3 km west of Godawaya. A Buddhist temple is located on a small rocky elevation on the left bank of the river mouth. (Figure 01)

Anciently Godawaya was known as Godapavata-patanaha that is mentioned in a Brahmi inscription found in Godawaya (Falk, 2001:328) dated to the 2nd century AD (Roth et al., 2001:296), and in Mahavamsa the etymological identifiable term “Gotapabbata” is used (Geiger, 1912: 255). There are two other Brahmi inscriptions reported from Godawaya area. The earliest archaeological evidences from Godawaya trace the history of this region from the Mesolithic period onward. The Mesolithic site is situated on the eastern bank of the river, west to the temple. The hillock and a few projected boulders might have served as shelter for prehistoric people.

.My first visit to Godawaya was in 1998, as an undergraduate who participated in the archaeological excavation at the temple premises, conducted by the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka and the German K.A.W.A. project. After a series of explorations and excavations from 1994, at Godawaya some of the very significant structural remains such as a temple, some remains of possible harbour and an important inscription were unearthed (Roth, 1998).

Two inscriptions found from this temple was first examined and reported by E.R. Ayortone in early 20th century. Later in 1930 professor Senarath Paranavitana read, prepared estampages and published these (Paranavithana, S. 1983). The small and unclear inscription No 01 and well-known inscription No 02 were carved on a natural rock north to the Stupa. The inscription N0 02 state clearly about a seaport situated at Godawaya. (Figure 02) It consists of two lines, and the letters, which vary in height between 2 ½ in. and 6 in., have been clearly incised and regular in formation. These writings can be identified as belonging to the first or second century CE (Paranavithana, S. 1983). The inscription seconds the donation of the customs duties collected at this port, they called Godapavatha. The name Godapavatha, Gota pabbata or Godawaya means kind of a mound with round shape rocks (Gota – short / Pabbata – Rock). The small stupa is built on the rocky elevation south to the temple is clearly visible from the sea and can be used as a landmark. Most probably the name Godapawatha can be a creation of the early seafarers.

The text of the inscription No 02

1. Siddham Godapavata patanahi Su(ka) su(ri)yi
2. Raja Gamani Abaya viharata dinilogo

Success! The customs duties of the port of Godapavata, King Gamani Abaya granted to the vihara (temple).

When the excavation team dug a new trench under the rock with the main inscription mentioned above, they found another well preserved three line inscription one meter below the old one. (Figure 02) It also describes some of the donations to the temple.

The text of the Inscription No 03
1. Siddhama /* raja Gamani Abayaha rajika ahalaya bathika mithaye thini(ha kari)haka…
2. Arabapaya Godapavata viharata (dini) ethahi (Javaha)ka vihakalanakara(ka)
3. Kethahithinikarihaka bumi dine (symbols) nakaraka chethahata dine (symbols)

According to Dr. Piyathissa Senanayaka, who inspected the inscription at the site, this is the rough meaning of the text.

Success! Ahalaya bathikamithaya, the Queen of the King Gamini Abaya granted three Karisaka (twenty-two acres) of land to the Arabapaya Godapavata vihara (Temple). At the same time another three Karisaka (twenty-two acres) of land from the paddy field of the Jawahakavilaka city to the Stupa.logo

During the last two decades many explorations and excavations took place in and around the Godavaya temple. From an excavation that took place near the fishing village part of an old maritime structure was found (Weissharr, H.J. / Wijeyapala, W. / Roth, H. (ed.) 2001). It looks like a part of a jetty or a bridge build with stone pillars, which are very similar to the stone pillars found from the old image house of the temple. (Figure 03) Looking south from the temple, the river flows to the sea on right side and the fishing village is on the left side. Both of these may have been parts of the seaport. On one hand the Bay of Godawaya, the beach with the stone pillars and fishing village is the safest landing place. The river mouth itself and the wide sluggish river also provides an appropriate access for transportation. Cargo from the vessels could have been transferred to the inlands using boats and barges. The Walawe River flows through ancient settlements and monastic sites such as Ridiyagama, Mahanavulu Pura and Ramba monastic complex. There are records of coins, mainly thousands of Indo-Roman coins found from private lands and paddy fields near the riverbanks. (Bopearachchi,O. 1996)

In 2003 an old stone anchor was found from the sea near the fishing village. (Figure 04) In the same year, when members of the Maritime Archaeology Unit went to see the temple and the excavation project, the Archaeologists (the late professor Helmut Roth and Mr. Oliver Kessler) asked, whether there was a possibility to do an underwater exploration around the Godavaya. But at that time MAU was engaged with major excavation in the Galle harbour and weren’t ready to do anything else. Only manage to record the stone anchor and its surroundings. It was a triangular shaped anchor fully made of granite with a hole in the middle, more like the stone anchors found from the Galle harbour exploration. According to the literature these types of stone anchors were used during the pre-colonial period, especially with the indo Arabian and Chinese vessels. (Maritime Lanka web site)logo

In the following year two local divers from Godavaya found another related valuable item. Sunil and Peminda who live near the Godavaya temple were well-experienced divers making their living by collecting conchs and aquarium fish. Unlike most local divers, they are well trained. One day when they were diving deep for shells, they found an area with potshards. They noticed some big parts of clay jars and some strange objects scattered all over that area. From that site they found a small stone object, which was more similar to a small bench (Figure 04). They brought it with them and marked the location on their GPS. The bench was handed over to the excavation project and was stored at the Tissamaharama storeroom, under the Department of Archaeology. But the incidence and the bench were forgotten with the time.

In April 2008 the second phase of the UNESCO regional field school program for maritime archaeology was held in Galle. At the end there was a need of finding a shipwreck with Asian origin to use for training activities in the next field school session. In October 2008 we started an exploration with the funds from UNESCO Bangkok office to find some new suitable sites for future fieldwork. Under the instructions of Dr. Mohan Abeyratne (Deputy Director General – Central Cultural fund) a team of maritime archaeologists and conservators set off for the South Coast. Our main targets were the wrecks around the Great Basses reef and the possible wreck site near the Godawaya. logo

After the exploration at the Great Basses we came to Godavaya. During the exploration at Great Basses we had time to collect and investigate the data related to the Godawaya. The stone bench and the stone anchor were carefully investigated. The two conch divers were interviewed and tried to get as much information as possible. According to them the site was at 30-meter depth and 03 kilometers away from the coast. There was no possibility to find potsherds and artefacts like the stone bench from that area unless there had been a shipwreck.

On 18th October following the directions of those two divers, we did our first dive over that site. When we reached the seabed, 31 meter was indicated on our depth gages. We saw some mounds made with corals and sea plants on the sandy bottom, a bit dark and cold. When we were searching this area we found some potsherds in the seabed among those reefs. (Figure 05) We didn’t have much time to spend, because the divers were using only one air cylinder and at the 30 meter depth we were only able to spend around 20 minutes.

On the following day we carried out the exploration in a more systematic way. Three pairs searched the site separately and collected data and filmed the area. At the end of the twenty minutes the team re-united on the boat. What we found that day was tremendous. The seabed near the site is comprised of coralline rocky formation whereas a wide area is covered with thick grained coralline sand towards northeastern part of the site. The maximum height of the reef on the northwestern part is approximately 1.5 m. There is no vegetation growth observed at site, however, at a few places gorgonian growth was noticed besides some marine pinkish layer on the rocks. Under the some mounds, which we thought were reefs, we found some timber sections. Those very fragile wooden parts were covered with thick layer of corals and plants. These were scattered over an about 100 square meter area. However, extension of the site may increase when surface sand is removed from the site. Interestingly, at one place the removal of sand by hand fanning yielded a number of potsherds just below 10 cm in the sediment. Thus the actual extension of the site may be determined only after thorough examination of the site by the removal of surface sediments.logo
Between and around two large mounds there were lots of potsherds. Other than the potsherds, we found some complete and near complete jars. Some were huge and covered in the environment. (Figure 06) This was a clear sign that the site was undisturbed and settled as it is. But it was not easy to understand the site formation, and or weren’t able to identify any parts of the ship’s construction. Apart from the potsherds we found some glazed ingots, which were used to glaze or colour the clay pots.

Next few days were spent to record the site and explore more. We also brought out some artefacts for further investigations. After cleaning the potsherds and jars, most of those were all identified as BRW (Black & Red Ware). We found some big fragments more similar to the amphora and some small rare types of plates and bowls. After five days we had to stop our site work due to the sudden changes of the climate and due to some strong surface currents, which started to flow just above the site.

After November 2008, we didn’t able to investigate the site again or to start proper project due to the huge financial crisis of the Central Cultural Fund. The site was in great danger after 2008 because of the development of the new harbour in Hambantota and also of looting. Finally in 2010 MAU managed to get some funds from its annual budget and at the same time the UNESCO and the Netherlands Cultural Fund also release some funds to start an exploration to document the Godawaya site. An international team comprised of experts in diving and underwater archaeology from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines participated in the assessment with us. (Figure 11) This investigation of Godawaya wreck site is based on the following objectives.
1. To inspect the site and identify antiquities visible on the seabed.
2. To prepare surface plot of the site.
3. Photographic documentation of all the findings visible on the surface.
4. To make assessment of the wreck site in Godawaya based on the data generated during the fieldwork.

Three fiber fishing boats were hired for the underwater inspection of the wreck site. In absence of any jetty or harbor in Godawaya, the boats were pushed in the sea and taken out everyday. There were three teams and each team consisted of 3 Two divers used to work and the job of third diver was to monitor the activity and time. Due to the absence of a decompression chamber at the site, dive bottom time was limited to 18 minutes, the maximum time allowed for a no-decompression dive. At the site, two buoys were initially placed over the site that also served as shot lines for diver entry and exit. A baseline using a rope attached with a meter tape was established that had a bearing of 3000 and runs until 50 meters. The length was then divided into three that served as the teams’ respective area of assignment. All observed archaeological features and cultural materials were plotted using the offset method and each artifact was described and measured (length, width and height). One team was tasked to do site photo-documentation using two digital cameras and one underwater video camera; recording onsite activities and take photographs of individual artifact. The mound of timbers or planks on the northern side of the baseline was recorded in detail. Based on collected data, a preliminary site map was created.(Figure 07)

site map
Possibly wreckage part
Although the ship construction might be possible the most interesting part of the site unfortunately no conclusive work could be done due to the limited working time at 30 meters and the fact that no wooden structure has yet been positively identified at the site bulk part of what appeared to be the structure is scattered approximately about 10 m in length and about 3.5 m in width. (Figure 10) Observations underwater however, initially indicated that this appeared to be bunches of wooden logs. Closer examination by scraping of some of the material revealed that it did not look like wood but rather be some kind of metal. This part needs a detailed investigation not only underwater but also by taking a few samples for analysis.

Many ships have been wrecked around Sri Lanka but Gudawaya is a very unique shipwreck and no parallel has been reported in publications. It is therefore of the utmost important to continue the investigation of this site in order to fill in the gaps of our knowledge in the early historic trade.
posible wreck partGroup photo










There has been report and publications on the several shipwrecks in and around the Indian Ocean countries during the last two decades or so. However, those wrecks are dated between the 9th century AD and up to the early 20th century AD. Thus the information on the early shipwrecks was virtually zero and the Godawaya wreck site has provided much needed impetus to the maritime archaeology of this region. The shipwreck is lying or trapped in an isolated reef (which virtually surrounded the wreck and only northeastern part is open) in 32 meter water depth. The surface observation indicates that a large part of the wreck is buried in the sediment and the extension of the site can only be determined after the complete investigation. The cargo material such as quern and pottery appears to be originally of the Indian subcontinent region, hence it is very possible that origin of ship may be traced to this region itself. A large number of quern and pottery indicate that these items may also be the part of trading commodity. The major part of wreckage need to be identified and that will reveal the kind of cargoes ships use to carry at that time. On the basis of findings from the wreck it may be suggested that the origin of the ship may be traced regionally (in broader sense the Indian subcontinent). The comparative study of archaeological findings such as pottery and stone quern indicate a possible date of the wreck between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. Hence the wreck of this period is a lone example from this part of the world. We are very much open on the dating and the major cargoes of the wreck as this is initial attempt and same may be changed drastically subject to additional data from the wreck in future. (Muthucumarana. R. 2011)