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Maritime Archaeological Study on Cowry Shells (Monetaria moneta) that discovered from the Ancient Harbour Ambalangoda

Mahinda Karunarathna, Development officer, Regional Office (Central), Department of Archaeology.
WM. Chandrarathne, Officer in Charge, Maritime Archaeology Unit, Galle Project, CCF.



The main objective of this research is to explicate the significance of Cowry Shells (Monetaria moneta) that discovered from the Ancient Harbour of Ambalangoda which located at No 85 –Patabandimulla Grama Niladari Division (GND) of Ambalangoda Secretariat Division (SD), Galle District (06 14 104 N – 080 03 127 E); through the collected data from field research (studying existing collection, collecting samples, lab analysis) and library survey methods. According to the investigations carried out by the groups of Archaeology, Maritime archaeology and non-archaeology (1998, 2007 and 2012) have been unearthed a number of Cowry shells with other artefacts. The MAU team conducted an excavation in 2012 to discover the wreck with Cowry shells and other artefacts, and it was failed. The morphological characteristics of studied sea shells, identified as the species of Monetaria moneta (MM) (Cowry shells); known as Kirikawadi in Sinhala. According to our measurements that could be identified each individual MM is about 11.54 mm x 07.93 mm to 21.11 mm x 15.31 mm in length and width, and 0.4g to 2.7g in weight. In the ancient world; Cowry shells are used as an exchange media, ornament and a game object. The usage of the cowry shells that discovered from the Ancient harbour Ambalangoda was not yet revealed. However, this could be identified as a MM collection which related to a shipwreck that sank in the harbour; based on context of the site, discovered artefacts belongs to a ship wreck, and no any other large scale of MM found from the coast areas of Sri Lanka.

Key Words
Ambalangoda Harbour, Monetaria moneta, Cowry Shells, Maritime Archaeology, Exchange

Objective of the Research
The main objective of this research is to explicate the significance of Cowry Shells (Monetaria moneta) that discovered from the Ancient Harbour of Ambalangoda.

Location of the Site
Ancient Harbour of Ambalangoda which located at No 85 – Patabandimulla Grama Niladari Division (GND) of Ambalangoda Secretariat Division (SD), Galle District, Southern Province. (06 14 104 N – 080 03 127 E) and about 800 m along the Ambalangoda – fisheries harbour road and 200m to the North from the jetty of fisheries harbour.

  Location of Ambalangoda Harbour

Historical Background
Concerning the historical background that could be identified primary literature sources have not mentioned about the ancient harbour at Ambalangoda. Therefore, the great conical Mahavamsha and Sandesakavviya (messenger poems) have not mentioned about the activities of the ancient harbour at Ambalangoda as indicated suburb coastal areas. Thisara Sandesaya (1344-1359 AD) (Gunawardane, 2001 p. 1), Parevi Sandesaya (After 1415 AD) have described the coastal areas of the Southern province near Ambalangoda in their poems. Kalutota, Maggona, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Kosgoda, Bentota, Welitota (Balapitiya), Madampamodara, Totagamuwa, Rathgama mentioned in Thisara and Parevi sandesayas (Jayatilake, 2002 pp. 97, 101, 102, 103, 104, 107, 108, 109, 113; Gunawardane, 2001 pp. 101, 103, 107, 108, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116). However, one notable thing is the name “Ambalangoda” had not been mentioned in this Sandesas. Nonetheless, Portuguese, Dutch and British (1505-1948) records depict the social, political, economic, religious relationships in the Ambalangoda harbour.

Previous Researches
There could be identified a few previous researches which were done by several groups base on Ambalangda harbour site. The investigations carried out by the groups of Archaeology, Maritime archaeology and non-archaeology (1998, 2007 and 1998-2012) have been unearthed a number of Cowry shells with other artifacts. Further, the MAU team conducted an excavation in 2012 to discover the wreck with Cowry shells and other artifacts, and it was failed.

Research Methodology
This research was mainly based on two research methodologies of field research method and library survey method. Therefore, field research method was highly emphasized to collect data based on studying existing collection, collecting samples, and lab analysis. Further, digital caliper, electronic scale, computer based programmes used for the research.

Two samples of cowry shells used for the study. Hence, the collection of the MAU and the collection of the first author that discovered from the beach of Ambalangoda in 2012 have used for this research. Collection of the MAU sorted and gave numbers for each cowry. Furthermore, cowry shells are stored in a paper bag with the registered number. Through this process 215 of cowry shells studied, recorded and entered to a database.

Cowry (Monetaria moneta)

Cowry is a marine mollusc which has a glossy, brightly patterned domed shell with a long, narrow opening ( The word cowry comes from Hindi (Kauri) and ultimately from Sanskrit (Kaparda) in mid-17th century.

Cypraeidae is the common name of the cowries. It is a taxonomic family of small to large sea snails. The Scientific classification of Cowries is Kingdom- Animalia, Phylum- Mollusca, Class- Gastropoda, Subclass- Caenogastropoda, Order-Littorinimorpha, Superfamily- Cypraeoidea, Family- Cypraeidae, Ginus- Cypraea, Species- Monetariamoneta (,

Description and Characteristics
It is quite small porcelain, up to 3 cm (1.2 in), irregular and flattened, with very calloused edges and roughly sub hexagonal. The colour is pale (from white to dirty beige), but the dorsum seems transparent, often greenish grey with yellowish margins, with sometimes darker transverse strips and a fine yellow ring. The opening is wide and white, with pronounced denticules. The mantle of the live animal is mottled with black and dirty white (

This a very common species which is found widely in Indo Pacific tropical water and also in East and South Africa, Madagascar, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Maldives, eastern Polynesia, Galapagos, Clipperton, Cocos islands, off Central America, Southern Japan, Midway, Hawaii, New South Wales, and Lord Howe Island

Distribution of Cowries in the world


Cowries live in intertidal rocky areas and shallow tide pools among seaweed, coral remains, and empty bivalve shells. It can be found on and under rocks in shallow water and on exposed reefs at low tide. It feeds on algae and marine vegetation growing on loose rocks and pieces of dead coral

  Living Cowries


Findings and Discussion

Cowries and Ambalangoda Harbour
As mentioned earlier the investigations carried out by the groups of Archaeology, Maritime archaeology and non-archaeology (1998, 2007 and 2012) have been unearthed a number of Cowry shells with other artifacts. Moreover, the MAU team conducted an excavation in 2012 to discover the wreck with Cowry shells and other artifacts, and it was failed.

Thousands of cowries have unearthed from the harbour in 1998 and 2007 (Karunarathna, 2016, 42-44). Especially in 2007, the contractors of Ambalangoda harbour Development project who carried out the dredging using heavy machines accidentally found a large scale of cowry shells and other artifacts (Karunarathna, 2016,44).

The morphological characteristics of studied sea shells, identified as the species of Monetaria moneta (MM) (Cowry shells); known as Kirikawadi in Sinhala. According to our measurements that could be identified each individual MM is about 11.54 mm x 07.93 mm to 21.11 mm x 15.31 mm in length and width, and 0.4g to 2.7g in weight.


Collection I of the MAU                                        Collection II of first Author

A part of the Database of the Cowries of the MAU

 FULL DATA BASE  (Full Data Base of the Cowries of the MAU)


Usage of the Cowries
Usage of the Cowries is going back to the prehistoric era. It occurs in Prehistoric sites in China and also the Harappan sites in northwest India. But cowries mostly used in the Historical period, sometimes together with coins. In the Middle Ganga valley excavation at Masaon brought to light a hoard of 3000 cowries in a port in level dated between 600-200 BCE. Cowries were also recovered from the Iron Age site of Khajuri, India (Prabha, H, 2003, 30-31). In the ancient world; Cowry shells (shell money) are used as an exchange media, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.(,

The shell most widely used worldwide as currency was the shell of Cypraea moneta, (Alternative name for Monetaria moneta, it is the accepted name for cowry) the money cowry. MM is can be seen in the Indian ocean and was collected in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Borneo, other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowry shell money was important at one time or another in the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia (

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader (

In the 19 century, 10 money cowries could buy a chicken, and 30 money cowries could buy a bride. After only fifty years later, inflation raised prices dramatically; a chicken required 300 cowries, and a bride was an astounding 3500 (

MM was more important in China. Cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. The Classical Chinese character for “money/currency”, 貝, originated as a pictograph of a cowry shell (, Ke Peng Ke, 1995, p1). Cowry known as kaudiin Orissa, India, Kaudi was used till 1805. But it was replaced by the British East India Company ( The Ojibway aboriginal people (North America) use cowry shells which are called sacred Miigis Shells or white shells in Midewiwin ceremonies (

Cowry shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. They are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. ( Cowries are using for traditional board games in various countries, for example, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka

The usage of the cowry shells that discovered from the Ancient harbour Ambalangoda was not yet revealed. However, this could be identified as a MM collection which related to a shipwreck that sank in the harbour; based on the context of the site, discovered artifacts belong to a shipwreck, and no any other MM collections (similar to Ambalangoda) found from coast areas of Sri Lanka.

consider about the Maldives, they provided the main source of cowry shells, throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced into Africa by slave traders ( Cowry shells were commonly used as an exchange media in many areas in the world until the late 19th century ( According to this fact, the chronology of the possible wreck at Amblanoda will go back to the above era. By the beginning of the 20 century, cowry shell money had lost its’ value and was no longer used as currency in Africa. While it lasted, the Arabs and Europeans made a huge profit on cowry shells; it is thought that in the hundred years after 1660, the Dutch alone brought in 4.7 billion money cowrie shells into Africa, which they traded for ivory, gold and slaves ( cowries/cypraeamoneta).

Probably, the cowries that unearthed from the Amblangoda harbour used as shell money by the crew of the possible ship (sank in the harbour) or used as an export item for the other foreign countries.

Director General, Department of Archaeology, Director General, Central Cultural Fund, Mr. Nandadasa Samaraweera, Mr. Rasika Mutukumarana, Maritime Archaeology Team of the MAU, Mr. Agasthi Kalansuriya, Ms. Piyumi Embuldeniya, Mr. Danushka Shamal, Mr. Saman Gallage and Mrs Harsha Subashini, Laboratory of the MAU.

1. Ambalangoda Exploration & Excavation Report – 2012, Maritime Archaeology Unit, Galle, Unpublished, 2012.
2. Gunawardane, A.D.S. 2001.Tisara Sandesaya. Colombo 10: Samayawadana, 2001.
3. Jayatilake, K. 2002.Wimarshana Sahitha Parevi Sandesaya. Gangodawila: Pradeepa publishers, 2002.
4. Jayatilaka, Gihan; Nerina de Silva. 1998.Ambalangoda Shipwreck Report on a Prelminarii Investigation. s.l. : Unpublished, 1998.
5. Karunarathna, Mahinda; W.M Chandrarathne. 2016. Maritime Archaeology in Ancient harbour at Ambalangoda.       Colombo 7: Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 2016.
6. Karunarathna, Mahinda; Mohamed Sultan; W.M Chandrarathne. 2016Two Arabic Epigraphs found from the     Ambalangoda Harbour, Proceeding of the National Archaeological Symposium, 2016, Department of Archaeology,  Ministry of Education.
7. Peng, Ke, Yanshi Zhu, New Research on the Origin of Cowries used in Ancient China, Sino-Platonic Papers, No 68, 1995.
8. Prabha, H, The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
9. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005, vol:1,, page: 508, 509, 51015th Edition, 2005, U.S.A.


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Sailing Ships and Temple walls

By Lieutenant Commander Somasiri Devendra, SLN (Rtd.)

Published in Honouring Martin Quere o.m.i, ed. Gerard Robuchon, Viator Publications, 2002.




The present paper is an account of work in progress on a subject the writer has been desultorily researching over some years. Work has not been systematically carried out and much remains yet to be done. However, it is felt useful to place the preliminary work in print so that others more knowledgeable and/or with better access to primary sources, would be able to add to it. The paper is, therefore tentative, and none of the conclusions arrived at should be taken as conclusive.

Prof. P.L.Prematilaka, of the Central Cultural Fund, drew my attention to the graffiti, representing sailing ships, in the course of the paper he read at the annual “D.T.Devendra Memorial Lecture” in 1996. Describing the UNESCO-Sri Lanka excavation programme on the Natha Devale site he says that important vestiges were found, among which was

“The exposure of a layer of painting with scribblings of sailing ships on the painting. The designs of the ships indicate that they imitate the Portuguese sailing ships of the time. Thus, the paintings should pre-date the Portuguese invasion of Kandy in the 16th.century.”

This graffiti, which was incidental to the paper he presented, forms the subject of the present paper, which is an account of attempts made to identify the ships, either through details of rigging and construction or through an identification of the flags depicted.

The site: history and significance

It is necessary to describe location and history of this site in such detail as is sufficient to place it in historical context. Prof. Prematilaka’s dating of the graffiti and the underlying wall paintings, it must be noted, also depended much on events that are recorded in history.


Although the present building can be traced to the 16th. Century and to a period before the arrival of the Portuguese, a specific date cannot be attributed to it. In the historical chronicle, the Culavamsa, there occurs a description of certain improvements effected to it: “In the midst of the town, he (King Narendrasingha) had erected round the great Bodhi tree, the chetiyas and the temple of Nathasura and encircling them on all four sides a fine wall of stone, massive, lofty, brilliant in its coating of stucco.”


The graffiti are found on the walls of a desecrated shrine located at the Natha Devale complex in Kandy. This complex, has a special significance in relation to the Kingdom of Kandy, the last independent kingdom of Sri Lanka, which came under British rule in 1815. It is situated within a stone-walled square with the Vishnu Devale on the north, the Dalada Maligawa on the east, the Maha-maluwa on the south and the (then) Eth Vidiya on the west. Immediately across the road, to the east, is the Dalada Maligawa, or “Temple of the Tooth”, the shrine which houses the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. In the oldest known map of Kandy – a Portuguese one of 1601 – shows a “small tower-like structure” close to the north-east corner, immediately facing the King’s Palace, which is possibly the Yuktiya Istakirime Gantava or ‘the bell to call upon the king to perform his duty’. In historical times, such bells could be rung by any citizen who felt that justice had been not been done to him, as a direct appeal to the King who was “the Court of Last Resort” and “the Font of Justice”. The “Mahavamsa” and popular history link this practice to the time of King Elara in the second century before Christ.


The Tooth Relic has specific significance in that, any claimant to the Kandyan throne had to have it in his custody. The Palace of the incumbent king also formed part of the same premises as the Dalada Maligawa. The Natha Dewale complex was the closest, and only, neighbouring set of buildings. Apart from mere proximity, it had other links with both the Dalada Maligawa and royalty. The Esala Perahera, Kandy’s major religious event did not, prior to the reign of King Kirthisri Rajasingha, include the Dalada Perahera. It was a procession held in honour of the divinity enshrined in the Natha Devale in which the other three devales of Kandy (Vishnu, Skanda and Pattini devales) also participated. Traditinally, this devale served as the venue for the coronation of the Kings of that kingdom and it was before the statue of this devale – and not at the more highly venerated Dalada Maligawa – that the king placed his head, worshipped and made the promise to rule virtuously.  The Natha Dewale is dedicated to “Natha’, or “Lokeswara Natha’ who, in Mahayana Buddhism, is the Bodhisatwa “Avalokeswara Natha” – perhaps the only Bodhisatwa of the Mahayana pantheon who is venerated by Sri Lankan Buddhists. The actual bronze statue enshrined within the devale is, unmistakably, that of Avalokateswara on iconographic grounds.

The deity venerated.

At this devale, Natha is venerated as Senkadagala Devindu (the god of Senkadagala, or Kandy), due to a legendary link between with the establishment of the kingdom of Senkadagala Nuwara, or Kandy. The main shrine itself, built in the architectural form of a gedige, carries a decorative frieze around the base of the vaulted roof above the inner sanctum. This feature, not found anywhere else in Sri Lanka, repeats a traditional legend about the selection of Kandy as capital city. It was selected for this purpose, according to the legend, during the declining years of the Gampola kingdom as it was the site of a miracle: a spot where a hermit had witnessed a hare being hunted by a jackal, turning on his pursuer making the hunter become the hunted. The Sagama inscription of Buvenekabahu V, dated to 1381 AD refers to Senkadagala Devindu as Nathasami, confirming the identification. The slab inscription on the walls of the devale itself supports the fact that it existed in its present form in the 16th century and refers to a ruler named Jayaweera maha Veda-hun tana to persons for their help in defeating the Portuguese forces invading Kandy.

The above remarks would make the point that, whatever function the ruined shrine may originally have served, it was one of a complex of buildings with more than religious importance: that they were, in fact, closely linked to the institution of kingship in Kandy

Kandy: Political History.

The kindom of Kandy had emerged as, at least a semi-autonomous sate by the time the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 16th century. By that time, Kandy – and Jaffna – had been developing into autonomous kingdoms but, in the previous (15th.) century, the growing power of Kotte led to Parakramabahu VI imposing his power over them and subjugating them to subordinate status acknowledging his suzerainty. In the 16th. century, however, Kotte lost its pre-eminent status due to its rulers’ acceptance of Portuguese sovereignty. This resulted in its disintegration into the autonomous regions of Sitawaka, and Raigama. Resistance to foreign domination was led by Sitawaka, which, shortly annexed Raigama. Its kings, Mayadunne and Rajasingha I, lay siege to the Portuguese at Colombo, with the assistance of the Rajah of Calicut and the backing of Kandy. Although the siege was raised, both Sitawaka and the Portuguese realized the strategic value of the Kandyan kingdom. Both tried to gain control of it, carrying the war into Kandyan territory seeking to subdue it. Both failed. Eventually it was Sitawaka that fell first, and  Kandy emerged as the last centre of indigenous resistance to the growing power of the Portuguese over the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, and later, of the Dutch and British.

In the formal Sinhala classification of fortified sites, Kandy was both a “Giri Durga” (protected by mountains) and a “Wana Durga” (protected by forest). During the south-west monsoon season it could also be considered a “Jala Durga” (protected by water). Kandyan defence strategy, dictated by its inability to regularly raise and maintain large, well-equipped armies to take on the foreign troops and their native levies in pitched battle, capitalised on the strengths that Nature had provided. Look-outs positioned on hilltops overlooking the roads and passes relayed information of the type and strength of the invading columns. These were harried by guerilla attacks and ambushes.  This tactic did not always succeed and, on occasion, the invaders entered and gained temporary control of parts of the kingdom and even the city of Kandy itself. The Kings of Kandy, on such occasions, carried out the pre-planned maneuver that was their second line of defence: namely, that of evacuating the city and taking refuge in the less accessible countryside. The temporary occupying forces in Kandy, unable to reach the king, resorted to destruction and desecration of buildings of importance, among which was Natha Devale. Many temples within the complex were destroyed in this manner and, although the more important of them were rebuilt, not all were restored. The drawings which form the subject of this paper were part of the desecration resulting from the general destruction carried out during one of these raids. In the third part of the strategy, supplies were prevented from reaching the occupying forces who, wracked by disease and unable to sustain themselves, were forced to retire. They were then subject to the same sort of guerilla attacks that was often more effective on an army in retreat than on one in the flush of success.

The Excavations

Some time later, during the first decade of the 19th. century, the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha, constructed the Kandy Lake, known as the Kiri Muhuda, on what had been the site of a stretch of paddy fields. Much of the soil excavated was dumped within the premises, and behind the terraces of Natha Devale, resulting in the burying of vestiges of the complex and in the ground level within the area becoming significantly higher than it had earlier been.  Prof. Prematilaka, conducting the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle excavation to establish the original level, made several significant finds, including the plastered berms of two stupas, the ancient square terrace of the historic Bodhi tree, the base of a mandapa with stone bases of timber columns, the base of another ancient Bodhi tree with 14th century features, fragments of a large bronze seated Buddha image, heaps of cannon balls and the building with the graffiti depicting sailing ships referred to earlier.

The one that concerns this paper is the last of the above.

The Graffiti

The external walls of this small shrine had originally been covered with wall paintings of a type typical of the period. These had been deliberately defaced by graffiti. Among the graffiti, however, was a group of sailing ships scratched with a pointed instrument To judge from the lack of corrections they appear to have been drawn with a practiced hand and, perhaps, with no intention of correcting them. The three ships are each different from the other, and no evidence is available to judge whether they are the work of the same person, or not. Figures 1,2, and 3, arbitrarily labeled “Ship 1”, “Ship 2” and “Ship 3” are the graffiti under discussion. It must be noted that the background, predominantly red-brown in colour, is the original wall paintings. Even in these few pictures, it is possible to see some features of the original subject. Underlying the thin layer of paint the wall itself appears as of contrasting lightness a feature that makes the graffiti quite visible.

This paper deals with an attempt to identify the ships, by nationality, since would help date the destruction of this building (whether it was by Portuguese, Dutch or British invaders) and thus add to the known history of the Natha Devale complex, particularly by helping to identify the date of the desecration and destruction of the shrine.

The Search: Features chosen

Prof.Prematilaka’s initial hypothesis was that the ships were Portuguese vessels which is reasonable when taking into account the slab inscription on the wall of the devale where reference is made to an invasion by the Portuguese. In the present study, a less definitive working assumption was initially made: that the ships portrayed were of European ships of unknown nationality.  However, in the course of the search some doubt was raised even as regards this, and the reasons are given below. Notwithstanding this, the working assumption was persisted with and further refined: that they were not only European but they were either 16-17th century Portuguese, 17-18th. century Dutch or 18th. Century  British.

European ships of the period 16th to 18th centuries cannot be treated as of one class. They developed in many ways and variously in different countries, covering a range of classes, sizes and types. Some types described in specialized treatises would not even have sailed in Sri Lankan waters. Further, ships were built locally by the European powers, using indigenous shipwrights and craftsmen, incorporating non-European elements chosen for their suitability to the local environment. To make the waters even murkier, purely indigenous ships were built by locally, that bore a spurious surface similarity to European vessels. (The thoni of Jaffna, that survived into the 1930s was one such that Hornell (1943) describes as “….of purely European design. It diverges in no detail from the small wooden schooners employed in English coasting in the nineteenth century….”) Given this large and imprecise area, and the fact that there was no specifically identifying feature on any (a specifically British flag, for example), certain areas were singled out for study. These were:

  • Overall view ( realistic or not? Proportions, disposition of parts, etc.)
  • Constructional details (masts, bowsprit, poop deck etc.)
  • Sails and rigging (square, lateen, spritsails, etc.)
  • Flags shown (designs, where flown, etc.)


The Search:  Method followed

Sri Lanka lacks experts in the field of medieval European ship-building. Libraries, too, can provide hardly any material. In the circumstances, the solution was to seek foreign expertise. To build upon a wider base than the few persons personally known to the writer, it was decided to spread the pictures around as many people as possible who would not otherwise not be available to comment. The means adopted for this was the email discussion group, Marhist, (an international electronic discussion group sponsored and administered by the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston with the assistance of Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada) to which the writer was a subscriber. Many persons – historians, maritime archaeologists, and seamen – who have specialized knowledge of different aspects of maritime history participate in the discussions. The question was posed by the writer, as a preliminary call for help, in a posting that read, in part, as follows:

“Recently, an important temple complex site was being excavated by archaeologists and several older temples that had been sacked were found completely below the ground. In one of them, someone had drawn with a pointed instrument on top of the wall paintings. The subject is several “European” style sailing ships. They are most definitely not the work of a local person, as we have no tradition of drawing nautical subjects. The drawings show a good knowledge of European ships’ structure, rigging etc. and even shows the flags. My question is whether these ships are (a) Portuguese (b) Dutch or (c) British. I believe the flags are a clue, but the ships’ structure will also reveal clues: it is known that all three European nations built ships in India and that they might have been slightly different from those built in Europe.”

When responses from those interested in the subject were received, further person-to-person email discussions were continued. Apart from them, particular persons known to the writer were consulted, in particular Dr. Eric Reith of the Musee de la Maine, Paris and Robert Parthesius of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, who is associated with me in the “Avondster” maritime archaeological project in Galle.. The comments of those who participated in the discussion is dealt with first; the contribution of Eric Reith is dealt with later.

The Discussion: content and opinions

It became apparent, early on, that there was no consensus on identification by type, period or nationality. Yet, as of now, a consensus has emerged regarding the larger question, which is discussed below. The discussions are described below, under separate headings.

The subscribers to Marhist merely responded to the call for help that was posted by the writer. Their responses were never meant to be works of research, and must be treated as such. For this reason their institutional affiliations are not shown. 

Overall impressions of construction, sails and rigging.

  1. Robert Parthesius, Netherlands

My first reaction (I will need some more time for further study) is:

18th century, may be 19th century! I base that conclusion on the rigging. On image 2 and 3 one can see foresails, those became in use in the 18th century before that time in the 17th century the ship as characteristic spritsail and spritsail topsail.

Also the lateen mizzen has a 18th century form (4 corners) In the 16th and 17th century the lateen mizzen was a triangle which yard was running further then the mast. This was unpractical if the ship tacked, so they replaced this system with a sail that was placed completely behind the mast.  Image 1 looks a bit like a brig, or small schooner (because of the visible rudder). These vessels were also in use in the 18th and 19th century.

  1. Paulo Alexandre Monteiro Portugal

(a) Unfortunately, nobody knows what a Portuguese ship looked like..Please let me know more…..Good iconography on Portuguese ships is not abundant but, hopefully, we can try and match what we have so far in Portugal with what you have.

(b) I received the photos of the graffiti and I have had not much time to do some research on them. On a first impression, looking at the lines and rigging, I would say were looking at Dutch or English ships of the late XVII or early XVIIIth centuries.

(c) I will dwell into it further, but I believe I concluded that the ships might belong to the late 18th century.

  1. Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) Interesting looking craft. The first is a single master, seemingly a gaff cutter or sloop, running before the wind with square topsail, course and probably stunsails set. She is fairly flat sheered and, somewhat curiously has a well raked stem. Apart from the stem, she seems to have the characteristics of a fast armed sloop built between about 1760 and 1840.

The second is obviously a larger vessel, also setting a full set of stunsails, and again with a well raked bow. The courses (lower sails) are very deep as if she is a schooner setting square canvas to run before the wind. The square sail set under the bowsprit is important for dating – it pretty firmly says not later than about 1830 if the vessel is European built.

The square sail on the mizzen is tiny. If the courses were not so deep one might descibe her as a barque with a square topsail which would fit with the date already ascribed.

The third is similar but the lacuna hides the bow.

All three vessels are heavily canvassed with slightly unusual late-18th — early 19th century rigs.

(b) The flat sheer and use of gaffs suggests ships of about a century later (i.e.  later than late XVII or early XVIII centuries) — circa 1800.

(c) It seems to me that the artist has some familiarity with ships but is probably not a professional sailor. The drawings do not show any particular concern with depicting details such as braces and sheets, anchor handling gear, and other equipment that provide the hardest physical work for sailors

  1. Rui Godinho, Portugal

I’m not an expert in shipbuilding or even in identification of ships. My research point more to the organization of India Run…..If you are sure that the pictures are from the XVIth century then this are Portuguese ships, probably “naus” with 3 or 4 masts, they seem so. Also for the number of sails it seems to be Portuguese or at least European ships, local vessels didn’t have a large number of sails and such big masts. Be careful with this notes because as I told before I’m no expert in this matter!


Were they locally built craft?

 Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) All three vessels are heavily canvassed with slightly unusual late-18th –early 19th century rigs. There were in the first half of this century, I believe, quite a number of Indian owned square-riggers that traded to Colombo carrying rice. Some of these carried interesting and somewhat anachronistic rigs, often very heavily canvassed. I don’t think any of them set a square sail under the bowsprit, but, aside from that detail, the deep courses and raked bows would fit quite well.

There is evidence of gunports and guns. Some of the rice carriers were painted with false ports but, I think, we are looking at genuinely armed ships — that doesn’t exclude the possibility that they are Asian built. Approximately circa 1800 is my first impression. I’ll let you know if other aspects occur to me.

(Response by the writer:

Thanks for information. The possibility of the Jaffna Dhoni (Hornell’s photographs) did cross my mind, but it is difficult to tie it up with the known historical record and the stratification of the site. Would an European draw a “native” ship? We have no tradition of detailed drawings/paintings of ships and those that survive from 8th. century onwards are clumsy and unreal. We could, it seems, build ships, but not draw them. Also, what do you make of the flags? Tri-colours and crosses are distinctly European ‘heraldic’ devices and have no place in the Indian/Sri Lankan vexicological tradition.

 Do give some thought to the flags and other details and a considered opinion. As I said, we are contemplating a paper juxtaposing the archaeological and nautical parameters.)

(b) Apologies for being a bit slow in responding — I’ve been away for a few days. It wasn’t actually the Jaffna Dhoni that I was thinking of. In competition with the Dhoni were a significant number European-style square riggers that were Indian owned. Some were very fine looking vessels and, because they operated at times in light winds they tended to have very tall rigs and to retain or re-invent some of the rig details of the early clippers. However, if the site’s history and stratigraphy do not fit easily with the iconography representing those Indian ships, then there is no good reason to pursue that idea.

Rui Godinho

For the first picture it can be a local ship? It doesn’t have a forecastle and Portuguese ships have. It has one main mast and Portuguese ships usually have 3 or 4 like in the second and third picture.

Can the flags be identified? 

There are two flags shown. In ships 1 and 3, a large flag is shown in the stern, in proportions that are acceptable. The flags are divided into two horizontal stripes although it is quite possible that the artist(s) intended them to be tri-colour flags. In ship 3  two flags are shown, one on the bowsprit and one at the stern, both of which feature a diagonal cross like the St. Andrew’s cross. Much interest was generated by vexicologists, particularly regarding this. A sampling of the different ideas expressed is given below.

Morgiana P.Halley,  USA

… query is *which* “Scottish flag”?  Is it the one with the blue field and the white X cross?  Or the one with the yellow field and the red lion rampant?  If the former, it’s so simple that it might have been used by just about anyone, especially if there are alterations that are invisible to the naked eye in a line-drawing situation.  If it’s the lion, there might be more basis for serious investigation, even though it’s a later item….a flag with an X on it in a line drawing might be *anything*!  A lion, however, has limited possibilities, but only one of them is Scottish.

Bill Bedford, UK

Yes (it could be Scottish) — but only if the drawings were dated to before the Act of Union of 1703.

David Asprey, UK

My (untutored) observation over the years has been that Scottish-like flags (ie blue with white saltire – or sometimes black base) were widely included in 18th and 19th century ship paintings – and for all I know actually by the ships themselves.  But I have not thought of them as actually being Scottish.

Bill Schleihauf ,Canada

(a) Could it not be the old Russian flag?

(b) I can’t say anything about the history of the Russian flag. The Naval flag was white with a blue saltire.*

(* “Saltire” in heraldry, is “A charge consisting of  a cross formed by a bend dexter and a bend sinister crossing in the center”)

Nick Burningham, Australia

(a) The flag certainly looks right. Did Krusenstern (the Russian circumnavigtor, not the sail training ship) ever visit Sri Lanka? He is of about the right date to fit the iconography.

(b) I don’t know what to make of those flags. Vexicology isn’t one of my strong points.

The crossed flag, like the flag of Scotland, is very clearly depicted and ought to be an unequivocal signifier of the ship’s origin. But what country had a flag like that? Looking through the selection of flags provided by my computer’s clip art only Jamaica and Scotland have flags with diagonal crosses and neither country was in the position to launch a naval expedition to Sri Lanka around the end of the 18th century. I’ve looked through a few books hoping to see a similar flag but haven’t come up with anything. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if I do come across anything.

(c) In off-list discussion I said to Somasiri that the only national flags I knew of with diagonal crosses were Scottish and Jamaican, neither of which were likely to send naval forces to Sri Lanka circa 1800.

If Krusenstern’s ships visited Sri Lanka one could posit a fairly clear identification of the ship depiected with the mystery ensign. The other two vessels appear to have tricolours which could conceivably be the tricolour carried by Russian merchant ships?

Lincoln Paine, USA

So far as I know, Kruzenshtern’s ships NADEZHDA and NEVA did not visit Sri Lanka during their voyage to Russia’s Pacific coast in 1803-1806.  Other Russian voyages from the early 19th century include:

1807-13  Golovnin in DIANA.

1815-18  Kotzebue in RURIK.

1819-21  Bellingshausen in VOSTOK.

1823-26  Kotzebue in PREDPRIYATIYE.

I don’t think that any of these ships called in Sri Lanka.

Paulo Alexandre Monteiro, Portugal

(a)The banner with the X is quite curious. I have only seen such a flag and it was displayed on a late XVIth century representation, on an engraving done by Linschoten. Does any one have any ideas as to what might represent? I dont’ think the Portuguese or the Spanish ever used such a flag.

(b) As for the flag, as far as I know, no Portguese vessels ever had one as that.

David Prothero, UK

The ragged cross was a diagonal knotty cross, representing a tree trunk from which the projecting branches had been only roughly lopped.  The same as the staff in the Bear and Ragged Staff of the Earls of Warwick and some Public Houses. On a small scale the irregularities are invisible.  It is also called the cross of Burgundy, which suggests a connection with the Dutch through the Spanish Netherlands, but is unlikely to have been used on Dutch ships since it represented Spanish rule.

Flag charts of 1685 and c1700 show a white ragged cross on red as the ensign of Biskay/Biscays, and a red ragged cross on white as the ensign of Ostend.

There is also a rather remote Dutch possibility.  Some gyronny flags, (triangles radiating out from the centre) can, depending upon the number of triangles and pattern of colouring, look something like  diagonal crosses.

So not very likely (to be one of a new range of naval jacks in which the red, white and blue were arranged in a gyronny pattern radiating from the center)., particularly if your flags are also shown on mast and stern..

Robert Parthesius, Netherlands

The flags are more difficult. I find it hard to recognise a tri-colour (I can see only two), but the diagonal cross is certainly there. If we date the ships in the 18th or even the 19th century the cross can then be English (although the union jack should be in a corner of the flag and the red cross should be different)

Opinion: Eric Reith of Musee de la Marine, Paris.

The contribution of Dr. Eric Reith is dealt with separately as he was not commenting informally but in his capacity as Directeur de recherché au CNRS, Departement d’Archeologie Navale, CNRS. He is on the staff of the Musee de la Marine, Paris, and his assessment can be accepted as a considered opinion. Writing in French his comments were as follows”

“Doc 1 (ship 3)

Il s’agit manifestement d’un navire de guerre. On distingue une batterie avec des saborde (5 sont visible). Le greement est a trios mats avec une brigantine a l’artimon et des focs a l’avant. Il me semle que l’on pourrait dater le profil, sommaire it est vrai, de la fin du XVIIe siecle. En ce qui concerne le pavillon, je ne trouve que deux elements de comparaison, tous les deux brittanniques (croix de St Andre et croix de Saint Patrick.’

(Translation: The subject represented is a warship. A gun battery, with 5 guns visible is to be seen on the port side. There are three masts, the mizzen mast being rigged as a brigantine, and there are jibsails for’ard. It would appear that dating has to be done on the basis of ship’s profile and, although roughly, it can be dated to the end of the 18th. Century. As regards the flag, I forward two designs that may fit, both being British, the crosses of St.Andrew and St. Patrick.)

“Doc.2 (ship 1)

Il s’agit d’un navire (guerre ou commerce?) a deux mats et greement carre du type des bricks. Il me semble que la datation pourrait stre la meme que celle du doc. 1.”

(Translation: The representation is of a ship, but it is uncertain whether it is a warship or a merchantman. It carries two masts, square rigged in the style of a brig. The dating is he same as for ship 3 )

“Doc. 3 (ship 2)

Il s’apparente au doc.1.”

(Translation: This is similar to ship 3.)

Dr.Reith’s concluding remarks are also interesting. He says:

“Ce qui est frappant, c’est que le dessin de ces trios graffti de navires de type europeen presente, a mon avis, des resemblances qui pourraint indiquer qu’il s’agit du meme dessinateur (voir, par example, le facon don’t est represente le gaillard arriere). Par ailleurs, il est sur que ces representations sont sommaire mais qu’elles sont bien proportionnees.”

(Translation: A striking feature is that the graffiti of the three ships show, in my opinion, a similarity of style which would indicate that they are the work of the same artist. For example, note the manner in which the quarter deck is represented. However, other considerations indicate that the drawings have been done rather sketchily although the proportions are rendered well.)


After a consideration of all the comments and observations, it is possible to come to some conclusions, even tentatively.

The Artist. All the ships have been drawn by the same artist. That he was a skilled quick-sketch artist, used to drawing ships is apparent. (Reith) However, his vagueness as regards nautical details would identify him as not a sailor and more likely a soldier (Burningham).

Period. The ships represented belong to the late 18th. Century. During this period the presence of Portuguese ships in the area can be discounted. This leaves the Dutch and the British in the reckoning, and even the French. The Dutch, however, were the power who invaded Kandy around this time and the artist has to be considered a Dutchman. (Reith, Parthesius, Monteiro, Burningham)

Type of ships.

Ship 1:     

–  a warship, or a merchantman, two-masted and square sailed like a brig    (Reith),

– The first is a single master, seemingly a gaff cutter or sloop,….. with square topsail, course and probably stunsails set….. fairly flat sheered and, somewhat curiously has a well raked stem….. she seems to have the characteristics of a fast armed sloop. (Burningham)

–   the lateen mizzen is a square sail, not a lateen (Parthesius)


Ship 2:    

 –   On ships 2 and 3 one can see foresails (Parthesius)

The second is obviously a larger vessel…..a full set of stunsails, and ….. with a well raked bow. The courses (lower sails) are very deep …the square sail set under the bowsprit is important for dating. The square sail on the mizzen is tiny. If the courses were not so deep one might descibe her as a barque with a square topsail (Burningham)


Ship 3:      

– a warship. A gun battery, with 5 guns visible is to be seen on the port side….. three masts, the mizzen mast being rigged as a brigantine, and there are jibsails for’ard. (Reith)




Nationality. To judge from the flags, at least two (if not all) are Dutch and one (with the flag showing a cross) may be British.(Reith, Asprey). However, it is also likely that it is equally possible that the Cross is merely a non-specific symbol (Halley) comments. Nevertleless, as all the ships have been drawn by the same artist who has clearly indicated the Dutch flag on two ships, it is possible that this flag indicates that the ship is “non-Dutch”. Certainly not Portuguese (Monteiro). The period of occurrence of invasions precludes the possibility of them being “native craft” (Burningham).

Tentative identification

  • The graffiti was not the work of a sailor who is familiar with the details of a ship, but of one who is used to draw ships. Possibly he was a soldier who would have been frequently on board ship.
  • The ships are definitely European and not local or regional. More specifically, at least two are Dutch ships. The other may be British, or non-Dutch at least. They are definitely not Portuguese. Prof.Prematilaka’s earlier identification may have to be revised.
  • Identification by type is difficult, but one is definitely a warship or an armed merchantman while another may be a small vessel though armed.
  • Chronologically they would fit into the latter part of the 18th Hence the unknown ‘artist’ would have taken part in a Dutch invasion of Kandy


As stated at the beginning of the paper, the work so far carried out is not conclusive. There remains much to be done. For example, it would be useful to compare this graffiti with the drawings of ships shown in Dutch period maps of Ceylon, India and Indonesia. In addition, any dates arrived at with regard to the wall paintings on which the graffiti had been drawn, would have to be taken into consideration. In conclusion it is wished to invite scholars with specialist knowledge to build upon the foundation laid and carry this fascinating line of inquiry further.

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Two Arabic Epigraphs found from the Ambalangoda Harbour

Mahinda Karunarathna, Apprentice Graduate, Regional Office, Central Province, Department of Archaeology. – 0719945046

Dr. Mohamed Sulthan Mohamed Saleem, Senior Lecturer, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya.

W.M Chandrarathne, Officer in Charge & Project Manager, Maritime Archaeology Unit & Maritime Archaeology Museum, Galle project, Central Cultural Fund.


The ancient harbor Ambalangoda is located in No 85 – Patabandimulla Grama Niladari Division (GND) of Ambalangoda Secretariat Division (SD), Galle District, Southern Province (6°14’07.4″N, 80°03’03.1″E) and about 800 m along the Ambalangoda – fisheries harbor road and 200m to the North from the jetty of fisheries harbor.

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Historical background

The great Chronicles Mahavamsha and Sandesa kavviya (messenger poems) had not mentioned about the activities of the ancient harbor at Ambalangoda. Thisara Sandesaya (1344-1359 AD) (Gunawardane, 2001 p. 1), Parevi Sandesaya (After 1415 AD) have described the coastal areas of the Southern province near Ambalangoda in their poems. Kalutota, Maggona, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Kosgoda, Bentota, Welitota (Balapitiya), Madampamodara, Totagamuwa, Rathgama mentioned in Thisara and Parevi sandesyas (Jayatilake, 2002 pp. 97, 101, 102, 103, 104, 107, 108, 109, 113; Gunawardane, 2001 pp. 101, 103, 107, 108, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116). However, one notable thing is the name “Ambalangoda” has not mentioned in this Sandesas.
Portuguese, Dutch and English (1505-1948) records depict the social, political, economical, religious relationships in the Ambalangoda harbor.

Research History

Three groups of Archaeology, Maritime Archaeology, and Harbour Development Project have intervened to the Maritime Archaeological activities in the Ambalangoda Harbor from 1998 to 2012.

The Artifacts found from the investigations in the Harbour

The Artifacts found in 1998

Most of the artifacts had been found by the private persons. On 14th May 1998, a maritime archaeology team (Department of Archaeology and volunteers) had carried out a preliminary investigation in the harbor (Jayatilaka, Gihan; Nerina de Silva, 1998 p. 1; Maritime Archaeology in the Ancient harbour at Ambalangoda, 2016 p. 32). According to the eyewitnesses, the timbers lie parallel to the shore. However, the team did not unearth the position of the wreck. Most of the artifacts found from the site had sold to the local dealers. The team gathered the information about the artifacts through interviews with eyewitnesses. The locals brought out various artifacts from their house and allowed to be photographed and recorded. 21 artifacts under 8 categories (A-H) were recorded by the group (Jayatilaka, Gihan; Nerina de Silva, 1998 pp. 1-5; Maritime Archaeology in the Ancient harbour at Ambalangoda, 2016 p. 32) (Table No 1).

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Some artifacts found in 1998

The Artifacts found in 2007

The Ambalangoda harbor development project was carried out in 2007. Several types of artifacts emerged while digging the sea bed of the harbor. Cowry shells (Cypraea moneta), copper plates and ceramics are some examples of the artifacts. Two Arabic inscriptions can be seen in two copper plates.

Cowry shells (Cypraea moneta)

The Artifacts found in 2012

The Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) of the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) has explored and excavated the site (Grid No 5 & 9 / 10 m x 10 m) from 1st of March to 10th of April 2012 to unearth more archaeological objects that belong to the ship wreck. Unfortunately, the team did not find any object from the site (Ambalangoda Exploration & Excavation Report – 2012, 2012 p. 5).

While the excavation in 2012
Excavation pit, 2012

(Ambalangoda Exploration & Excavation Report – 2012, 2012 pp. 10-11 ).

The Arabic Epigraphy found from the Harbour at Ambalangoda

Introduction – The Ambalangoda harbor development project was carried out in 2007 while digging the sea bed unearthed several types of artifacts. Discovering 5 copper alloy plates were a remarkable finding of the site(Table No 2). A notable thing whichcan be seen is two epigraphy in the reverse of the copper plates number 2 (2007/SL/S/AMBA/02 ) and 5 (2007/SL/S/AMBA/05).

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The above table shows five copper alloy plates which have been displayed in the Maritime Archaeology Museum (MAM) of Central Cultural Fund in Galle Fort.

Epigraphy on copper alloy plates

I. Description of the epigraphy

This epigraphy is very small, 71.68mm in length ,1 mm in depth of the letters and ,10. 68667 mm in Length of a letter. Thickness is 1.21 mm, Radius 29 cm, Width 14.5 and Weight 697.3 g (copper plate 2) and Thickness 0.75 mm, Weight 285.4 g (copper plate 5).

The plate has fragmented into two parts, probably, when it was under the sea bed or when digging the sea bed by the high pressure water dredger. There are no decorations in the obverse and the reverse of the plate. The five plates have been made of the copper alloy. This plate with epigraphy were deteriorated. It is covered by the brownish or blackish “patina”. This plates conserved in 2014 before being displayed in the Maritime Archaeology Museum in Galle.

II. Photographs and stamp pages of the epigraphy

Epigraphy 1

Epigraphy II


III. Translation of the Epigraphy

The period between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. is generally considered to be a period of decline for the trade of Arabia.

The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, all representing consonants, and is written from right to left. Twenty two of the letters are those of the Semitic alphabet from which it descended, modified only in letter from, and the remaining six letters represent sounds not used in the languages written in the earlier alphabet.

It is a Southern Central Semitic language spoken in a large area including North Africa, most of the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Middle East.

Arabic is a language of the Quran and is the religious language of all Muslims. Literary Arabic usually called Classical Arabic, is essentially the form of the language found in the Quran, with some modifications necessary for its use in modern times; it is uniform throughout the Arab world. Colloquial Arabic includes numerous spoken dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible (The New Encyclopedia Britannica,vol:1,, page: 508, 509, 51015th Edition, 2005, U.S.A).

Ceylon was earlier known to the Arabs on account of its pearl-fisheries and trade in precious stones and spices, and Arab merchants had formed commercial establishments there centuries before the rise of Islam (Abid;Page 838). This Arabic letter had been written without dottings, it reveals the early era before Islam, because after introducing Islam ,dotting to Arabic was introduced to make it easy to recite the Holy Quran.

Translation of the Epigraphy

Epigraphy 1
Arabic (منح له سيد عبد الرب) / (Manehe Lahu Sayyid Abdul Rabb)
English “Mr. Abdul Rabb Awarded to him”

Epigraphy 2
Arabic (منح له سيد عبد الرب) / (Manehe Lahu Sayyid Abdul Rabb)
English “Mr. Abdul Rabb Awarded to him”

This first epigraphy similar to the second epigraphy

Here this Arabic letter was written without dotting, its meaning is: “Mr. Abdul Rabb Awarded to him”, (منح له سيد عبد الرب), (Manehe Lahu Sayyid Abdul Rabb), Early Arabic writing had been included without dots. The dots found today in Arabic writing were one of the first innovations that came after the spread of Islam. These dots make it clear what consonant is to be pronounced. Before the dots, people read the text without any dots. They could do this through their experience. Arabic Writing has been using dots since the dotting system was first inventedby Abu al-Aswad Al-Du’ali ( 603–688 A.D) to prevent grammatical errors. He was a close companion of fourth Khaliphat Ali bin Abi Talib and grammarian. He was the first to place dots on Arabic letters and the first to write on Arabic linguistics.


Director General, Department of Archaeology, Director General, Central Cultural Fund, Mr. Rasika Mutukumarana, Maritime Archaeology Team of the MAU, Mr. Chandima Ambanwala, Miss. Mangali Disanayake and Mr Saman of Maritime Archaeology Museum, Mr.Sumeda Weerawardana, University of Peradeniya.


  1. Ambalangoda Exploration & Excavation Report – 2012, Maritime Archaeology Unit, Galle, Unpublished, 2012.
  2. Gunawardane, A.D.S. 2001. Tisara Sandesaya. Colombo 10 : Samayawadana, 2001.
  3. Jayatilake, K. 2002. Wimarshana Sahitha Parevi Sandesaya. Gangodawila : Pradeepa publishers, 2002.
  4. Jayatilaka, Gihan; Nerina de Silva. 1998. Ambalangoda Shipwreck Report on a Prelminarii Investigation. s.l. : Unpublished , 1998.
  5. Maritime Archaeology in Ancient harbour at Ambalangoda. Karunarathna, Mahinda; W.M Chandrarathne. 2016. Colombo 7 : Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 2016.
  6. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005, vol:1,, page: 508, 509, 51015th Edition, 2005, U.S.A.
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New Maritime Archaeological discoveries in Eastern Province in Sri Lanka: With special emphasis on Trincomale to Potuvil

AMA Dayananda and Mahinda Karunarathna, Maritime Archaeology Unit, Central Cultural Fund

Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) of Central Cultural Fund (CCF) is carried out an underwater Archaeological non disturbance exploration in the Eastern coastal area (From Trincomalee to Potuvill), 13th of July to 26th of August 2013. Drawing the measured and non measured drawings, photographical and video documentation, applying GPS and remote sensing are the used methods for the exploration.Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Pothuwil are the main selected areas for the survey.

MAU team discovered 16 shipwrecks and other 4 maritime archaeological sites after the survey. Irakkandi wreck at Nialwei, HMS   Diamade wreck at Uppuveli, Trincomalee, Lady Maculum wreck, British Sargent wreck, Pasikuda Iron wreck, Pasikuda Boilaer wreck I & II , Baticaloa Boiler wreck, SS Brunus wreck (Sakkara kappal/ Gragery Wreck),  Kalmune Boiler wreck at baticaloa and Akkaraipattu Boiler wreck, Tirkkovil Boiler wreck, Tirkkovil Iron wreck, Komari Boiler wreck, Omari Boiler wreck at Potuvare uncovered by the survey. The underwater archaeological site at Swami rock at Trincomalee, ancient stone bridge at Mayankerni, old Dutch jetty at, Pasikuda and Buddhist underwater archaeology site at Potuvil are explored and unearthed new information on underwater Archaeology.

History of the wrecks are going back to the Dutch  and British period of Sri Lanka and unearthed all wrecks are sunk in colonized era of Sri Lanka. Most of the wrecks are boiler wreck that built by the iron. An metal anchor and man made stone blocks are found from swami rock and Bow sections, stern , propeller and shaft, boilers, anchors are found from the wreck sites. Most of the wrecks are distorted by the treasure hunters .

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Preliminary assessment of an early historic (2000 year old) shipwreck at Godawaya, Sri Lanka

This article was first published in the “Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (2011), 35: 9–17″.  Published in with the permission from  R. Muthucumarana

A.S. Gaur1, R. Muthucumarana2, W.M. Chandraratne2, B.C. Orillandeda3, M. Manders4, S. Karunarathna2, P. Weerasinghe2,
A.M.A. Dayananda2, T. Zainab5, A. Sudaryadi6, K.A.B.A. Ghani7, J. Wahjudin6, N. Samaraweera2.
1. National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR), Dona Paula Goa, India. Email: <
2. Maritime Archaeology Unit, Central Cultural Fund, Fort, Gale, Sri Lanka.
3. Underwater Archaeology National Museum of the Philippines, P. Burgos Street. Manila 1000, Philippines.
4. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed Smallepad 5, 3811 MG Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
5. Directorate of Coastal and Marine Affairs, Mina Bahari II Building, 7th Floor Jl. Medan Merdeka Timur No. 16, Jakarta-
Indonesia 10110.
6. Archaeology and History, JI. Letnan Jidun (Komplks Perkantoran, Serang, Banten 42115, Box Office 204, Indonesia.
7. Conservation and Archaeology Division, Level 1, Chulan Tower, Jalan Colony, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Figure 1. Map showing the location of the Godawaya shipwreck site
Figure 1. Map showing the location of the Godawaya shipwreck site


An international team comprised of experts in diving and underwater archaeology from Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines participated in the assessment of a shipwreck at Godawaya, Sri Lanka. The main objective of the exploration was to make assessment of the wreck site based on the data generated during the fieldwork. The shipwreck is lying or trapped in an isolated reef (which virtually surrounded the wreck and only the northeastern part is exposed) in 31 m water depth. The observation of surface distribution suggests that the site is spread over an area of 40 m by 22 m. The important findings include various sizes of jars, carinated cooking vessels, quern stones and unidentified cargo and possible ship structure. The analysis of pottery retrieved earlier and observed during the present investigation suggests that the pottery is not similar to those found from the shipwrecks of the 10th century AD onwards. Comparative study of pottery and stone artefacts indicate a possible time bracket for this wreck to be between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD.


Figure 2. Underwater Plan of the shipwreck site
Figure 2. Underwater Plan of the shipwreck site

Background information

In ancient times Godawaya was known as Godapavatapatanahathat 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 evidence 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 Walawe Ganga, on a raised hillock and a few projected boulders might have served as shelter for prehistoric people. The river merges with the sea immediately after the site. Godawaya is a small fishing village (Fig. 1), situated between Ambalantota and Hambantota near the mouth of the river Walawe Ganga that is the fourth biggest river of the country on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. However, the mouth of the river near Godawaya is blocked by sand deposit and now the river is debouching in the sea at Ambalantota 3 km west of Godawaya. Along the course of Walawe River a number of ancient settlements and monasteries such as Ridiyagama, Mahanavulupura and Ramba monastic complex have been either excavated or thoroughly explored. There are also reports on the discovery of Indo-Roman coins from this area (Burnett 1998).


Figure 3. Large-sized jar seen on the wreck site
Figure 3. Large-sized jar seen on the wreck site


Figure 4. Large-sized jar seen on the wreck site
Figure 4. Large-sized jar seen on the wreck site

A land excavation was conducted by the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka and the German K.A.W.A. project in the last decade of the previous century.  After a series of explorations and excavations from 1994 at Godawaya some of the very significant structural remains such as a temple, harbour and an important inscription were unearthed (Ruth 1998). An inscription carved on a natural rock north of the Stupa states about a seaport situated at Godawaya (Falk 2001). The present paper deals with the underwater explorations at the wreck site off Godawaya that is lying in 32–33 m of water. The programme was jointly organized by the Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, UNESCO and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. The preliminary investigation indicates that wreck may be a wooden-hulled vessel dated to the early historical period. On the basis of archaeological findings the date of the wreck will be discussed in detail.


Three fibre boats were hired for the underwater inspection of the wreck site. These boats are 19 ft (5.79 m) long and 6 ft (1.82 m) wide. In the absence of any jetty or harbour in Godawaya, the boats were pushed manually into the sea and taken out every day. The exploration team is comprised of 10 full-time divers and 2 part-time (6 from abroad, 4 from the Maritime Archaeology Unit[MAU] and 2 from Godawaya). Two members had underwater digital cameras for photography. Further, three sub teams were formed and each team consisted of 3 divers. Two divers worked on assigned tasks, while the job of third diver was to monitor the activity and dive times. 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. Two buoys were initially placed over the site; these also served as shot lines for diver entry and exit. Using a rope with a metre tape attached, a 50-m baseline was established on a bearing of 300°. The length was then divided into three divisions that served as the teams’ respective area of assignment. All observed archaeological features and cultural material were plotted using the offset method, and each artefact 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 on-site activities and take photographs of individual artefacts. 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.


The site of the Godawaya shipwreck is situated about 4 km south-east of the Godawaya monastery and water depth varies between 29 m and 32 m. The seabed near the site is comprised of coralline rocky formation, whereas towards the north-eastern part of the site a wide area is covered with thick-grained coralline sand. The maximum height of the reef on the north-western part is approximately 1.5 m. No vegetation growth was observed at the site; however, in a few places gorgonian growth was noticed besides some marine pinkish layer on the rocks.

The measurements of the artefacts visible on the surface indicate that the site is spread in a 40 m east–west and 22 m north–south direction (Fig. 2). However, extension of the site may increase when surface sand is removed. 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 extent of the site may be determined only after thorough examination of the site by the removal of surface sediments.

Numerous artefacts were observed on the seabed, including varieties of pottery, stone benches/querns, and a large area in the north-western part was covered with the remains of a shipwreck with unidentified cargo.
There are several potsherds lying on the wreck site area which comprise two huge storage jars (Figs 3 & 4), medium sized jars, carinated cooking vessel besides a number of rims of jars (Fig. 5) and body parts of other pots. The surviving height of two storage jars was 100 and 85 cm respectively and the diameter of the rims 45 and 40 cm respectively.

Figure 5. Rim of broken jar found on the wreck site
Figure 5. Rim of broken jar found on the wreck site

Figure 8. Glass ingot retrieved earlier from the wreck site.
Figure 8. Glass ingot retrieved earlier from the wreck site.

Figure 6. Stone bench/quern lying on the wreck site
Figure 6. Stone bench/quern lying on the wreck site

Figure 9. Main part of the wreck
Figure 9. Main part of the wreck

Figure 7. Stone bench/quern retrieved earlier from the wreck site
Figure 7. Stone bench/quern retrieved earlier from the wreck site

Figure 10. Stone bench/quern with Brahmi inscription displayed in Yatala site museum
Figure 10. Stone bench/quern with Brahmi inscription displayed in Yatala site museum

Another interesting find from the wreck site includes stone benches or querns (Fig. 6). There are four such artefacts and they are of various sizes (Table 1). A few stone benches were also found attached either to wreck parts or some other encrustation. Therefore, the actual size may be slightly different when measurements are obtained after retrieving the artefacts from the wreck. The benches are rectangular in shape with four legs which serve as a base.

Sr. no. Length(cm) Width(cm) Height(cm)
1. Displayed at Maritime Museum, Galle 37.5 15.5 16.5
2. Underwater (in situ) SB 1


viagra canadian pharmacy dosage



3. Underwater (in situ) SB 2




4. Underwater (in situ)SB 3




5. Underwater (in situ) SB 4




Table 1.    The details of measurements of Quern Stone

Registration no. Height(cm)





2 0 0 8 / S L / S /  GODA/M/2/01



2 0 0 8 / S L / S /  GODA/M/2/09




Table 2.   Details of glass ingots retrieved from the wreck site

The raw material used for these benches appears to be basalt. Due to thick encrustation growth over these artefacts no symbol or designs could be noticed. However, a bench retrieved earlier by local divers has some symbols (Fig. 7) on the extended front portion.

Other important finds from the wreck are glass ingots. Two ingots were retrieved earlier and are presently displayed in the Galle Fort Maritime Museum (Table 2). They are blue in color and semi spherical or bun-shaped. As per the report from the earlier investigation, there are about 3 or 4 ingots visible on the surface (Fig. 8).
In the north-west part of the site a large area with wreckage was noticed (Fig. 9). This area is divided into two separate blocks and appears to be parts of the cargo. From the surface observation they appear to be wooden logs covered with marine growth. One block measures 4.6 m in length and 1.2 m in width. This block is further divided into 2 bunches. The height is about 1 m with at least 4 layers visible. However, the entire wreckage part has been integrated due to being overgrown with marine encrustation, thus making it difficult to identify. Another big block is squarish, 3.9 m long and 3.7 m wide, and further subdivided into four blocks. The height of this block is c. 1.2 m. The measurement of a log is c. 10 x 15 x 200 cm. The blocks appear to be the major part of the cargo of the ship. From their shape and size they at first appear to be wooden planks, but from close observation underwater the material does not appear to be wood. It is possibly metal. This needs to be further investigated.


Many ships have been wrecked around Sri Lanka (Manders et al. 2004) but Gudawaya is a very unique shipwreck and no parallel has been reported in publications. It is therefore of the utmost importance to continue the investigation of this site in order to fill in the gaps of our knowledge about early historic trade. The material found from this wreck such as pottery, stone quern, glass ingots, wreckage parts and the possible date of this wreck will be discussed in the following paragraphs.


Pottery discovered at shipwreck sites has served daily household purposes in the past, but nowadays a good way to date the archaeological sites. At the same time it is also an indication of the movement and extension of a
particular culture. Thus it is pertinent to have a detailed discussion of the pottery discovered at the Godawaya shipwreck site.

Large cheap canadian viagra numbers of potsherds were noticed during the present investigation and a few recovered earlier have been identified as Black and Red Ware. At least two large-sized jars were at least 1.3 m in height. The earliest findings of large-sized jars come from the Mediterranean Sea dating back to the 1400 BC at Uluburun (Pulak 1998: 203) and continued till the 17th century AD. Besides large jars, a few medium and smaller sized jars were also noticed. These have been very common for a long time. However, the other important sherds are of black and red ware and special mention may be made of a carinated cooking vessel. Examples were found at several Megalithic sites
in India (Wheeler 1948: 274) and Sri Lanka (De’Silva & Dissanayake 2008: 197).

Black and red ware have a special place in the archaeology of the Indian subcontinent and the earliest date of the ware goes back to the 3rd millennium BC and continued with some variation till the early centuries of the Christian era (Gurumurthy 1981: 242). However, it has been prominently associated with the Megalithic culture of South India (Wheeler 1959: 62–63) dating back to the beginning of the first millennium BC to 3rd century AD
(Gurumurthy 1981: 245). There has been debate over the firing technique of this ware. Initially, it was suggested that it was the result of inverted firing with the rim covered with ashes (Petrie 1910: 530); however, Majumdar (1969: 90–93) proposes a different view: ‘the ordinary kiln without special arrangement can only produce either a wholly red or wholly black pot irrespective of its position in the kiln’. According to him there are ways in which, under special arrangement, the double colour effect can be achieved. These are:

  1. Single firing;
  2. Double firing, when the pot is first fired red and firing it, so that the region intended to be black purposely, protected against oxidation, turns black; and
  3. Double firing, but this time, firing the pot black first and re-firing it when a portion becomes red.

Pottery reported from the site is very commonly used and might have been used for storing water and other liquid substances like oil. The comparative study of the pottery from the Godawaya wreck with other terrestrial sites of Sri Lanka suggests a time bracket of the 4th century BC to 1st century BC (Table 3).

Pottery from Godawaya


Lower Kirinda Basin Typology

Gg Anuradhapura Gedige Typology

Tss Akkurugoda Tissamaharama Typology
Comparative Dating
2008/SL/S/GODA/M/2/03godawaya-pottery-02 Form 13A 1 / Phase III350-250 BCE /page148–9 Form 3b? no ReferenceForm 4a or 5f ? no Reference Form A1-1 / Rim type 4 / Phase a, b & ci/400–200 BCE Page61/75/114/139/140-142/152/157 400–100 BCE
   2008/SL/S/GODA/M/2/05BRW plate/Pathragodawaya-pottery-03 Form 1A3 / Phase I /900–500 BCEForm 1A3 (Sub type1c1) TB/1/54,  exterior 7.5YR, 6/6Orange, interior— black, paste fine, luster—medium, ware—BRW, diameter 21cm, thickness– 5.33mm(Phase I) RS page 212/ (900–500 BCE) Form 16c (iii) 800–100 BCE

Gg page 76/77/111/115

Form G / Rim type 5a / Phase a & b /400–200 BCE Page 61/93/120/140/148/151 900–100 BCE
2008/SL/S/GODA/M/2/06Small RBW bowl/cupgodawaya-pottery-04 Form 5I-1 / Phase III/350–250 BCE Form 16a (iii/iv) 800–100 BCEGg page 76/77/111 Form G / Rim type 5a & 4 Phase a /400–300 BCE Page 61/93/120/141/154 800 BCE–350 CE
2008/SL/S/GODA/M/2/07godawaya-pottery-05 Form 8n (ii /iii) 50–200 CEGg page 72/74/114/115 Form F1 / Rim type 5 & 4b/ Phase b /300–200 BCEPage 61/91/119/140/141/150/50 300 BCE–200 BCE
2008/SL/S/GODA/M/2/08godawaya-pottery-06 Form 8d (ii) ??-??CEGg page 72/73/118 Form F / Rim type 1,2,4b / Phase a & b /400–200 BCE Page 61/91/119/140–142/ 146/147/155/159/192 400–200 BCE

Table 3.    Comparison of pottery of Godawaya wreck with other terrestrial sites in Sri Lanka

Stone Quern/ Bench

The important finds from the shipwreck of Godawaya is the presence of stone querns in significant numbers. In archaeological literature this stone artefact has been referred to as querns for grinding the soft substance for foodstuff like curry paste. Stone querns have been reported as early as the Mesolithic period in the Indian subcontinent. However, during the Neolithic and protohistoric periods the querns were nicely shaped. A large number of querns have been reported at archaeological sites in the Indian subcontinent (Ghosh 1989: 184). However, our concern is with a four-legged quern and this shape appeared some time during the 4th century BC in Hastinapur (Lal 1955) and continued till the 3rd century AD at several sites in India and Sri Lanka . Some of the important sites with 4-legged querns include Nevasa (IAR 1955–56: 10) dated to the 1st century BC, Bahal (IAR, 1956-57: 18) dated the 3rd century BC, Nagarjunakonda (IAR 1957–58: 8) the 1st century BC, Atter (IAR 1957–58: 23) and Nagal (IAR 1961–62: 12) dated to the 3rd century BC, Kundanpur (IAR1961–62: 29) and Noh (IAR 1963–64: 29) they are dated to the 1st century BC/AD. Similarly querns at Paithan (IAR 1965–66: 28) are dated between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, at Udapur and Adam (IAR 1975–76: 35–36) they are associated with black and red ware. At Satanikota (IAR 1977–78: 9) the 1st century BC/AD and Boregaon (IAR 1980–81) quern are associated with the Megalithic period, similarly at Khairwada (1981–82: 52) querns are dated to the Megalithic period. At Nadner (IAR 1986–87: 57) querns are dated to the 4th–3rd century BC, at Adam (1988–89: 56) legged querns have been dated to 500–150 BC and they have incised designs like Swastika, Nandipad and Mina, at Bet Dwarka (Gaur et al. 2005) stone querns have been found in association with the early historic period. The most interesting site four-legged quern is Pauni (IAR 1989–90: 58) in Maharashtra where a few hundreds of such querns have been discovered and most of them are broken into two. Most of the querns are rectangular in shape but a few are square and apsidal shape. They are made of different stones like sandstone, quartzite and Deccan trap. Another interesting site at Nasik (Sankalia & Deo 1955: 117) in Maharashtra yielded 16 legged querns and majority of them have one end projected with a view to let any pounded material fall into
a dish kept below the projection. These ends are either rectangular or rounded and 4 of them are decorated with a crescent-shaped incised dotted portion over which is an embossed figure of the Buddhist Triratna. Nagda
(Banerjee 1986: 258) and Kaundinyapura (Dikshit 1968) are other important sites where legged querns have been found in association with Satavahana period (2nd century BC to 1st century AD).

In Sri Lanka, the Yatala monastery (Somadeva 2006: 193) close to Godawaya yielded several stone querns with four legs and one the querns has a Brahmi inscription dated to the 250–100 BC (Fig. 10). Ramba, a large Buddhist
site on the southern Sri Lankan coast also has evidence of a quern which is displayed in the site museum.

There has been substantial discussion on the uses of this stone object and questions have been raised about why there are so many of such artefacts found at the wreck site. Let us examine the possibility of the use of this object. As stated earlier in archaeological literatureof India and Sri Lanka the object has been mentioned as a quern, and nowhere has any doubt been raised about the uses of it as a quern stone. If this was used as a quern stone for personal use, then one or two are enough, and the decoration on the surface of the front part of the stone would not be necessary. But, what about a different use? What about it being a seat for monks to meditate? The discovery of a number of such stone artefacts from Buddhist monasteries at Yatala and Ramba does support the above notion. However, if one carefully examines the stones then a few stones at Yatala and Ramba have a significant depression in the middle of the stone suggesting their uses as a quern stone. The height and the size (very small for use as seat for meditation) of the artefact does not act as a comfortable seat for meditation. Thus the use of this artefact as seat for meditation may be a weak argument. The alternate use of this artefact is as quern stone. However, a stone such as one at Yatala which bears the Brahmi inscription might never have been used as a grinding stone and rather just for some symbolic purposes. As stated earlier, a few hundred querns have been found from Pauni in India, which must have been a production centre for supplying other contemporary areas. Similarly, the findings of a large number of these artefacts on the Godawaya wreck site suggest that they were one of the export items of the ship for the destined country.

An interesting domestic scene is depicted in a sculptural panel on the south side of the eastern gate of the main Stupa at Sanchi (Central India). Amongst the women depicted in the panel who are engaged in doing several domestic works like winnowing, grinding, churning etc., one is using a quern with four legs. Here it has been clearly demonstrated that the projected part of the grinding surface of the quern is at the farther end from the woman and only this particular scene gives us an idea of the exact position in which a quern is placed while in use (Ghosh 1986: 154). This depiction is dated to the 2nd century BC and leaves little doubt on the uses of these stones as quern. As discussed above the most probable use of this stone artefact is as a quern and in an archaeological context it may be dated between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD.
Glass ingots
This artefact has been referred to in a earlier publication as a glaze ingot (Muthukumaran 2009: 21–26. It is in fact silica glass in a bun-shape. Glass ingots have been recorded from the Uluburun wreck (Pulak 1998) dating back to the late Bronze Age. However, glass ingots are not reported so often; thus, this discovery becomes an important one from this region. The first regular production of glass was in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 1500 BC or slightly earlier (Shortland & Eremin 2006: 581–603). The evidence of glass objects from this region dates back to the early historic time. Bangles and beads are often common finds from these sites. The mechanism of the use of these ingots as raw material for manufacturing bangles and beads needs further investigation. Similarly, these ingots may not independently provide a possible time bracket and origin for the production. However, elemental analysis may provide the origin of these ingots.

Wreckage remains
Though this is the most important part the wreck, no conclusive work, unfortunately, could be done due to limited working time at 31 m depth. The wooden structure at the site has not been identified, the bulk of which is scattered c. 10 m in length and c. 3.5 m in width. 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 some kind of metal. This part needs a detailed investigation not only on site but also by taking a few samples for analysis.

Possible date of the wreck

In published material, the earliest shipwreck in this region that has been investigated is in Belitung Island, Indonesia, and has been dated to the 9th century AD (Flecker 2001: 335–354). The material found from this wreck includes Chinese ceramics and has no parallel with the Godawaya wreck in respect of ceramic or other finds. Thus the date of the Godawaya wreck is the pre 9th century AD. Another reason in favour of an earlier date is the absence of any pottery like Martaban, Khamer or Islamic glazed which has been used exclusively for the overseas trade irrespective of the origin of the ship during this period. The age of the wreck is an important point and needs to be discussed in light of the archaeological material found from this wreck as no parallel dated shipwreck has ever been found from this region to date.

Pottery found from the wreck may be crucial in pinpointing the approximate age of the wreck. As stated earlier, large-sized jars have been used in ships for cargo transportation since the Bronze Age (Bass 1973: 29–38) and continued until the late medieval period. However, the shape of jars significantly changed in the later period. As for the jars from the Godawaya wreck, they have a globular base and must have been placed in a place where some kind of additional base was provided to them otherwise they would roll-down. As of now it is difficult to say if there are other types of jars present in the wreck because of the fact that major parts of the wreck are still buried. Other ceramics, like carinated dishes, may be important to determine the approximate time bracket. Though this variation is available throughout the prehistoric and historical time, the fabric of these pots indicate their association with the later Megalithic period.

At present, the most valuable and prominent finding that has provided substantial information on the possible date of the shipwreck is the stone quern. The stone quern has been reported from various archaeological sites in definite context from India as well as Sri Lanka. Stone querns appear from the Mesolithic period onwards, but the appearance of four-legged querns may be dated to the 4th century BC in many archaeological sites in India. And, more prolific appearances may be traced during the Satavahana period (2nd century BC to 1st century BC) (Dikshit 1968). Thus a date between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD may be the possible age bracket
of this wreck.


There have been reports 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 seabed observation indicates that a large part of the wreck is buried in the sediment and the extent of the site can only be determined after a 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 the origin of the ship may be traced to this region. A large number of quern and pottery indicate that these items may also be part of a trading commodity. The major
part of the wreckage needs to be identified and that will reveal the kind of cargo ships used to carry at that time. On the basis of current findings from this wreck it is suggested that the origin of the vessel may be traced regionally (more broadly 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, a wreck of this period is a lone example from this part of the world. As this is a preliminary report, the dating and cargo identification may change as more evidence is gathered during the future investigation of the wreck site.


We thank Prof. Nimal de Silva, the Director General of the Central Cultural Fund and Dr Senarath Disanayeke, the Director General of the Department of Archaeology for supporting this programme. Authors are thankful to the funding agencies including UNESCO and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. We also acknowledge the assistance rendered by Mr Sunil and Preminde during the survey work.


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Reading of the contemporary social consciousness through the shipwreck Earl of Shaftsbury*

By A.M.A.Dayananda

* This article was first published in proceedings of ASIA-PACIFIC REGIONAL CONFERENCE ON UNDERWATER CULTURAL HERITAGE, 2011, Manila


The shipwreck Earl of Shaftsbury is buried on the southern coast of Sri Lanka very close to a frequented tourist destination. It was run aground hitting on a rock at Akurala about three miles away from the shore. In 1893 when sailing from Bombay to Diamond Island the ship sailed past Rangoon through Colombo harbour after unloading charcoal. It is an iron build four mast sailing vessel. It collided with a reef due to rough waves. Six of the crew drowned and 22 survived. The shipwreck settled at a 50 foot depth. The incident was first reported in the The Ceylon Examiner Newspaper on 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th of May 1893. The value of the vessel was estimated at Indian Rupees (Rs.) 300,000 at the time. In one article there is another steamer ship reported wrecked some years previously. This paper includes details of the wreckage as are available from the newspaper reports. What happened after her wreckage was an interesting story. The time was the British colonial period in “Ceylon” (now Sri Lanka) during which time there was a growing general unrest against the colonial masters. Some information reveals that this mindset may have influenced the rescuers during their rescue efforts of the drowning crew. This paper it is going to elaborate on the story behind the shipwreck of the Earl of Shaftsbury and investigate the social influences towards the wreck site then and now.


Even though Sri Lanka is a small island it is located at a geographically important juncture which joins the sea routes of East and West in the Indian Ocean. It was used as a trade centre within which goods were exchanged and as a resting place for navigators after a long sea voyage. “This ship was built in 1883 and belonged to the English firm The Browns and Sons”(Bruzelius,1996). A metallic vessel with four masts and a contemporaneously superior ship on the company's registration (The Ceylon Examiner Newspaper 08,05,1893). The ship had often arrived to the Colombo harbour but was wrecked in 1893 in the southern ocean of Sri Lanka marking its end of long sea voyages. The wreckage of the coal-transport ship is located between Hikkaduwa and Akurala and 14 meters deep in the seabed.

Two of the newspapers, The Otago Daily Times and The Ceylon Examiner (Figure 2) reported over several days of the ship's tragedy and the problematic situation that the crew had to face after the wrecking. A minute detail of the reported facts and the way that they have been reported exposes the social background and the mentality of the social context.

Discovery and Recognition of the Ship ‘Earl of Shaftsbury’

The Earl of Shaftsbury attracted both local and foreign divers visiting Hikkaduwa It was reported by Arthur C. Clerk in the 1960s.(Clerk 1956-57:p,38) A very brief introduction of it is also mentioned in his book The Reef of Taprobane.” We later discovered, marked the resting place of the Earl of Shaftesbury, which ran on to the Akurala Reef in 1893” (Clerk 1956-57:p,38). A formal survey on this place has not been done since the diving activities conducted in the 1960s. This shipwreck not only entails historic and archaeological value but bears great significance to bio diversity as well. The ship which provides a place of living for different marine species of various colours represents an important environmental system. The Maritime Archaeology Unit (MAU) in Galle, which is under the Central Cultural Fund, planned for an archaeological exploration on the shipwreck. Archaeological investigations on the ship first started in January 2008. The second step involved basic surveying activities in March and April 2008 by the participants of the Asian Pacific Regional Maritime Archaeology Training School established in association with the MAU (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. The group that assisted the exploration (Photo – R. Muthucumarana)

Scriptorium Research Work

Research was carried out on documents in search of the facts that had not yet been revealed. The divers who lived close to the site were aware that the Earl of Shaftsbury wrecked in 1893. The fact had been further proved by Clerk's book The Reef of Taprobane. So steps were taken to carry out an archive search based on the year 1893. Nishantha Kumara, an undergraduate who came to the MAU as a volunteer was sent to search the old newspapers. The attempt was fruitful because the Examiner reported the details of the shipwreck. This ship had been built in the Leigh region in England by the firm Reimage and Ferguson. It was registered under Lloyds, the authority on certificates of quality for ships. The Earl of Shaftsbury was of the highest condition among the ships then registered under the firm(The Ceylon Examiner news paper 08,05,1893).

The length of the ship was 289.6 feet (ft.) and the width of it was 42.01 ft, her tonnage was 2079, and the dimension was 2869 ft. The owner of the ship was the Brown and Sons in England. The estimated value of the ship was three hundred thousand rupees in 1893. Out of the 28 members of staff onboard, six lost their lives in the wreckage (The Ceylon Examiner News paper 08, 05,1893). The ship had sailed to Bombay from New York harbour in America loaded with paraffin oil and coal. The empty vessel, which had been reloaded with ballast stones for balance, wrecked while sailing around Sri Lanka towards Diamond Island in Rangoon. At the time of the wreck the captain may have possessed a large sum of money; the money that the ship had earned from the goods unloaded at Bombay(Rasika,2010:p,06).

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Figure 2. Otago Daily Time 1893/06/23(Left) and The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 1893-05-08(Right)

The Present Situation of the nautical ship, the Earl of Shaftsbury

According to the initial research carried out in 2008, it was observed that the central part of the naval ship had been severely damaged. Further investigations of the ruins revealed that this was not only natural causes but also due to the activities of treasure hunters and metal collectors, who had caused the destruction using explosives. The bow and the stern sections are still in good condition and the massive iron masts of the ship can be well recognized. The ballast stones that had been used to balance the empty vessel are still lying around the ship. The ship which lies inclining on its left maintains unity from the front to the back.

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Remains of wreck1
Figure 3. The Ruins of the Earl of Shaftsbury (Photo – R. Muthucumarana)

Field Strategies

In 2008 the members of the MAU, did a survey on the wreck in a collaboration with the UNESCO Bangkok office. The wreck was measured and recorded by the team using 06 temporary control points fixed around the wreck. The site was divided in to two parts (from bow to mid-ship and from stern to mid-ship) and the two parts were measured separately. Each part was measured by using control points and the help of the Site Recorder program (a software developed by the 3H Consulting/United Kingdom). Also a base line was established covering the entire archaeological field. It was about 60 meters long and measurements were taken in the off-set method. For photographic records we used underwater digital still camera (Olympus C-770 camera with Ikelite housing) and video (Sony HC-90E camera with Ikelite housing). The expected goals were not achieved by this limited surveying activities conducted over four days(2008-03-27-29 and 2008-04-03) but they were enough to identify the naval ship as the Earl of Shaftsbury (Figure 4).

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A Sketch of the wreck Earl of Shaftsbury
Figure 4. A Sketch of the wreck Earl of Shaftsbury (Drawing from the MAU archives)

The Last Few Hours of the Earl of Shaftsbury

The ship sunk

due to natural hazards. The actual event was recorded by Leyers in (The Ceylon Examiner Newspaper 09,05,1893):

After cruising around Sri Lanka the ship sailed to the right of Colombo harbour towards the Diamond Island in the City of Rangoon. At about 3 a.m. the nature of the sea turned extremely wild and brought howling storms along. The ship was expeditiously glided forward and pushed up and down by the ferocious waves. Suddenly something black appeared before the crew who were observing the route in the front of the ship. Through intermittent flashes of lightening the crew identified a reef. At once the crew on board started shouting. As the captain rushed out of his cabin to examine the cry the ship collided on the rock with a big noise. The captain was overwrought by this and rushed into the control cabin in attempt to take the ship into the deep sea. His efforts were futile and the ship was repeatedly raised by the harsh waves and thumped several times against the rock. The ship was ultimately steered into the deep sea with the captain's efforts. The ship had been unfortunately pierced by the knock against the rock and sea water rushed in. Soon it was filled with water and descending in the sea. Before the navigators stationed in the lower part of the ship's decks had time to think the ship started sinking (The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 09, 05,1893).
Some other navigators who were saved from drowning, said the captain watched the navigators fight for their lives against the harsh waves. The waves threw the crew about as they hung on to the masts that had emerged out of water and others clasped the wreckage of the ship. “The captain was spotted convulsing, entering his cabin and locking himself in”(The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 10,05,1893) .Moreover, according to their revelations, at the moment of wrecking the Second Officer of the ship had acted immediately and been successful in launching a life saving boat. Fourteen navigators had boarded the lifeboat and headed towards the coast. The Earl of Shaftsbury then buckled up throwing all on board into the sea at about 150 meters from the coast. This unexpected incident made the tired crew more miserable (The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 09,05,1893).

There were also recorded some inconsistencies with the events around the captain. This may be an indicator that the crew itself were largely unaffected by the death of the captain. Perhaps the first entry to follow is indicative of the locals' mere dismissal of the captain, while the second entry is more emotional and perhaps more about the shocked tone of the crew.

The officers were housed by the special agent of the government until dawn and then taken to the guest house in Ambalangoda. Three days later the body of the captain, which had been badly destroyed, was carried to shore by the water. After recognition of the body by the chief officer of the ship and the rest of the crew, it was carried to Saint James church and buried with religious rituals (The Ceylon Examiner news paper,11,05,1893).

The Otago Daily Times (Allen 26,01,2010). revealed an entirely different story about the captain's death,

according to Mr. Jones, a rescued crew member of the Earl of Shaftsbury, the only reason the captain died was because he fell off the lifeboat. The lifeboat had loosened in its ties from the ship and had fallen on the captain's head while he was swimming for his life which knocked him out.

In the aftermath of the unfortunate event, (Levers,08,05,1893) records the reaction of the locals. This record is in fact a glimpse of the socio-politics at the time and is symptomatic of the Sri Lankan anger towards the European oppression.

The survivors had no other option but to swim for their lives. They swam a small distance and soon realized the European uniform they wore was a swimming hindrance. They pulled them off and swam towards the coast. They were reported to be mentally imbalanced and shocked, with bleeding wounds caused by being knocked against the rocks close-in to shore. The locals provided the naked navigators with native clothing. The surviving navigators later said that even though they requested the locals to save the lives of those who are still hanging on the masts and wreckage of the ship, they were denied with mentions that money was needed if they are to be saved. Later, all the men hanging onto the wreckage were saved by government special agents who were dispatched to the location. European suits were sent from Colombo for those officers who were clad in native clothes. The Examiner reported what a great shame for the Europeans to have been in native clothes for the whole day until the arrival of European uniforms(The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 09,05,1893).

The Names of the Drowned

Captain T.B Mayyard, aged about 56 years,
Second Mate. W.K Loyle, aged about 20 years.
Steward, E. Morentz, aged about 21 years.
Sail Maker. W perry, aged about 50 year.
Two coloured seamen, natives of St Helena and Fiji Islands.

The Survivors

Chief Mate, JL Jones
Carpenter, W Guest.
Apprentices, G.O Trofaint, O.E pokely, and Thomson 14 coloured able seamen, 2 boatswains and the cook. Altogether 22. (The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 09,05.1893).

Reported Incidents After Sinking; Lack of Humanity?

The Earl of Shaftsbury was smashed and wrecked in a period when Sri Lanka was a British colony (1815-1948). There had been no other shipwreck than the Earl of Shaftsbury to have revealed the detail of the area's social background. The thoughts and ambitions of the locals who were ruled by the Europeans and some of their behaviours can be seen through these reports. “Humankind does not always continue to exist with the same monotonous life style. Their thoughts and ambitions do fluctuate with time. Exterior influences are mostly responsible for these fluctuations”(Somarathne 1960 p,01). When studying social impacts and noting the larger context in which people conduct themselves, projects like this one, can reveal an underlying agency. To address this, newspaper records of the navigators' comments were gathered in hopes to note the voice of a colonized society. Among the reports that appeared on the wreckage the incident of not-saving crew members is the most highlighted fact. The Examiner reported that even though the surviving navigators had pleaded with the fishermen on shore to save the lives of the rest of the crew, the fishermen had demanded a considerable amount of money if they were to do so and would not otherwise. The newspaper report had highlighted that, “natives showed their lack of humanity” (The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 09,05,1893).
In my personal view, The behaviour of the fishermen at a crisis like this could never be appreciated and should not take place in any civilized society. Especially in a great society that has been nurtured by Buddhist philosophies. Yet the reason for such hard hearted people must be found out by a subtle and thorough case study. The people in that society were under true agony from being oppressed with revolutionary attitudes. The influence of three powerful European nationalities that largely focused on economic advantages, from 1505 AD fostered a feeling of loss of freedom and the consequential loss of their culture. Up to the time of the wreckage there had been no other opportunity to record the deep-seeded anti-colonial feelings. The fishermen, with the mentality for freedom, may have refused saving the navigators due to their revolutionary attitudes caused by this anti-colonial sentiment. They might have used this incident to show their frustration and envy towards the colonists. They might have thought they would have been betraying their own nation by rescuing their enemies. Furthermore they would have been reluctant to throw their lives at risk by launching their small boats when the sea had become so violent that even large ships, such as the Earl of Shaftsbury, were not safe.
The chagrin was not only visible in natives but also in Europeans. The report, “The Captain, Europeans and two Coloured men Drowned”, ( The Ceylon Examiner News Paper 08, 05,1893). highlights this, in that the report on the survivors and the dead had grouped the black and Europeans separately. Navigators’ were in local clothes until the European clothes were received and this was reported as an insult to them. All the above mentioned facts reveal that there had been a social conflict between the Europeans and the locals.


The only iron vessel with four masts so far found in Sri Lanka territorial waters is the wrecked Earl of Shaftsbury. This is an important research station for any marine archaeologist studying ship building technology. Although there are so many laws and conventions enacted internationally and locally in order to protect these monuments, there are many practical difficulties in implementing them. One of the main difficulties is to find funding for archaeological projects. We had to depend on funds allocated by the state under the national budget. So it has become a common feature for a developing nation like Sri Lanka to depend on funds from other sources. However, I emphasize that archaeological sites of this nature shall be further studied and shall be protected for the use of future generations. As a place of archaeological importance for more than 100 years this wreck site is protected by archaeological law (Department of Archaeology 1940; Department of Archaeology 1998). Besides, steps are been taken to declare this site as protective monuments under purview of Government of Sri Lanka and thereby will get a blanket coverage for the site.


I wish to thank the organizers of the Asia Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage for giving me an opportunity to participate. I also extended my gratitude to professor Mark Staniforth and professor Nimal de Silva, The Director General (Central Cultural fund) for encouraging me to publish this report.


Allen, T.,2010 “Wreck of the Earl of Shaftsbury six Lives Lost”, in Otago Daily Times 23 June Viewed 03 October 2011>.
Bruzelius, L.,1996 Earl of Shaftesbury, Viewed 04 October , 2011.
Clerk, A.C.,1956-1957 The reefs of Taprobane, printed in theunited states of America, Harper and Brother publishers,New York.
Departmentof Archaeology1940 Antiquities ordinance No 9
Departmentof Archaeology1998 Amendment to the Antiquities ordinance No 9 of 1940 (21st May 1998)
Levers, R.W.,1893 “Total Loss of The Ship Earl of Shaftsbury Off Akurella, Near Ambalangodde”, in The Ceylon Examiner News Paper, 08,09,10,11, May.
Rasika, M.,2010 Dalanidu Magazine Vol II. Akurala verele Kedavachakaya Earl of Shaftsbury, Maritime Archaeology Unit Central cultural fund.
Somaratne, W.,1960 A Modern Ceylon and world history,Ceylon publishing cooperation.