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

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This article was first published in the “Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (2011), 35: 9–17″.  Published in archaeology.lk 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: <asgaur@nio.org
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


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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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  1. Figure 10. Stone bench/quern with Brahmi inscription displayed in Yatala site museum photograph upside down so make it correctly.

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