The maritime archaeology programme we have begun, and are continuing with in Sri Lanka, has generated some interest
that is pleasing. However, the work is far from over. It has aroused interest because:
(a) Sri Lanka is a small country
(b) It is a “developing nation”
(c) It had no tradition or expertise in maritime archaeology
(d) The programme itself is progressing quite satisfactorily.
The question that naturally follows is: how did it happen? What made it possible? Perhaps will be of interest to countries like ours to know what factors helped our efforts.
I must state, at the very beginning, that the most important factor was the “People factor”. Fortunately, there was a group of people who were in a position to influence people and events, who became interested in this new area and who were willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. I cannot stress the importance of the existence of this group, the commitment they had and the willingness they had to do everything possible to turn that belief into something real. It is necessary to recognize that archaeology – not maritime archaeology – forms the background that made our efforts possible.
Awareness of and respect for the past is an indelible part of the consciousness of the people. Sri Lanka is a small country of 25,000 square miles; with a written history stretching back over 2,500 years; skeletal remains linked to surviving ethnic groups going back to 37,000 years; settlement sites dated to 130,000 years; over ancient 100,000 monuments under conservation; and a state Archaeological Department over 113 years old. Recognition of yet another aspect of the heritage came naturally.
The part the sea played on the country's heritage was understood by the people. The country is situated at a major locus of shipping routes in ancient times. In ancient times there had been extensive commercial and diplomatic links with countries stretching from China to Rome. Sea-borne influences of a cultural nature has reached the country for millennia and seafaring was a matter of interest.
UNESCO heritage concerns were welcomed and appreciated. UNESCO's World Heritage programme was well-known to Sri Lankans. There are eight sites of cultural significance designated as such in the country. They are cared for in the ancient spirit that that such sites were meant not only for those living but for the people of the past and the future.
Archaeology was progressing away from monuments towards the “Archaeological Heritage” and the role of the Department was changing from “caretaker” to “protagonist”. It was moving towards new areas of study, a more scientific approach, and a commitment to training, education and public participation.
Apart from archaeologists, other specialist groups involved themselves in the new international developments concerning the sea and the heritage. A Sri Lankan, chaired the 1983 Law of the Sea Conference as a consensus nominee. Sri Lanka had passed a “Maritime Zones Law” in 1976 and demarcated the limits of its waters without conflict with its neighbours. A Sri Lankan Vice President of the International Court of Justice, spoke of the “imperative of balancing the needs of the present generation with those of posterity”, quoting Sri Lankan chronicles naming the people the owners of all resources with the state only a caretaker. Within Sri Lanka, a Supreme Court judgement supporting a public interest group opposing state use of traditionally held lands for economic development held that the state and the people shared a responsibility towards the land and the heritage. The National Aquatic Resources Agency acted to distance salvors from historic ships and began the process of drafting new legislation to protect them. ICOMOS International elected a Sri Lankan to head it and under his leadership Maritime Archaeology became the subject of a scientific committee which is now known as ICUCH. Sri Lanka has been active on this Committee since.
As an island nation, very cosmopolitan in outlook, Sri Lanka had no qualms about asking for and receiving infusions of foreign expertise. Although it had remained 350 years under successful colonial powers, it was free from complexes and even claimed a colonial fortress as a World Heritage site of “dual parentage”.
The rocky road
It was this background that helped the group of enthusiasts to embark upon a programme of underwater cultural heritage
management. Let me know trace the steps taken and the principles adhered to, which has made the programme
The correct tools
The accidental discovery of a “silver wreck” in 1962 by Arthur C. Clarke sparked interest in shipwrecks which encouraged treasure hunting but opened the eyes of Archaeologists.
- Sri Lanka began to exploit “sun, sea and sand” tourism, unfortunately making wreck diving popular.
- The subsequent interest shown by salvors prompted the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) to turn its attention to maritime archaeology.
- NARA set up an “Inter-ministerial committee on shipwrecks” to forge a multi-faceted response to the problem and a Legal sub committee to draft new legislation.
- A first underwater investigation was undertaken by a group of enthusiasts. Undertaken in a climate of civil strife it was, nonetheless, moderately successful
- At the Archaeological Department's Centenary Conference, a Resolution was adopted for the Department to undertake maritime archaeology.
- ICOMOS International started a scientific committee on the underwater cultural heritage which became the ICUCH. A Sri Lankan was President of ICOMOS International then.
- A joint Sri Lanka – Australian project was commenced, in 1992 with the objective of training a core group of Sri Lankan trainee archaeologists from a University. As a secondary objective, a data-base of shipwrecks in the historic port of Galle was undertaken. Co-ordination was by enthusiasts. Divers and Conservators were trained, a comprehensive report was published and work continued.
- Moves by treasure hunters to obtain legitimacy on a profit-sharing basis were rejected as being against archaeological policy.
- In 1995, the Cabinet of Ministers commissioned the group to undertake a rescue archaeology project, prior to the construction of a new commercial port. A comprehensive survey of Galle Bay was undertaken and a comprehensive report was published. That year the ICOMOS Code was drafted and accepted, and now forms part of the Convention.
- While the construction of a port was delayed, work continued and the construction of a Conservation Laboratory was taken in hand.
- In 1998 the Department of Archaeology expanded its powers to cover the territorial waters. Cultural heritage impact surveys were required before development works were undertaken and the development agencies to provide funds for surveying and recovering artifacts from sites likely to be destroyed.
- In 2000, discussions began for a further 3-year programme of training and exploration with the Amsterdam Historical Museum under license from the Archaeological Department.
- In 2001, November, the “Avondster” Project began, and UNESCO adopted the Convention. A Licensing system conforming to the Convention requirements was adopted.
The factors that helped Sri Lankan programme, along the rocky road, were the following:
- The belief in the essential rightness of the concept of conserving the underwater cultural heritage.
- The commitment to archaeological principles and UNESCO/ICOMOS guidelines.
- The emphasis on training a group of local archaeologists as the first requirement for a national programme.
- The establishment of an administrative and scientific infra-structure to service the excavations.
- The willingness to join hands with foreign experts and institutions for joint projects.
- The insistence that all archaeological work be undertaken under Archaeological Department license and control.
- The principled and definite stand taken against treasure hunting and salvage.
- The willingness to absorb volunteers and enthusiasts into the programme.
- The wide publicity given to the work through the media and museums, making the public stakeholders in the programme.
Although our progress is something that we, who were part of the story, are happy about we are only too aware of the dangers that
surround us. These are, alas! common to all countries like ours. One is that Success breeds Envy. It is often cloaked in many
guises – professional, academic and other seemingly innocent guises – but Envy it always remains. Another is
misunderstanding, misconception and plain ignorance. This can become a major problem when it affects persons in
positions of power. This paper began with a bow to the enlightened individuals in positions of influence who paved
the way for us. Such people are not often begotten, but all too often they fade away. My concluding words of advice
are, therefore, about such people: Find them, Care for them, and Keep them. Without them, nothing will be achieved.