Underwater Archaeology
Underwater Archaeology

Ceylon, where I have lived since 1956, is almost a virgin territory for the underwater archaeologist. My partner, Mike Wilson, and I first became aware of this when skin-diving off the great harbor of Trincomalee, on the east coast of the island. We were exploring some two hundred yards from a precipitous headland known as Swami Rock, which for three thousand years (according to local legend) had been the site of a Hindu temple. Although we knew nothing of the history of the place at the time of our first visit, we soon became aware that there was something peculiar about the sea-bed over which we were swimming. Huge blocks of stone were scattered in every direction and, though overgrown with weeds and barnacles, many had a curiously artificial appearance. At first we decided that this must be an illusion; the action of the sea can sometimes carve rocks into surprisingly symmetrical patterns. But presently we had unmistakable evidence that beneath us was the work of man, not of nature.

The capital of a stone doorway, badly eroded but perfectly recognizable, lay in the jumbled chaos of rocks. Beside it was a broken column, its square ends bearing on each face a lotus-petal design not unlike the Tudor Rose. As our eyes grew more skilled in interpreting what we saw, other regularities began to make themselves apparent. The ruins of some great building had been scattered along the sea-bed, where they lay in hopeless confusion. The water at the foot of the headland was quite shallow; where we were diving it was nowhere more than fifteen feet deep, and most of the broken masonry lay only about five feet below the surface.

It was not until some weeks later, when we were back in Colombo, that we learned the history of Swami Rock from Dr. W. Balendra, who has been largely responsible for the erection of the modern temple and has made the place a subject of special study.

The destruction of the temple began on the Hindu New Year’s Day , 1624, when Portuguese soldiers disguised as priests mingled with the worshippers and so entered the sacred precincts. They waited until the temple was deserted by the New Year’s Day crowds, who followed a procession down the hill and left only a few priests on Swami Rock. Then the plundering started; probably all those left in the temple were killed, and in a few hours the accumulated treasure of almost two thousand years was looted. The Konesar Temple–to give it its proper name–was one of the richest in Asia. It must have contained a fortune in gold, pearls, and precious stones, and though the Portuguese must have captured most of this wealth, they did not get it all–as was demonstrated three hundred years later.

In 1950, some workmen were digging a well in Trincomalee when they came across metal about a yard below the surface. Further excavations revealed the statues of three Hindu gods, which were handed over to the authorities–not, one imagines, without some reluctance, for they comprised more than a hundred pounds’ weight of gold and copper alloy.

Further inquiries revealed that two other statues had been unearthed some months previously without the Archaeological Commission or the local authorities being any the wiser. All that Dr. Balendra’s brocheure Trincomalee Bronzes says on the subject is that “Persistent search was made for these finds… and they were ultimately handed over to the Chairman of the Committee appointed to restore the temple.” This discreet statement, one cannot help thinking, leaves a great deal unsaid.

The five statues which now stand in the new temple are among the finest examples of Hindu bronze sculpture known to exist. In particular, the seated figure of Siva, which dates form about the 10th century A.D., is regarded as a masterpiece.

It is easy to guess how these statues escaped the attentions of the Portuguese. During the looting of the temple, the priests must have seized the most sacred images and buried them were they hoped they would not be discovered. They were found, in fact, about five hundred yards from the temple, and one must needs think that it would be most interesting to go over the rest of Swami Rock with a metal detector.

Although we have dived in this area on many occasions since 1956, we have never carried out a full-scale investigation, which would be impossible without heavy lifting gear. In any event, our attention was diverted elsewhere when, in 1958, Mike Wilson started operations on a remote and dangerous reef some seven miles from the south coast of Ceylon. The Great Basses reef, as it is called (Basses is a corruption of the Portuguese baxios, meaning shoal) consists of a line of rocks several miles long which lie just below the surface of the water. One larger rock, approximately the size of a tennis court, is about a yard above the waterline and is surrounded by a fine lighthouse built by the British in 1870. While he was exploring this area in March 12961 with two young American boys, Mark Smith and Bobby Kriegel, Mike Wilson discovered a small bronze gun lying on the sea-bed which indicated the presence of a nearby wreck. A larger cannon, partially buried in coral, was then discovered, and almost immediately the divers realized that silver coins were scattered all around the area. Although they had no suitable tools, they were able to chip out about 120 pounds of silver from the sea-bed and bring this back to shore, together with two small bronze guns.

The coins were identified by Commander Mendel Peterson of the U.S. National Museum as Surat rupees. Most appeared to be in mint condition. All bore the same date, A.H. 1113 (A.D. 1702) and most of them were in lumps of 1000, still in the shape of the bags into which they had been counted and packed (later we were able to discover fragments of the sacking of these bags). Owing to various vicissitudes, it was two years before we could return to the site, but in late 1963 Mike Wilson, Rodney Jonklaas ( the well-known Ceylonese diver-naturalist), and myself were able to organize a more elaborate expedition. We were exceedingly fortunate in having with us Peter Throckmorton, who flew out from Greece to join us.

Despite many difficulties and considerable dangers, not the least those caused by the tremendous surge over the reef which often tore the divers from their positions, a survey of the site was carried out and a good deal of material recovered.  Throckmorton was able to make quite an accurate plan of the wreck, and we obtained sample material which is now being studied, and which we hope will eventually identify this wreck. So far, we have salvaged about 350 pounds of coins, but Peter Throckmorton estimates that at least a ton still remains on the site. (We have found records indicating that ships of this period carried up to five tons of silver on trading missions!)

The efforts of our small-scale expedition, limited by troubles with our boat and the short diving period between monsoons, barely scratched this fascinating site. We are now taking steps, in cooperation with the Ceylon Archaeological Department, to safeguard this site legally so that only authorized expeditions can operate on it.

From its geographical position it is obvious that Ceylon must be surrounded by thousands of wrecks, accumulated over centuries of seafaring. Of course, most of the ancient ones will have disintegrated and will be completely buried beneath coral and debris, beyond any hope of recovery. It is only by an extraordinary series of coincidences that we stumbled upon the Great Basses wreck. I would like to end by mentioning one other fascinating prospect. In 1885 the P&O liner INDUS, steaming south from Madras to Colombo, went aground on a shoal known as Mullaittivu, fifty miles north of Trincomalee. There was no loss of life, but none of the cargo could be saved–and among that cargo was a collection of the finest works of art from the stupa of Bharut (2nd century B.C.). These had been specially selected by the Director of Indian Archaeology, General Cunningham, and today they would be priceless. However, we know that salvage operations were conducted on the wreck at the time and it is possible that these statues were recovered. Until this is cleared up, it is obviously not worth making any plans for investigating the INDUS. If anybody has any information on this matter, we would be glad to hear it.