U.S. Funds Preservation of Ancient Shipwreck Near Hambantota

Schools of small fish swim around concretions of wood, iron and cargo at the Godawaya wreck site (Sri Lanka Maritime Archaeology Unit)

Published Dec 22, 2022 11:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S government has offered Sri Lanka a grant to preserve the wreck of a ship that could provide clues into the Indo-Pacific region’s early East-West trade routes.

The grant will enable Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund’s Maritime Archeology Unit to document and conserve the Godawaya (or Godavaya) shipwreck, believed to be South Asia’s oldest wreck, along with its artifacts. The wreck is believed to have been sitting on the seafloor for over 2,000 years.

U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said the grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation will help preserve an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.

The Godawaya wreck, originally discovered by two Sri Lankan conch divers in 2003, is the oldest known shipwreck in the Asia-Pacific region and one of the oldest sunken vessels to be discovered in the world. Located near the Chinese-built port of Hambantota, it includes a mound of corroded metal bars and a scattering of other ancient cargo, including glass ingots and pottery.

The shipwreck lies 33 meters below the ocean’s surface, just off the fishing village of Godavaya. In the 1990s, German archaeologists found a harbor nearby that was once an important port along the maritime silk road, in the second century A.D. The harbor was a major trading route for shipping goods from Asia to Rome.

“By documenting the important role that Sri Lanka has played as a hub for the Indo-Pacific region’s travelers and traders from its earliest days, the United States hopes to help preserve and promote Sri Lanka’s magnificent cultural heritage,” said Chung.

Preservation and documentation of the site will be headed up by the Sri Lankan Maritime Archeology Unit’s Galle and Colombo labs. Once the project has been completed, artifacts will also be on display to the public in the Maritime Archeological Museum in Galle.

Since 2001, the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has funded 15 projects in Sri Lanka, totaling assistance of $1.3 million.