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Clues to an ancient port in Sri Lanka

WHILE CAMEL CARAVANS, known as ships of the desert, are traditional images of the Silk Road, many goods actually travelled on ships of the sea. Sea transport was cheaper for bulky and fragile objects such as ceramics and glass, as well as animals and slaves. But sea travel was also very risky, with many vessels succumbing to the waves and weather, their crews and cargo lost on the ocean floor.

Sri Lanka was strategically placed, lying on the routes between the Red Sea, the Gulf and India, and those to Southeast and East Asia. Greek merchants of the first century recorded trade in ivory, turtle shells, pearls and gemstones. By the sixth century, ships from China, East Africa and the Gulf stopped to trade silk and other goods here. They waited for the monsoon winds to arrive before reloading for their return journeys. As evidence of this mercantile past, a local inscription records an order from the king that trade revenues were to be granted to the Buddhist monastery.

Archaeologists have now uncovered the port, located in Godawaya on the country’s southeastern coast. They’ve excavated its landing jetty and a stone anchor, as well as a monastery and a residential area. Following local conch divers’ discovery of a stone quern bench – used for preparation of food or medicine – on the sea floor, an international team of maritime archaeologists identified the remains of a first- century wreck, its hold filled with ceramics and glass ingots. The oldest shipwreck identified in the Indian Ocean to date, this discovery gives a tantalising glimpse into the activities of this once-thriving Silk Road port.

Susan Whitfield was curator of Silk Road manuscripts at IDP, The British Library, for 25 years. Her latest book is Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road


斯里蘭卡位處紅海與波斯灣之間,並橫跨前往印度、東南亞和東亞的路線,地理位置優越。在公元一世紀,希臘商人便已記錄了這裡的象牙、龜殼、珍珠及寶石貿易。踏入六世紀,中國、東非及波 斯灣的商船也加入了絲綢和其他貨物貿易,並在此停泊。他們都會靜待季候風來臨後,才重新上貨回國。當地樹立了石碑,上面刻有國王將貿易收益撥捐資助佛寺的頒令,紀念這段貿易史。


魏泓於大英圖書館國際敦煌計劃擔任絲路手稿策展人25年。她的最新著作是《Silk, SlavesandStupas:MaterialCultureofthe SilkRoad》

Frozen in time Wares strewn from a first-century shipwreck, including this pottery item, are testament to Godawaya’s past as a key port 時間止圖中的陶器和其他散落海床的貨物來自一世紀的沉船,見證著Godawaya村落曾是重要港口的過去

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