In the treacherous Great Basses Reef in Sri Lanka, renowned author Arthur C. Clarke finds a submerged treasure ship with a hoard of silver coins 


Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Hello! Before we get started, just a reminder to grab your headphones. This is a 3D audio production and it’ll sound so much better.

Mary-Rose Abraham: It’s March 1961. About 10 miles off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka. A lighthouse marks the spot. This is the Great Basses Reef. This far from the mainland, the water is clear for hundreds of feet and fish are abundant.

GV: Mike Wilson is diving in the Indian Ocean, along with teenagers Mark Smith and Bobby Kriegel. They’re surrounded by curious sharks and grouper fish with enormous jaws. Suddenly, the water becomes turbulent.

Mark Smith: That’s when Mike Wilson audibly yelled “Silver” underwater. And I distinctly recognize that sound. I’ll never forget that sound.

Bobby Kriegel: He audibly communicated “Silver.” I wouldn’t say he said it. He yelled it. He bubbled it. He gasped it. And thinking back about that moment that, it set in play an initial reaction, where we did go somewhat berserk.

MRA: That was Mark and Bobby, recollecting their dive, in a 1993 documentary.

GV: But why did Mike yell out “Silver!”? What could the silver be … in the depths of the sea … under a treacherous reef … miles from shore?

MRA: And how does this silver end up with the renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke?

Welcome to Scrolls & Leaves, a podcast featuring stories from the margins. We’re in Season 1, Trade Winds, set in the Indian Ocean World … I’m Mary-Rose Abraham.

GV: And I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan. We have a small request. We’re nearing the end of Season 1 and in the future we want to tell stories that you are interested in. So could you please help us out by filling in a short survey?

Let me tell you how to find it. Do you have your phone on you? I have mine here as well, so I’m going to go to the browser and type in And see the survey button right on top of the website? Well, click on it and that’s it.

And if you could help us out a bit more, send this link to our survey to your friends on WhatsApp or email. They don’t have to be listeners of Scrolls & Leaves. We just want to get as many responses as possible. And at the end, you can claim a small prize. Thank you so much.

MRA: We’re going to play you a short clip. See if you can guess what movie it’s from.

Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry Dave … I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?

MRA: Sounds familiar? If you guessed “2001: A Space Odyssey” … you’re right!

The screenplay for this classic film from 1968 was written by the world-renowned British writer Arthur C. Clarke. You may know him as the master of science fiction and space. He’s written more than 70 books.

GV: Fewer people know that Arthur was crazy about scuba diving! He left England and moved to Sri Lanka in 1956 just so he could dive in those beautiful waters! And one day, he found a shipwreck — which he then wrote about in two books — “The Treasure of the Great Reef” and “Indian Ocean Treasure.”

MRA: We’ll tell you the story of this shipwreck, and how Clarke claimed its silver. And we’ll also ask — to whom does found treasure belong? Is it simply “finders keepers” or are there deeper considerations?

GV: You’ll hear from Rasika Muthucumarana, who’s an underwater archaeologist in Sri Lanka.

Rasika Muthucumarana: And these writings, these books, these adventure stories, now are very valuable archives for archaeologists. These are some of the first archaeological explorations evidence, data, to find about underwater archaeology in Sri Lanka.

GV: And Najaf Haider, a historian of money.

Najaf Haider: These are standard silver coins called rupee or rupiah in Persian and Indian languages. Very high fineness, something like 97, 98% of silver and only 2 to 3% of alloy.

GV: And from Robert Knecht, an antiquities dealer and filmmaker who met Arthur in Sri Lanka in 1992. The interviews in this episode of Arthur and others are from Robert’s documentary “Arthur C. Clarke: Before 2001.”

Robert Knecht: He kind of joked that he enjoyed now being able to talk about diving again when everybody always wanted to talk to him about science and space and science fiction.

MRA: This is Episode 7 — Arthur C. Clarke’s Treasure Ship.

GV: Chapter 1: Treasure under the Sea

It’s 1951, exactly 10 years before Mike Wilson finds silver at Great Basses — that was the scene at the start of this episode. We are now in a London saloon where the air’s thick with cigarette smoke. About 50 sci-fi fans are gathered this Thursday evening.

And there’s Mike and Arthur C. Clarke. They are meeting for the first time. And they’ll soon become really good friends … bonding not over sci-fi, but rather Mike’s passion for diving.

MRA: Scuba diving is a new sport. Just eight years earlier, an underwater explorer named Jacques Cousteau invented a device called the Aqualung. It’s a breathing regulator that allows divers to go deeper than they ever have before.

Mike convinces Arthur to try diving — at first in a local pool wearing flippers and a face mask. And pretty soon, they’re diving 80 feet into the English Channel in the middle of winter. Arthur is hooked. Let’s hear why from Arthur himself.

Arthur C. Clarke: Paradoxically, my interest in diving is entirely due to my interest in space travel. I realized that underwater, I could experience most of the sensations of weightlessness, which is the chief characteristic of space flight.

GV: Clearly, diving would be a lot more fun in warmer regions. So in 1955, they go to Australia to explore the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. But first, a stop off in Sri Lanka — or Ceylon as it’s called then.

MRA: Its beautiful waters are made for diving. Arthur and Mike are drawn to it, so much so that in 1956, they emigrate to Ceylon. Arthur writes … Mike takes up odd jobs … and in their free time, they dive.

GV: Three years later, Arthur and Mike are setting off from Colombo … driving down to a little fishing village in the southeast. If you look off the coast, you’ll see what looks like a rock with an old white lighthouse perched on it.

And below that is magic! A 40-kilometer long lime and sandstone formation that’s filled with beautiful corals and marine life. This is the Great Basses Reef … villagers here call it Maha-Ravana.

Frankly, it’s a pain in the neck to get to. For most of the year, the water around here is terribly rough. Diving is only possible for a few weeks, in between monsoons.

MRA: The next day, the men head out on a motorboat at 4 a.m. It’s still a bumpy 10 miles to the reef, guided by the beacon of the Great Basses lighthouse. They’ll stay here in the lighthouse … in sweltering temperatures … bunking next to a precarious, spiral stairway that stretches upwards a hundred feet.

GV: Whenever the men get into the water, the Indian Ocean waves try to toss them back onto the jagged reef. These same waves have smashed many a ship passing through here. This reef was a veritable death trap until the British put up the lighthouse in 1873 to provide some warning.

MRA: But Arthur thinks the struggle is worth it once he dives into a fantastic fairyland of caves, grottoes, coral-encrusted valleys — and fish in such numbers he’s not seen anywhere else. Unafraid of humans, the angelfish, tuna, and groupers crowd close and the divers must push through a virtual wall of fish.

GV: Mike brings along his camera and films their dives. He produces a 20-minute movie, “Beneath the Seas of Ceylon.” It’s the first underwater film shot in Sri Lanka. Here’s an excerpt from that:

Voiceover: We’re traveling now into a submarine empire where no man has ever dived before. The sunlight slanting through the surface aims on the silver underwater camera that Rodney Jonklaas carries. He swims in a fantastic fairyland as weird as the face of the moon.

MRA: After a week, the men leave … anti-climatic, we know.

GV: But Mike returns two years later — in 1961 — along with the two American teenagers. Arthur’s not with him this time. And that’s when they find the treasure.

Mark Smith: That’s when Mike Wilson audibly yelled “Silver” underwater. And I distinctly recognize that sound. I’ll never forget that sound.

GV: Let’s catch up with them a week after the discovery … they’re just getting back to Arthur’s house in Colombo

MRA:. Mike and the boys carry a battered trunk into the house. They all gather in Arthur’s office and Mike locks the door. He turns to Arthur, and says mysteriously: “Look at this.”

He throws open the lid of the trunk. Inside, are two small cannons — their brass finish gleaming. He lifts them up to reveal what’s underneath. Here’s Arthur.

ACC: There were these strange lumps inside. I didn’t realize what they were first of all. They looked like lumps of coral, I mean. Then I could see that in the lumps, were little circles and I realized they were coins.

MRA: Silver coins … about five thousand of them. And old cannons too. The divers have come upon a shipwreck. A shipwreck with treasure … and there’s more to be had.

GV: Hold up! You mean, they just collected the coins from the bottom of the sea and took them home? Is that even allowed?

MRA: Well, that’s the same question they ask themselves … because they mean to go back and get the rest. But they want to make sure it’s legal.

Right away, Mike calls his lawyer. And they show the silver haul to the Sri Lankan customs authorities who show no interest in the coins.

And they keep checking — Arthur says at great expense — for over a year. They hire a legal expert to comb through the country’s tangle of colonial-era laws. To sum it up, there are no laws about salvaging treasure from the ocean.

GV: Then, for 2 years, they do nothing. Arthur develops a debilitating condition called post-polio syndrome — he’s almost fully paralyzed.

Once he gets a bit of mobility back, in 1963, he and Mike return to Great Basses. This time with a whole excavation team. Arthur mostly stays floating on top, peering through the water which is so clear that he can watch the excavation below.

ACC: A nearby line was secured to a bag on the bottom, which the divers were filling with silver. And to my delight, I soon discovered I could pull myself down within a few yards of the action and hovered effortlessly for considerable periods of time. Well, maybe 30 seconds.

This experience had a most profound effect. I was watching something which I suppose not more than a handful of living men have seen, the lifting of treasure from the seabed at the actual moment of discovery.

MRA: Also on the team is a pioneer of underwater archaeology — an American named Peter Throckmorton. He’s excavated several major shipwrecks including the oldest known — a trading ship that went down off the coast of Turkey in 1300 BCE.

Here’s an excerpt from Arthur’s book, “The Treasure of the Great Reef, read by our storyteller, Sumit Kumar. Arthur writes that Peter and Mike are careful while excavating, and …

Sumit Kumar: … spent at least half their diving time making maps and collecting old bronze cannons, wooden pistol stocks, rusty hand grenades and similar items of no commercial value.

But we were determined to act like scientists, not looters, and we wanted to learn everything that we could about this wreck. It was, after all, the first treasure ship ever found in the Indian Ocean, and it was our responsibility to see that the secrets it carried were not lost.

GV: Removing artifacts from the wreck is tough work. They use a hammer and chisel to chip away at the coral growths and dislodge the cannons, which are 8-foot-long. And they dig on the seabed to reveal loose silver coins.

They use an inflatable underwater balloon that has a canvas bag attachment to bring up the heavy items, such as the cannons and lumps of silver coins. Every so often, they return to the surface to refill their oxygen. All this, while ocean currents sweep them here and there.

MRA: And what a treasure they lift! All told, they acquire silver coins weighing 350 pounds. They’re fused together in the shape of sacks of money … perhaps they were originally packed that way. Each sack weighs 30 pounds.

Other items from the shipwreck include loose coins, part of a teak wood chest, a copper serving tray, the bronze cannons, cannon balls, musket barrels, two pistols … and among the weaponry, part of a lady’s earring.

GV: They bring everything to Colombo. And Arthur begins writing his books, with the chest containing some of the treasure sitting in a corner …

ACC: From time to time to reassure myself in this reality, I’d open the lid and gaze into lumps of silver. Out of this box there always came a curious metallic tang. As of iodine and seaweed. Not at all unpleasant. Even today, it’s one of the most evocative smells I know. Bringing back vivid memories of the sea and of spray-drenched rocks, glistening beneath the equatorial sun. This is the scent of treasure.

GV: Chapter 2: Mysteries of the Ship

The dive and salvage at Great Basses Reef is the first adventure. The second adventure is identifying the coins and the shipwreck.

MRA: Arthur and Mike send a lump of coins to the curator at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC … they also get an ID from local coin experts in Sri Lanka.

I don’t have any of the actual coins, but I do have some high-res photos right here. You can check out these images on our Instagram. These are just about the most artistic currency I’ve ever seen. Both sides have this beautiful, sweeping script.

I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Arthur. Of course I don’t have any of the coins. But I sent the photos to my own coin expert … Najaf Haider. He’s a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Najaf Haider: The coin specimens are minted during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled up to 1707. They have legends on both sides. On the obverse is the name of the king with his regal protocol. And on the reverse is the name of the mint.

In this case, Surat, the port city in Gujarat which was very active during the Mughal period in maritime trade. And the date which is very important. The date is in hijri, 1113 hijri, which translates into 1702 AD.

MRA: Najaf says there are no signs of wear and tear — so the coins were likely freshly minted.

GV: Let’s time travel to the early 1700s … the workers in the Surat mint are hammering each piece of silver by hand to craft the rupee coin.

The silver comes from the opposite side of the world — silver mines in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. And it’s an open mint, so anybody can order coins. A regular customer is the Dutch East India Company.

It’s a powerful trading corporation that represents Dutch interests in Asia for 200 years. Its trading network extends across southern Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.

Amsterdam is the global headquarters, and they have a second HQ in Batavia, which is modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia. The company’s shorthand name is VOC, so that’s what we’ll call it.

The VOC often exports Mughal silver coins to its other ports. Its ships carry the currency … from Surat, down the Western coast of India … a stop in Sri Lanka … then round the island and further east across the Indian Ocean to the Straits of Malacca and then down to Batavia.

Maybe, there was one ill-fated ship … and as it’s rounding Sri Lanka … the treacherous waves toss it about … it’s wrecked on the jagged reefs of Great Basses … and sinks.

MRA: Najaf says it may be possible to find out exactly how much silver the ship carried. That’s because the VOC kept meticulous records of exports.

NH: These are all available in The Hague archives and some of this material is also published in series called general missifen, in general letters and also in their day registers that they kept in Surat. If one could put this together, then one could easily document the magnitude of outflow.

MRA: So, if this ship was carrying an official consignment, how many silver coins would be on board?

NH: I would say it would be in the vicinity of something like one metric tons to 10 metric tons. 10 would be a very high figure.

GV: Wait, how big is that?

MRA: Yeah, I wondered this too and looked it up. A ton is roughly what a really large cow weighs.

GV: Wow, so 10 of them would be a huge amount of silver! So from what Najaf’s saying, it sounds like this is a Dutch ship!

MRA: Well, hold on. That’s just one of the possibilities. Najaf cautions that others besides the Dutch were traveling the same trade routes. Indian ships for one, belonging to the Mughal emperor, or Indian merchants from Surat.

NH: I have not been able to come across any particular event in 1702 in Aurangzeb’s reign which could give me a handle on this, the connection between the coins, the date and what happened.

This needs proper research in both the Mughal archival material, as well as the Dutch archival material, if possible evidence from Southeast Asia, from Sri Lanka of course, if there are logs of ships.

MRA: That sounds like a massive research project. What if we look at the ship itself?

NH: The stronger possibility, and this is also a hunch, is that if the ship looks like it’s found to be a European ship, which was quite different from the Indian ship, in terms of its technology, of sewing the planks, mounting artillery, European guns were different from Indian guns. Indian planks were sown using ropes and other devices not so much use of screw for instance.

MRA: One problem here … after 260 years under the sea, most of the ship has disintegrated. The Arthur C. Clarke team has several wood samples … a few they sent to the US Department of Agriculture were confirmed to be of both Asian and European origin.

There are a few other clues. As Arthur writes in his book … “The bronze cannon is undoubtedly English; the little swivel guns, and the patterns on the pistol butts, suggest Oriental workmanship to some experts.”

And that’s where the clues essentially end.

GV: So who’d the ship belong to?

MRA: We don’t know. And like us, Arthur wasn’t able to decisively say anything … And so the wreck rested at the Great Basses Reef … mostly forgotten. For 30 years … until an intrepid filmmaker decided to make a documentary about her.

GV: Chapter 3: More Silver to the U.S.

Let’s fast forward to the 1990s now. The Great Basses treasure is still mostly with Arthur, in Sri Lanka and in his home in Britain. But a few of the silver lumps wind up with a filmmaker and antiquities dealer in the United States. Here’s how.

Remember the lump of melded silver coins that Arthur sent to the curator at the Smithsonian? He also sent him a few loose coins. The curator trades some of those with a treasure diver in Florida named Carl Fismer. And Carl then shows the coins to his filmmaker friend, named Robert Knecht.

We know we’ve thrown a lot of names at you, but this is it, we promise! Robert and Carl. Robert loves sci-fi and Arthur C. Clarke so when he hears the story of the shipwreck, he wants to make a movie about it.

MRA: So he writes to Arthur and encloses a cassette tape with a recorded request for an interview. He sends the tape off to Sri Lanka, and doesn’t really expect to hear back. But a couple of months later, Robert gets a package in the mail …

Robert Knecht: There was the cassette tape and a wonderful letter from Arthur. Of course, we called him Mr. Clarke back then. And here was this great interview with him talking about the shipwreck.

And he had actually gone into his archives, or as they call it, the Clark-ives, and had found the original interviews that he had done after they made the discovery.

GV: In early 1992, Robert and Carl fly to Colombo to film the documentary.

RK: We arrived in the later afternoon and we went back to his compound. And next thing I know, Arthur’s downstairs, and having a chat with us.

And that began just this, just absolutely amazing friendship and, and relationship with, with Arthur, he was asking questions, and we were talking about treasure.

MRA: They can’t shoot at Great Basses as the waters are too rough at this time of year. Instead, they explore other shipwrecks around Colombo with Arthur, and photograph the artifacts he has in storage … the bronze cannon, the copper serving plate …

GV: Then Arthur invites them to go with him to England where he has stored three clumps of silver coins.

RK: We estimated there was about 1,000 coins originally in each one. And we could tell they had been first initially packed in more slender canvas bags, because you could see what we call the bag marks on the coral incrustation.

And so the coins started fusing together, and the calcium started fusing around them. Most of them were elongated, like loaves of bread that were maybe about eight inches or so in diameter.

MRA: Arthur gives Robert and Carl two of the clumps of coins to fund their documentary. And they all agree they should break up one clump and sell the coins.

RK: The other one has been on display in a minimum of three museums. One of them in the Florida Keys for quite a few years, one of them in a shipwreck museum in St. Augustine. And now it is on display in the pirate museum in St. Augustine.

GV: Robert finds it tough to sell the other clump of coins. He offers it on “Pawn Stars” in 2010.

Voiceover: Everything in here has a story and a price.

GV: It’s a popular reality television show in the US featuring the owners of a Las Vegas pawn shop and the artifacts people bring to their store.

Voiceover: Ever since I started working in the pawn business, I wanted sunken treasure. And this is the motherlode! I mean I’ve had a few individual coins come in, but nothing like this!

GV: That’s a motherlode with a price to match. Robert wants $750-thousand for the clump.

And spoiler alert: The shop owner declines and Robert doesn’t sell the coins.

The coins are still available online. You can now buy a small piece of the Sri Lanka shipwreck for about 500 US dollars.

MRA: Chapter 4: Legacy of Great Basses

A year after the filmmakers leave, in 1993 … another team of explorers visits Great Basses. Maritime archeologists from Sri Lanka, Netherlands and Australia assemble on the reef … Here’s Rasika Muthucumarana, a senior archaeologist in Sri Lanka’s maritime archaeology unit.

Rasika Muthucumarana: They went to see this place because there are a lot of records about the Arthur C Clarke wreck and one of the first underwater archaeological fieldwork done in Sri Lanka in the 1960s.

GV: The team recovers 300 silver coins, which are now preserved in the lab at the archaeology unit. Rasika himself has dived at Great Basses around 20 times. It’s a pretty popular dive spot because there are three shipwrecks close to each other.

But he says getting to the wreck discovered by Arthur’s team is the trickiest. And it looks similar down there to what Arthur saw back in the ‘60s.

RM: So no one can just go to the top of the wreck and dive there. We have to dive, get into the water from little bit away from the wreck and have to find their way from underwater. So we had a guide. And he took us to the wreck.

And there was a kind of cave. And in it, there was this big anchor and when I go near that and I find another anchor. Visibility was great. And there’s a lot of fish around that. And we were just going around the anchors and try to find any other things.

And unexpectedly, we just came to a place with huge cannons. So it was like 15 or 16 huge cannons all together and a big iron anchor on one place. And it is in between these two reefs.

And you can’t go to the surface from this place. If you see above we can see the trembling waves on our heads.

MRA: Rasika says there are no visible signs of the actual ship. The relatively higher temperature of the Indian Ocean waters and elevated oxygen levels foster bacteria which quickly break down organic material like wood.

And he’s never seen any silver coins. They’ve all been picked off by divers. Arthur’s books were virtually a map leading them to treasure.

GV: But Rasika says Arthur’s books are also an invaluable archive and have paved the way for underwater archaeology in Sri Lanka.

RM: One thing is, it kind of a treasure ship, which got a lot of public attention. And even because Arthur C Clarke found it and wrote about it. In 1960s, there were no interest in doing any underwater archaeology in Sri Lanka.

Because of this incident, the Department of Archaeology and many, many other scholars start thinking about developing underwater archaeology and begin some kind of research in this area. The silver coin wreck is very important or significant site for us.

MRA: Rasika says Great Basses is one of a hundred known shipwrecks in Sri Lanka. And he says there’s likely a hundred more.

MRA: Chapter 5: Treasure or Booty?

Arthur C. Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for the rest of his life. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 90.

GV: And where is the silver treasure, you ask? We know about the clumps and loose coins at the Smithsonian and in Florida, with Carl and Robert. And about 300 pieces in the maritime archaeology lab in Sri Lanka and in two museums in the country.

It’s impossible to trace the rest. Over the decades, the coins have been picked off the reef by divers or bought by collectors. So most are in private hands, presumably all over the world.

MRA: As for the identity of the Great Basses shipwreck, it’s still a mystery.

GV: So now, let’s deal with that rather large elephant in our story, shall we? Who do the silver coins really belong to? We need to go back to Arthur and Mike’s discovery in the 1960s. Here’s Rasika again.

RM: When we talk about the modern days, in present, it was treasure hunting. And when they find this, they take any valuable things in it. But I think any other person will do the same. If they have the diving equipments and the ability to dive, they will also do this same thing, because it’s not kind of illegal at that time.

At that time, it’s like finders keepers. There was no special law regarding those things. Not like terrestrial or land archaeology. No one given a special attention to the artifacts from the sea.

MRA: Arthur and Mike did spend a lot of time and effort trying to find out if what they did was legal. But that aside, there’s still the thorny question of … appropriation. Are the coins really booty … valuable stolen goods?

GV: In 1962, when word gets out about the shipwreck and the treasure, a Sri Lankan writes a Letter to the Editor in a local newspaper. There’s no name, only a mysterious sign-off: “Antiquarius.” Arthur includes the letter in his book. Here’s an excerpt.

Sumit Kumar: Sir, It appears that a mound of Moghul era silver coins valued at Rs.10,000, found by Mr. Mike Wilson is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. The question arises as to who gifted or sold this treasure to the Smithsonian Institute even without giving a chance to the people of this country to view it in the local museums.

Is it the Americano (sic) Mr. Wilson or the spaceman Americano Mr. Arthur Clarke and what right had they to do so? … All the treasure recovered from the sunken ship belongs to the government and people of this country because it was found in Ceylon territorial waters …

In the past, the colonialists and their henchmen plundered and carried away priceless art objects from Asian lands to their own countries.

Valuable treasures from tombs of the Pharaohs, the Palaces of Sultans and Maharajahs, taken by the shameless looters and their intellectual brothers — the colonial archaeologists — now repose in the British Museum, American Museums, and in Museums all over Europe, lost forever to Asia and Africa …

It is absolutely essential to find out whether Messrs. Clarke and Wilson have smuggled out other treasures too.

GV: Okay, let’s leave aside that the writer mistakes the Brits for Americans. But some heavy accusations here. Let’s remember that, at the time, there was no law about treasure under the sea.

MRA: Finally, in November 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea goes into effect. It clarifies that yes, the treasure should belong to Sri Lanka.

The treaty states a country can claim rights to anything off the coast within 12 nautical miles — that’s about 22 kilometers. The Great Basses Reef falls within that range.

But Rasika says in practice it can be complicated to re-assign ownership of artifacts.

RM: Legally it belongs to Sri Lanka. But how it was taken from Sri Lanka, who it is with now, and the current owner, by how he get this and as is it as a present or is as a commercial good or is it a collector’s item?

So in these areas, we have problem. It’s like the Smithsonian have these coins as part of the collection. So it was treated well. And it is in a legal situation, it’s a museum object, belongs to the Smithsonian.

So we have to deal with that as a specific way and not like something was steal from us. It was cultural objects. We have to come to, to one table and make a discussion and have to make the decisions.

GV: Rasika says Sri Lankan archaeologists have asked the Smithsonian many times to return the silver coins. But the museum was reluctant to do so because of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which lasted almost three decades, until 2009.

RM: I remember in many emails they ask, what about the current war situation and all these things because I think they do not want to give these coins to Sri Lanka. I also wrote them, and they show some interest to return them to Sri Lanka.

But as archaeologists, we only can do the basic things, make the background to start the communication with that. I think the main is government to government have to write and ask those artifacts, and we never able to get into that stage.

So still the coins are with them. And I think I also didn’t try that from last 10 years.

MRA: So, to whom do the silver coins belong? Here’s Robert, the antiquities dealer and filmmaker we met earlier.

RK: And it’s this conundrum, you know, who owns it, just the same way, where we talk about, you know, coins that were struck in Potosi, upper Peru, which is now Bolivia, or coins that were struck in Mexico City, by the Spanish. And then those coins wind up off the Florida coast here, because they were sunk by a hurricane.

You know, who owns them? It’s not a simple or easy subject. But it definitely does require intellectual honesty.

MRA: Thank you for listening. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham.

GV: and I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan. This concludes Season 1: Trade Winds. Thank you for going with us on this journey. As we’ve traveled the Indian Ocean world, we strived to tell you the unvarnished histories of people and objects — and the stories of where they come from.

MRA: Our sound designer is …

Nikhil Nagaraj: Nikhil Nagaraj

GV: The storyteller is …

Sumit Kumar: Sumit Kumar

MRA: This episode was produced by Mary-Rose and Gayathri, with assistance from Alexa Stanger, Iman Ifthikar and Sasha Semina.

GV: You were listening to Scrolls & Leaves, in collaboration with the Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.

MRA: Our thanks to … Najaf Haider, Robert Knecht, and Rasika Muthucumarana …

GV: Thanks to Robert for permission to use clips from his documentary, “Arthur C. Clarke: Before 2001.” And thanks to the British Sub-Aqua Club for use of the clip from “Beneath the Seas of Ceylon.”

MRA: You can read the full adventures of the treasure ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s books … “Indian Ocean Adventure” and “The Treasure of the Great Reef.”

GV: Thanks to our episode supporters, the Yale-Mellon Sawyer Seminar, ‘The Order of Multitudes: Atlas, Encyclopedia, Museum”, and Anjana Badrinarayanan of NCBS.

MRA: For more information and past episodes, visit, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Also, do follow us on Twitter at scrolls leaves or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. Thanks for listening!

Listen to Arthur C. Clarke’s Treasure Ship here

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