Maldivian Archaeology

  • Mirani LitsterEmail author
Living reference work entry


The Maldives are an archipelago located centrally in the northern Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka and India (see Fig. 1). The occupation history is layered, largely because the Maldives acted as a historical waypoint for seafarers traveling across the Indian Ocean (Maloney 2013; Mohamed 2005). Investigations into the material remains of past occupation were initiated in the mid-1800s, through a series of antiquarian investigations. Archaeology during the early 1900s tended to focus on establishing the nature of a pre-existing Buddhist occupation phase, with more recent investigations establishing the role of the islands within past globalizations (Litster 2016) and the export of cowry shell money (Haour et al. 2016, 2017; Mikkelsen 2000). This encyclopedia entry focuses on the archaeological research undertaken in the Maldives, concentrating on the historical development of the discipline in the region.
Fig. 1

Location of the Maldives in the Central Indian Ocean. (Source: CartoGIS ANU, modified by Mirani Litster)


The archaeology of the Maldives concerns the islands situated on the middle portion of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge in the Indian Ocean. This archipelago includes a double row of coral atolls from Seenu Atoll in the south to Haa Alifu Atoll in the north (Naseer and Hatcher 2004; Fig. 1). The Maldives are comprised of over 1200 low-lying individual mid- to late Holocene reef islands, with a total surface area of >4500 km2 and c. 20 distinct atolls. The climate is monsoonal, with two distinct periods, including the southwest monsoon (wet season) from April to November, with the northeast monsoon prevailing from November to March (dry season) (Woodroffe 2005:127).

The population (locally known as Divehi, meaning “islander”) have historically relied on maritime trade, owing to their depauperate resource base (Romero-Frías 1999). Most famously, the Maldives are known for the historical export of Monetaria moneta shells – or cowry shell money (Haour et al. 2016, 2017; Hogendorn and Johnson 1986). The contemporary population adheres to Islam, which was introduced in AD 1153. In 1836 Lieutenants Christopher and Young presented an argument for a pre-existing Buddhist phase based on two observations—the first involved the suggestions of a Sri Lankan Buddhist priest, who claimed there existed religious structures in the atolls. These did and do exist; however, many of these Buddhist structures were intentionally covered when Islam was introduced (Bell 1940; see Fig. 2). Secondly, a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) was present in Malé – these trees are sacred and often found associated with Buddhist monasteries (Bell 1940: 140).
Fig. 2

A covered Buddhist site in the Central Maldives. (Source: Kon-Tiki Museum)

Historical Background

The early period of research in the Maldives was defined by antiquarianism, theft, and vandalism. Attention was focused on objects (“relics”) recovered from the coral stone boxes (“reliquaries”) found within stupas (Buddhist structures which are referred to as haviththa in the southern Maldives and gafuuni in the northern Maldives) and carved coral stone statues (e.g. Gippert 2015). The uncontrolled nature of the early excavations also resulted in a lack of contextual information, which is further problematized by incomplete or missing excavation records.

The first recorded excavations were conducted by Divehi in 1848 on Landhoo Island in Noonu Atoll. These investigations focused on an earth-covered haviththa, containing a reliquary holding copper and/or gold discs, which were subsequently “melted down or thrown into the sea” (Forbes 1987:282). Major historical studies during this phase included toponymic research and also the work of CW Rosset in 1886 (Rosset 1887) and Stanley Gardiner in 1900 (Gardiner 1904). Gardiner’s extensive investigation of Buddhist monuments in the southern atolls was the first major contribution toward understanding the early phase of occupation in the Maldives, with Bell (1940: 110) commenting that Gardiner’s contribution “[built] better than he knew.”

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (HCP Bell) visited the Maldives in 1879, 1920, and 1922, during which time he attempted to consolidate previous interpretations of the pre-Islamic phase of occupation. Bell’s research resulted in two seminal compendia on the archipelago: The Maldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology, and Epigraphy (1940) and The Maldive Islands: An Account of the Physical Features, History, Inhabitants, Productions, and Trade (1882). The monograph on the history, archaeology, and epigraphy documented Bell’s surveys of Buddhist sites in the south, including further investigations at Landhoo Island, a small Buddhist monastery site (vihara) in Seenu Atoll and the remains of a stupa on Fuvahmulah Island in Gnaviyani Atoll. Bell also investigated a stupa and a larger Buddhist monastery complex on Gan Island in Laamu Atoll (Forbes 1987:283). The latter investigation revealed a major center of Buddhism in the area, with Bell (1940) seeing parallels between the site and Buddhist structures in Sri Lanka.

During the 1940s–1950s, four Buddhist sites were investigated by local Divehi. The first excavation was undertaken in 1948 by Adam Nasir Maniku on Fuvahmulah Island in Gnaviyani Atoll; two investigations were conducted in 1958 by Muhammad Ismail Didi on Toddhoo and Kinbidu Islands. In 1959, a fourth investigation took place on Ariadhoo Island, also by Didi (Forbes 1987). Within the reliquary of the Toddhoo stupa, a Roman denarius was found, dating to approximately 90 BCE. This was photographed, but later “lost” in Malé (Forbes 1984: 53). Didi’s 1959 excavation returned an apparent Hindu siva linga manufactured on coral stone – however, the object was not retained for further analysis, so this remains unconfirmed.

During 1962, construction works in the capital Malé resulted in the unintentional discovery of four coral stone heads carved to depict aggressive fanged expressions. The coral stone statues were placed and stored in the National Museum in Malé; where they were subsequently destroyed by extremists in 2012 (Bajaj 2012; Proctor 2012). Two of the carved coral stones were described as Hindu objects – four-sided Hindu siva linga (Forbes 1987: 286). These discoveries influenced arguments for a pre-Islamic Hindu influence in the archipelago; however, scholars have subsequently argued that these are Buddhist guardian figures (Romero-Frías 1999).

A Danish social scientist and botanist, Nils Finn Munch-Petersen, conducted research in the southern Maldives first in 1974 and then in 1977–1981. From his surveys, Munch-Petersen put forward a “rather sketchy” portrayal of the Buddhist period, suggesting that taro cultivation might have been associated with this phase (Munch-Petersen 1982). Other research conducted in the 1970s included a study of trade wares by archaeologist Jon Carswell of the Ashmolean Museum. Carswell excavated in Malé, which returned a quantity of ceramics. Carswell contextualized their presence within the broader Indian Ocean context, especially the abundance of Chinese trade wares. These sherds are now housed at the Ashmolean Museum (Carswell 1975-1977: 144).

The 1980s saw an increasingly more controlled approach to excavation, although remained focused on investigations of early Buddhist period sites. Led by Thor Heyerdahl, the Kon-Tiki Museum, Maldivian government, and the University of Oslo conducted joint excavations from 1981 to 1984 (Skjølsvold 1991: 1). These investigations resulted in the first radiocarbon dates obtained from archaeological investigations in the Maldives. Marine shell samples were dated from Nilandhoo Foamathi (Faafu Atoll), and one bone sample was sent for radiocarbon analysis from Gamu Haviththa (Gan Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll; see Fig. 3). A date from Nilandhoo Foamathi of 660–740 CE established a base chronology for the occupation of the islands; however, the samples from Gamu Haviththa contained insubstantial bone collagen. Soon after, in 1986–1987 the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) directed excavations in the Maldives, which did not return any radiocarbon dates and focused on the presence of ceramics.
Fig. 3

Investigating the Haviththa from Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll (Southeastern Clearance during 1983). (Source: Kon-Tiki Museum)

The first major excavations were conducted during 1996–1998 by Professor Egil Mikkelsen from the University of Oslo (Mikkelsen 2000). Mikkelsen was also present for the previous investigations directed by Heyerdahl. During these excavations Mikkelsen obtained 20 dates from a monastery (vihara) known as Kuruhinna Tharaagandu (Kaashidhoo Island in Kaafu Atoll), which ranged between 40 BCE and 115 CE (T-13183) and 1260 and 1340 CE (T-13667) (see Litster 2016 for a discussion of chronologies).

More recent research conducted by Litster (2016) focused on the role of remote islands in past globalizations. This research was part of a larger Australian Research Council-funded project Crossing the Green Sea and involved a reassessment of the previously excavated materials by both Mikkelsen and Heyerdahl (e.g., Fig. 4). The University of East Anglia directed the Leverhulme Trust-funded Cowrie Shells: An Early Global Commodity from 2015 to 2018, which concentrated on aspects of cowry shell trade (Haour et al. 2016, 2017). Through this project, the first formally trained Maldivian archaeologist – Shiura Jaufar – will complete her PhD. Most recently, in 2018, a team directed by Dr Michael Feener, based at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (Feener 2018), have begun to conduct a series of surveys throughout the Maldives in order to document cultural heritage locations to assist with conservation of tangible heritage in the archipelago.
Fig. 4

Sassanian Islamic Ware (Bodu Haviththa Surface). (Photo Credit: Michelle Langley. From Litster 2016: 143)

Key Issues/Current Debates

A major discussion in Maldivian archaeology includes the source and timing of initial colonization, with the most widely accepted model involving an early migration from South Asia – from Sri Lanka. Thor Heyerdahl’s claims that sun “worshippers” from the Indus Valley had settled in the Maldives have been widely denounced. He based this argument on the discovery of the Roman Denarius discovered on Toddhoo (Heyerdahl 1987). The oldest charcoal dates have derived from the central atolls, on a piece of Cocos nucifera shell from the Nilandhoo Foamathi site dating to 249–393 cal. CE (95.4%) (Wk-30394) thus representing the terminus ante quem for occupation (Litster 2016).

The destruction of cultural heritage in the Maldives is an issue of major concern. In addition to a serious lack of conservation programs in the archipelago, there have been ongoing issues with the destruction of early period Buddhist sites and objects. This has become more obvious recently – on the day ex-President Mohamed Nasheed resigned in 2012, approximately seven men entered the National Museum in Malé and vandalized approximately 30 Buddhist statues. Naseema Mohammed, a prominent Maldivian historian, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that these actions contributed to a significant loss “[as] there was [already] very little left” prior to this, as many other Buddhist objects not in the museum had already been damaged or lost. Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, ex-minister of Islamic affairs in the Maldives, was also quoted in the New York Times, “this is our heritage, and it has to be protected for future generations,” and these Buddhist statues (as with all “ancient figures”) were not constricted to the same regulations as other idols under current Maldivian law. The New York Times reports that there is no way that the “nation’s archaeological legacy [can] be recouped” (Bajaj 2012).

International Perspectives

Since the 1980s, three major research groups outside of locally based Maldivian researchers have focused on varied aspects of the archaeology of the islands. These have been from Norway, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Norwegian research involved collaborations with the Maldivian government. This included the early work by Thor Heyerdahl (1983–1984) and Egil Mikkelsen’s more extensive excavations in the 1990s. Both approaches adopted a culture history methodology, with a focus on understanding early colonization, contacts, and cultural transformations.

Australian research followed and included the Australian Research Council-funded project Crossing the Green Sea, directed by Atholl Anderson (Anderson et al. 2018). The research program followed a processual approach and aimed to find clear evidence of human occupation in Madagascar, the Seychelles, Chagos, and the Maldives, therefore renewing understandings of transoceanic movement across the Indian Ocean. Litster (2016) investigated the Maldivian component of this project and reassessed the earlier work of Heyerdahl (Skjølsvold 1991) and Mikkelsen (2000).

Research from the United Kingdom has included the University of East Anglia’s Leverhulme-funded project Cowrie Shells: An Early Global Commodity (2015–2018). This was directed by Anne Haour and investigated cowry trade, with a focus on both the Maldives and West Africa. This project involved extensive archaeological and ethnographic investigations (Haour et al. 2016, 2017). Since 2018, Michael Feener, of the University of Oxford, has directed the Maldives Heritage Survey, which aims to record the tangible cultural heritage of the Maldives in danger, including Islamic and Buddhist structures and physical objects. The main methods include 3D terrestrial scanning, GIS, and digital photography (Feener 2018).

Future Directions

As previously outlined, the archaeological investigations from the 1980s onward have been essential in establishing baseline chronologies and piecing together an understanding of the early occupation of the islands. During this phase of research, archaeology focused on a direction of more controlled methods and on material culture not directly associated with religious monuments, including ceramics, beads, burials, and faunal remains (Haour et al. 2016, 2017; Mikkelsen 2000); however, further investigations still need to be undertaken to refine and contribute to the occupation chronology of the islands – particularly in the northern- and southernmost atolls. Additionally, a regional ΔR needs to be established for the Maldives to support marine shell dating, as the current closest value derives from Southern India (Southon et al. 2002). This will not only better refine our understanding of cowry shell export but also the timing of occupation.

Furthermore, while antiquarian approaches have since been supplanted by archaeological investigations, theft and vandalism are still issues today, as exemplified by the destruction of a large number of Buddhist statues at the National Museum in Malé in 2012 (Bajaj 2012; Mohamed and Tholal 2010). The Maldives became a State Party to the World Heritage Convention on the 22nd of May 1986; however, no sites in the archipelago have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. One serial listing was entered onto the Tentative List in 2013, which was the “Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives” (UNESCO 2013). These were argued to represent a “unique example in the Indian Ocean of an outstanding form of fusion coral stone architecture” (UNESCO 2013); however, these mosques were never inscribed on the World Heritage List as a cultural property. Fortunately, this urgent need to rectify the lack of heritage conservation and recording has been noticed and is the focus of a recent survey program in the atolls (Feener 2018).



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Further Reading

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Archaeology and Natural HistoryCollege of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia