back to case studies

University of Oxford – Centre for Islamic Studies

The survey team on the remains of a Buddhist mound site at Isdhoo, Laamu Atoll. Courtesy of the Maldives Heritage Survey.

Maldives Heritage Survey

$620,000; 2018–2020

Visit website

The island nation of the Maldives has been an important site on the maritime crossroads of the Indian Ocean. Today, rising sea levels and the bleaching and erosion of protective coral reefs – a result of warming ocean temperatures – place the country at the front line of the devastating effects of climate change. At the same time, human threats of vandalism pose an imminent risk to cultural heritage in the country – as demonstrated by the destruction of ancient artefacts at the Maldives National Museum in 2012. Lack of documentation means that it can disappear without a record – closing forever the opportunity of studying and understanding this historically-vital node in global economic and religious networks.

The Maldives Heritage Survey, which Arcadia funded at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, works to inventory and digitally document the cultural heritage in the Maldives: mosques, Muslim grave markers, the remains of Buddhist temple complexes, and other historical structures and physical objects. The material – photographs, 3D scans, and GIS maps – will be uploaded to an online database at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, permanently preserved and made freely accessible to users around the world.

The project works in partnership with the Maldives Ministry of Arts, Culture, and Heritage, and is supported by the Earth Observatory of Singapore and the Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration Laboratory at the Washington University in St. Louis.

The team has started work on the islands in April 2018, and has already discovered some remarkable findings:

Surveying the Asaariy mosque site at Isdhoo, Laamu Atoll. Courtesy of the Maldives Heritage Survey.

On the island of Isdhoo in Laamu Atoll the team digitally documented the Asaariy Mosque, built by Sultan Muhammad Dhevvadhoo at the turn of the 18th century. The coral stone carpentry construction of the mosque features banisters that preserve remnants of elaborate ornamental carvings. The interior is comprised of ornamented coconut wood with Arabic calligraphic panels in red and black lacquer.

Photography of the interior of the Old Mosque at Funadhoo, Laamu Atoll. Photo by Heather Parker.

Detail of the interior of the Asaariy mosque site at Isdhoo, Laamu Atoll. Courtesy of the Maldives Heritage Survey.

The team identified and documented several Buddhist sites. Buddhism was a dominant religion on the islands until the 12th century, but disappeared completely after the 13th century. In Isdhoo, the team documented the ruins of an extensive Buddhist complex containing dozens of stupas and a large artificial mound, and recovered two pre-Islamic sculptures: a seated Buddha and the bust of an apsara.

Coral Stone Buddhist sculptures recovered from Isdhoo Kalaidhoo, Laamu Atoll. Courtesy of the Maldives Heritage Survey.

On the island of Gan in Laamu Atoll, the survey team identified the ruins of 52 coral-stone structures surrounding a large artificial mound which comprised another major Buddhist ritual complex. Their work on the Islands of Isdhoo and Hithadhoo has produced the first-ever GIS mapping for pre-Islamic religious sites in the Maldives.

From the nearby site of Kuruhinna on Laamu Gan, the project recovered a coral stone carved in the form of an apotropaic kala head, with Sanskrit inscriptions of Vajrayana Buddhist mantras on its reverse.

The documentation of these findings will allow historians to better understand the institutional bases and forms of devotional life on these islands during the first millennium CE.

The team is also digitizing a number of texts in Dhivehi and Arabic documenting the early establishment of Islamic institutions from both national archives and private collections across the islands.

The Isdhoo Loamaafaanu copper plate inscription, now at the National Museum in Male. Courtesy of the Maldives National Museum.

Learn more about our cultural grants.