Thor Heyerdahl received a letter in his mailbox one autumn day in 1982. The envelope contained a photograph of a hitherto unknown stone statue from the Maldives archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which allured him into initiating an archaeological expedition to find out more about the people who had made the statue.
No archaeologist had visited the Maldives since 1922. Heyerdahl led two archaeological expeditions there, in 1983 and 1984, with his old friend and archaeologist Arne Skjølsvold. Øystein Koch Johansen and Egil Mikkelsen, two younger Norwegian archaeologists, also joined his team in what would be the first of several collaborations with Heyerdahl.
Heyerdahl and the archaeologists found large stone mounds in the center of almost every island they visited. The mounds contained small temples made of carved blocks of stone or coral, some built as early as 550 AD.
The expedition also found small stone wading pools near the temples with ceremonial stairs leading into them.
Stone statues, some of which represent Buddha, small stupas which had decorated the temples, as well as incised stone tiles, were also excavated.
Heyerdahl identified some of the stupas as phallus symbols.
Heyerdahl believed that sun worshippers from the ancient Indus Valley arrived in the Maldives via India and Sri Lanka in the first century BC, based on the discovery of a Roman coin from about 90 BC. The Maldives are mentioned in written sources from the Roman era – which is proof that the islands were known to exist and had been visited by people from the ancient world. Heyerdahl’s theory of contact with the Indus Valley civilization did not gain general acceptance.
The Maldives were a hub for the cowrie shell trade, which was a means of payment in ancient times. Such shells have also been found in the north of Norway. The Maldives have been a regular port-of-call for centuries, used by seafarers and traders on the trade routes of Asia that also branched off toward Europe.
Heyerdahl’s expedition to archipelago renewed scientific interest in the Maldives. Several archaeological excavations (including some by Egil Mikkelsen) were carried out there in the wake of Heyerdahl’s first digs.