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Rare Baltic shipwreck yields new secrets

Rudder blade, anchor and stern timbers (P Stencel / Archcom)
Rudder blade, anchor and stern timbers (P Stencel / Archcom)

A team of archaeological divers investigating a mid-17th-century shipwreck unique to the western Baltic Sea expressed surprise at a recent presentation about the quantity of well-preserved timbers and artefacts they have been able to uncover. 

Divernet reported on the initial archaeological dives on the wreck last September. These had been carried out following a routine waterways authority survey of the Trave river, near the port of Lübeck in northern Germany, that had revealed timber beams and barrels lying at a depth of 11m.

Kiel University archaeologists had dived to establish that the remains were those of a Hanseatic ship and that it had been carrying an estimated 150 barrels of the building material quicklime. 

The Hanseatic League was a mediaeval commercial and defensive confederation of cities and merchants that once stretched from the Netherlands to Poland, and north along the coast of Scandinavia.

Broken-off exposed pieces of the hull(Dr Felix Rösch)
Broken-off exposed pieces of the ship’s hull (Dr Felix Rösch)
Mussel-covered quicklime barrel (Dr Felix Rösch
Mussel-covered quicklime barrel (Dr Felix Rösch)

The Hanseatic City of Lübeck has now reported on progress made by its archaeological dive team, who had enjoyed favourable weather conditions and underwater visibility of 1-2m during all but the last part of their recent excavations. The biggest problems reported had been caused by “careless boaters” who had failed to observe warnings to avoid the wreck-site. 

Twenty of the 300kg barrels had been recovered, all still containing quicklime. Those timber parts of the casks that had remained buried in the sediment through the centuries had been well-preserved – not only the staves and lids but even the hoops that encircled them.

The divers’ plan to recover all 75 visible barrels had been paused when, removing sediment to a depth of 80cm on the broken-off starboard side of the hull, they found more than 100 pieces of well-preserved timber, including a section of wall, planks, wedges, frames and knees. 

Oak, beech and pine had been identified, with some charring of the wood suggesting that there could have been a fire onboard that might have caused the shipwreck. Quicklime is highly flammable.

Hull protruding from under the barrels (Dr Felix Rösch
Hull protruding from beneath barrels (Dr Felix Rösch)
Salvaging the 5.1m transom from the Baltic shipwreck (Dr Felix Rösch)
Salvaging a transom from the wreck (Dr Felix Rösch)

“The quality and sheer volume of superbly preserved wood exceeds anything we could have hoped for months ago,” said Dr Dirk Rieger, City of Lübeck’s head of archaeology and monument preservation. “We can use the finds to salvage, document and show large parts of the ship, such as the entire stern at a height of more than 5m.” 

“Individual parts of the ship, such as the fully preserved 3m stern anchor or the fully preserved rudder, which is more than 5m long, underline the uniqueness of the find in the western Baltic Sea,” added Dr Ingrid Sudhoff, head of the archaeology department. “It has never existed in this form before.” 

Block the wheel inside is still able to move. There is also some rope still attached
Rigging block: the wheel inside can still move and some rope remains attached (Dr Felix Rösch)

The salvage had also yielded “a number of exciting small finds, including parts of the rigging and a completely preserved pulley or block”, said City of Lübeck underwater archaeologist and project leader Dr Felix Rösch. “Also very interesting is a brandy bottle, which probably comes from London and found its way to Lübeck on the sunken ship. 

Brandy or rum bottle, possibly from a London tavern
Brandy or rum bottle, likely to have come from a London tavern (Dr Felix Rösch)

“Many of these small finds tell us multi-faceted stories about life on board and the journeys the crews took. We have found more than we had hoped for.” Other artefacts included a wine bottle; high-quality Faience ceramic dishes; simple cooking and eating utensils, some with food residues; a leather pouch and animal bones.

Fayence plate fragment, high quality tableware
Faience plate fragment (Dr Felix Rösch)
Malhornware piece of decorated reddish tableware from bowl
Piece of a Malhornware decorated bowl (Dr Felix Rösch)
A small and large fragmented pipkin, standard cooking pots
Pieces of small and large pipkin cooking pots (Dr Felix Rösch)

The ship sank with its bow pointing towards Lübeck and is thought to have been arriving from Scandinavia. With both sides of the stern revealed, the length of the keel was estimated at 17-18m, suggesting a ship 20-23m long. 

A 5.1m transom that would have served as a substructure for the deck-planks indicated that the ship’s beam would have been 5.5-6m. Such medium-sized traders have been found in the Baltic before but only in the eastern part of the sea.

As the salvage continued, 3D scans and conservation of the recovered barrels and timber was being carried out as well as tree-ring dating, for which the results are awaited.

Also on Divernet: Divers date unique Baltic shipwreck, Divers reveal 1495 shipwreck's spicy secrets, Divers ID 17th-century Baltic wrecks, Vrak Divers Find 10 More Baltic Wrecks, 6 Historic Wrecks ID’d For Diver Trail, Exploring Baltic Shipwrecks In Sweden

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