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German archaeologists unearth 400-year-old ship in Baltic

Jon Shelton
August 1, 2023

Divers salvaged the remnants of a 400-year-old shipwreck in the southwestern Baltic Sea. Scientists hope the wreck will give insight into Lübeck's role at the center of the Hanseatic League.

A team of scientists and workers lower the wooden rudder of a 400-year-old ship onto the deck of a specialized vessel in the Trave River near Lübeck, Germany
Buried under silt for centuries, archaeologists describe the discovery of the well-preserved wreck as 'sensational'Image: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Underwater archaeologists from the northern German city of Lübeck finished salvaging a centuries-old shipwreck in the mouth of the Trave River on Monday.

Thanks to good underwater visibility and weather conditions, work was completed ahead of schedule. The scientific team engaged in the effort had earlier expected work, which started in June, to last some three months and to be completed in September.

Total cost for the project, which is being funded by the citizens of Lübeck, is estimated at roughly € 2 million ($2.2 million).

The wreck, which lay 11 meters (36 feet) below the surface, was coincidentally discovered during routine surveying by the regional Water and Shipping Office (WSA) and made public in July 2022.

"We have found more than we had hoped and are already able to draw a number of conclusions as to the cargo and equipment of the Hanseatic ship," said Felix Rösch, who heads the project. It is thought that the vessel was likely built in Holland around 1650.

A man in a safety jacket assists a diver onboard a recovery ship in the Trave River near Lübeck, Germany
Polish divers specialized in underwater recovery are assisting archaeologists in the Trave RiverImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Scientists say cargo fire likely caused ship to sink

Archaeologist Rösch said black marks on some of the cargo found with the mid-sized sailing ship suggest it may have sunk as the result of fire. "There was apparently a larger fire on deck," he said.  

Among the vessel's cargo were barrels of calcium oxide, often referred to as quicklime or burnt lime, a material commonly used for housing construction at the time. "There are about 170 barrels down there, they'll be hauled out over the next few days," said Rösch.

Rösch added that water seeping into the barrels could have caused a chemical reaction, generating intense heat that eventually led to a fire.

Initial indications suggest the vessel was likely en route to Lübeck from Scandinavia when it sank.

Crews excavating the ship are vacuuming sediment from the sea bed to uncover its remains layer by layer. Pieces brought to the surface are then being taken to a warehouse in Lübeck to be cleaned and documented.

Three-dimensional digital scans are being made of all the objects brought to the surface, and the pieces themselves are being treated to protect them from rapid deterioration. Scientists say without such measures the find would be destroyed within a few years' time.

Historic woodcut of the construction of a large ocean-going Hanseatic League vessel
A vast armada of trading ships sailed the Baltic Sea from what is modern day Russia to London for centuriesImage: Bildagentur-online/Celeste/picture alliance

Lübeck's history as capital of the Hanseatic League

By analyzing the wreckage, scientists hope to gain valuable insight into the history of the city of Lübeck and its trade relations within the Hanseatic League — in which Lübeck held a leading role for centuries.

Scientists say it is possible that the find is related to a 1680 shipwreck mentioned in documents stored in the city's archives.

Although a number of warships from the period have been found in the Baltic over the years, the discovery of such a well-preserved trade ship in the sea's southwestern basin has been hailed as a sensation, especially considering its extremely well-preserved state.

The Hanseatic League — derived from the Old High German "Hanse," meaning band — was a commercial and defensive confederation of European cities and city-states that began in northern Germany in the 12th century and flourished to dominate trade in the North and Baltic Seas until it ultimately dissolved in late 17th century.

A map showing the expanse of the Hanseatic League around 1400, stretching from Novgorod in the northeast, to London in the southwest
At its height, the Hanseatic League had some 200 members and stretched the length of the North and Baltic Seas Image: Ann Ronan Picture Library/Heritage-Images/picture alliance

Hanseatic League still inspires European trade relations today

At its height, the League stretched from Novgorod in modern-day Russia, to London. Hansa members traded in what are now Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, with Lübeck at its center.

Traders, who amassed great private wealth, enjoyed special privileges and legal autonomy not dissimilar to today's Freeports. The discovery of the Americas and the rise of transatlantic trade signaled the wane of the confederation and the loss of the London Steelyard in the Great Fire of London in 1666 generally marks its disintegration.

Beyond the porcelain, animal bones and ship's tackle found among the ruins of the 25-meter long and six-meter wide Lübeck shipwreck, archaeologist Rösch was especially proud of a schnapps bottle found among the wreckage. On it, the word "Londn," very likely a reference to the British capital and key trading port.

Despite its demise, the idea of the confederation has continued in various iterations, most recently in the New Hanseatic League — also known as the Hanseatic League 2.0. This was established by EU finance ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden in February of 2018.

Explainer - the history of free trade in Europe

AFP news agency contributed to this report

Edited by: Wesley Dockery