A local shipping authority recently found a 375-year-old shipwreck nearly 36 feet beneath the surface of the Trave River in northern Germany. A team of researchers spent eight months studying the wreck, determining that 150 barrels of cargo went down with the Hanseatic ship.
“Independent dating of the ship’s timbers in three different laboratories revealed that the ship must have been constructed in the mid-17th century,” said Fritz Jürgens, an archaeologist at Kiel University in Germany and whose team examined the wreck, in a university release. “You always hope to make a find like this and suddenly you have one right before your eyes.”
Jürgens added that the ship’s cargo was quicklime, which was used for making mortar and plaster for construction. Initial analysis of the wreck indicated that the ship ran aground on one of the river’s bends, and the damage from the event sank the vessel, where it was forgotten until now.
The ship was found during routine measurements of the river by the local waterway and shipping authority. Workers with the authority detected an anomaly at the river bottom using a multibeam echosounder, a type of sonar used to map out the bottoms of waterways.
All that’s left of the vessel are some of its wooden beams—covered in mussels—and the lime cargo. The archaeologists calculated that the ship was between 65 and 82 feet long. That would’ve made it a medium-sized cargo ship in its day, the sort of ship that drove trade on the Baltic Sea.
Though the wreck is mostly wood—and therefore not of particular interest to salvagers, who plunder wrecks for scrap—it faces other threats. According to the release, the 13 dives to the wreck revealed that the timbers and exposed cargo were at risk of erosion. Some sections of the wreck were infested with shipworm, a group of mollusks known for their consumption of wooden vessels and wharves.
That’s not entirely surprising, as the wreck sits at the bottom of a busy shipping channel. It’s a far cry from the pristine waters of the Weddell Sea, where the immaculately preserved British ship Endurance was found this year after being lost for over a century. The erosion and rampant shipworm infestation may explain why all that’s left of the German cargo ship are a few timbers and its lime cargo.
Generally, the less oxygen there is in the water, the more intact shipwrecks are, as organic material doesn’t degrade as quickly. That’s why the world’s oldest-known intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old, 75-foot-long Greek merchant ship, sits mostly intact at the bottom of the Black Sea.
The archaeological team is working with the City of Lübeck and other institutions to protect the record; among the group’s considerations is salvaging the wreck and preserving its remains above water, where their condition can be better managed.