17th century shipwreck near Lübeck gives new insight into Hanseatic trade
Researchers from the University of Kiel have discovered the wreckage of a 400-year-old merchant ship at the bottom of a river near the German port of Lübeck. It dates back to the late Hanseatic period, when a consortium of German merchants wielded considerable influence over trade in the Baltic and Lübeck was a bustling maritime hub.
“You always hope to make a discovery like this and suddenly you have one in front of your eyes,” said Dr Fritz Jürgens, an archaeologist at the University of Kiel. “This discovery is extraordinary for the Western Baltic Sea region.”
The wreckage was first spotted by the Kiel-Holtenau Waterways and Shipping Authority during a routine survey, and Dr Jürgens’ team got the call to investigate. They found the remains of a wooden ship about 65 to 80 feet long – typical of a trading vessel of the time – and a substantial part of its cargo. The vessel landed on the bottom on an even keel without capsizing, possibly because she was well ballasted with heavy cargo.
The ship was carrying quicklime, an important ingredient for making mortar for stone and brick construction. According to Jürgens, he was probably delivering the cargo to the port of Lübeck from a supplier in Scandinavia, but sank en route. The team’s theory is that the vessel was damaged by a grounding incident on the shore, then took on water and sank.
For a wreck of its age, the remains of the ship are in good condition, but researchers believe the site is at serious risk of degradation. The silt-covered areas are well preserved, but the exposed sections are infested with shipworms. Its survival time could be as short as a few years unless it is protected. Together with the city of Lübeck, they are evaluating recovery and preservation options for the remains of the ship.
Baltic shipwrecks are often well preserved due to its unique conditions: cold water, low oxygen levels and – in the easternmost segment – low salinity. All of these factors favor long-term preservation; for example, when the Swedish warship Vasa was removed from Stockholm Bay in 1961, it was still intact after 333 years under water.