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17th-Century Wreck Near Lübeck Gives New Insights Into Hanseatic Trade

Published Aug 10, 2022 6:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

Researchers from Kiel University have uncovered the wreck of a 400-year-old merchant vessel 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 held substantial sway over trade in the Baltic and Lübeck was a bustling shipping hub.

“You always hope to make a find like this and suddenly you have one right before your eyes," said Dr. Fritz Jürgens, an archaeologist at Kiel University. “This find is extraordinary for the western Baltic Sea region."

The wreck 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 remnants of a wooden ship of about 65-80 feet in length - typical for a trading vessel of the period - and a substantial share of its cargo. The vessel settled to the bottom on an even keel without capsizing, possibly because it was well-ballasted with a heavy cargo. 

The ship was transporting quicklime, an important ingredient for making mortar for stone and brick construction. It was likely delivering the cargo to the port of Lübeck from a supplier in Scandinavia, according to Jürgens, but sank en route. The team's theory is that the vessel was damaged by a grounding incident on the riverbank, then took on water and sank. 

For a wreck of its age, the ship's remains are in good condition, but the researchers believe that the site is at serious risk of degradation. Areas covered in silt are well-preserved, but exposed sections are infested with shipworms. Its timeline for survival could be as short as a few years unless it is protected. Working together with the City of Lübeck, they are evaluating options for salvaging and preserving the ship's remains. 

Wrecks in the Baltic are often well-preserved because of its unique conditions: cold water, low oxgen levels and - in the easternmost segment - low salinity. All of these factors favor long term preservation; as a prime example, when the Swedish warship Vasa was pulled from Stockholm's bay in 1961, she was still intact after 333 years underwater.