A shipwreck from the Hanseatic period has been discovered

Archaeologists have discovered the wreckage of a sunken ship from the late phase of the Hanseatic League in Trave near Lübeck. It is a cargo sailing ship between 20 and 25 meters long, probably built in the middle of the 17th century. This wreck is therefore unique to the western Baltic Sea region. The remains of his cargo indicate that the ship had loaded 150 barrels of quicklime, possibly from Scandinavia.

For centuries, the Hanseatic League dominated maritime trade in the Baltic Sea and on the German coast. At its peak, almost 300 cities in Northern and Central Europe united in this trade and city association. The Hanseatic city of Lübeck played an important role in this. The first Hanseatic Day took place here in 1358, and the last Hanseatic Day took place in 1669. As a port city on the Trave with access to the Baltic Sea, Lübeck was already actively involved in maritime trade.

A random find at the bottom of Trave

This is also evidenced by the wreckage of a ship that was accidentally discovered in Trave. When employees of the Waterways and Navigation Office carried out a routine fairway survey using multi-beam sounding in February 2020, they noticed an anomaly on the bottom of the river. Divers then checked the site in August 2021 to rule out possible risks to shipping. They discovered the first signs of the wreckage and informed the Upper Office for the Protection of Monuments in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck. This commissioned the Institute of Prehistory and Early History at the University of Kiel to further investigate the wreckage.

In November 2021, archaeologists led by Fritz Jürgens, with the support of research divers, began investigating the wreckage of a ship lying eleven meters below the surface. During 13 dives totaling 464 minutes, scientists collected enough data and material to classify the find. Therefore, the wreck is a ship from the end of the Hanseatic period. “Independent determination of the age of the timber on the ship in three different laboratories showed that the ship must have been built in the mid-17th century,” says Jürgens. This means that the ship could have been lying on the river bed for more than 350 years.

Cargo ship with lime on board

Based on photos and videos, archaeologists created 3D models that allowed them to reconstruct the original shape and size of the ship. Consequently, it was a cargo ship between 20 and 25 meters long, as it was often used at sea as a “workhorse” of the Baltic trade. “This find is unusual for the Western Baltic Sea region,” says Jürgens. “He’s always counting on such a find and suddenly there’s one in front of him. It’s really special – for me personally too.

However, after centuries in the water, the shipwreck was heavily eroded and overgrown with shells. Mainly the wooden beams of the ship’s hull and cargo remains have survived. According to archaeologists, the ship had to transport barrels of quicklime, a popular construction material at the time. “Limestone was mined, burnt and slaked in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. A mortar was made of it, ”explains Jürgens. According to preliminary findings, the ship was probably on its way from Scandinavia to Lübeck, where it never arrived.

Video: Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel)

It is still unclear why the ship sank. However, scientists suspect that the ship may have run aground at the Trave Bend, it was severely damaged there and therefore sank. Further research should now clarify whether this scenario is true. The dives have also shown that the wreck is under severe threat of erosion and coating. Without safeguards, this historic record of Lübeck’s maritime trade could be destroyed within a few years. To prevent this, work is already underway on the concept of protection and rescue of the wreck.

Source: Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel

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