January 20, 2021

‘Pristine’ 400-Year-Old Warship Was Lifted From The Icy Baltic Sea

When we think of tragically sunken ships, the words Titanic, Arizona, and Lusitania flash before our mind’s eye, and this doesn’t usually happen with the Swedish warship Vasa — which was hoisted up from the icy Baltic Sea almost completely intact in the 1960s, according to the journal Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Marine archaeologists have located the wreck of a Danish warship defeated at sea approximately 376 years ago, reports the German Press Agency (DPA).

Per a statement from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, the Delmenhorst sank during the Battle of Fehmarn, an October 1644 maritime clash between Christian IV’s Danish forces and a joint Swedish-Dutch fleet.

Researchers using multibeam sonar spotted the Delmenhorst’s remains while surveying the Fehmarn Belt, a strait in the western part of the Baltic Sea, ahead of construction of a planned underwater tunnel connecting northern Germany to the Danish island of Lolland. The wreck had come to rest just 500 feet from Lolland’s southern shore, at a depth of some 11.5 feet. When Sweden finally extracted the ship from her resting place in 1961, approximately 95% of the ship remained intact, creating an incredibly rare archaeological opportunity.

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The “Delmenhorst” sank during a 1644 naval battle between Denmark and a joint Swedish-Dutch fleet

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A decisive victory for the Swedes, the Battle of Fehmarn—and the Danes’ loss of the broader Torstenson War—signaled the end of Denmark’s dominance in Scandinavia and the start of Sweden’s ascendance.

After realizing the 1644 battle’s outcome was all but assured, Danish commanders intentionally grounded the Delmenhorst near the city of Rødbyhavn’s cannon, according to the museum. Though they hoped the weapon would protect the vessel from destruction or capture, the Swedes thwarted this plan by setting one of their own ships on fire and sailing it straight into the Delmenhorst.

Multibeam sonar located the ship’s distinctive outline on the seafloor.

(Femern A / S)

All told, the Swedish-Dutch fleet sank or captured 15 of the Danes’ 17 ships. Christian’s forces, comparatively, only managed to sink one enemy ship, per the DPA.

Archaeologists discovered the wreckage of two of the three sunken Danish ships in 2012, making the Delmenhorst the only one whose location remained unknown.

Swedish Vasa warship wrested from icy Baltic Sea

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Speaking on the BBC’s ‘Witness History’ podcast last month, presenter Tim Mansel detailed how the story unraveled.

He said: “1961 in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the water’s edge in the middle of the city.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1628 when Vasa sank, Sweden was one of the great military powers of Europe.

“For 30 years, war was raging across the continent, Vasa was the most modern and powerful warships imaginable, armed with 64 cannons.

A construction drawing of the warship Fides, which is thought to be roughly the same type and size as the Delmenhorst.

(NM Probst)

“It was also a work of art, a dazzling display of intricate carvings and brightly painted wooden figures.

“But she sank ignominiously on her first voyage, only a few hundred metres from where she had been moored, by the Fifties, she was all but forgotten.”

Mr Mansel explained why Mr Franzen was determined to solve the mystery.

He added: “One man, however, Anders Franzen, was determined to find her.

“Anders was an oil engineer, but he never lost his childhood fascination for old ships, but the one that interested him most was Vasa, because of the connection to Sweden’s greatest King and the brief moment as a great power.

1:10 Model of the Vasa (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0])

“He realized that the water of the Baltic Sea had probably preserved the ship in perfect condition, by raising her, he hoped to find a pristine time capsule of the 17th century.

“He knew roughly where Vasa laid and he became a familiar site, motoring systematically back and forth in his small boat summer after summer. Mostly, he later wrote, he found mostly bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats, but finally, in the late fourth summer his persistence paid off.”

In a segment from 1992, Mr. Franzen can be heard explaining the moment everything changed. He said: “One day in 1956, I picked up a bit of black oak from a spot that matched the old documents pretty well.”

Mr. Mansel detailed how divers were sent below the surface to probe the find.

He added: “Black oak was what he had been looking for, this is what they built ships from in 17th century Sweden. Anders persuaded the Navy to send a diver down to see if he really had found Vasa, but for the diver, it was too dark. But he could feel he was next to a large ship, so he climbed up and came across a square hole.

“It was at this moment he realized he had found a ship with two covered gun decks. It was obvious that they had found Vasa and the divers blasted a series of tunnels through the clay under Vasa. They put steel cables through the tunnels and attached them to the surface on either side.”

Among the wreckage were pieces of a historic Backgammon board

Photo: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Speaking again in 1992, listeners heard Mr. Franzen relive the moment Vasa was resurfaced.

He said: “I remember that day in August 1959 when we lifted her for the first time, she had been laying at a depth of 32 meters and we lifted her up to 16 meters.”

Mr. Mansel revealed how the warship was brought to the surface in an almost pristine condition.

He continued: “Over a period of two years they lifted Vasa stage-by-stage.

“Then came the day August 24, 1961, that they would finally bring her to the surface.”

Vasa was housed in a temporary museum called Wasavarvet until 1988 and then moved permanently to the Vasa Museum in the Royal National City Park in Stockholm.

The ship is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and has been seen by over 35 million visitors since 1961.

Photo: I, Peter Isotalo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“It’s an exciting wreck,” says Morten Johansen, an archaeologist and curator at the Viking Ship Museum, in a statement. “First, it is the last of the sunken ships from the Battle of [Fehmarn] in October 1644. Secondly, [the] Delmenhorst is special because it is one of the first ships built from drawings.”

Archaeologists have recovered an array of artifacts from the wreck, including melted pieces of bronze cannons, four different sizes of cannonballs and coins. Divers took some 30,000 photos of the site, enabling researchers to create a 3-D model of the ship’s remains and the surrounding seabed.

Once underwater surveys are complete, the vessels will be covered in sand and featured in a new beach park. In 2021, the Viking Ship Museum plans on presenting a digital exhibition featuring the 3-D photographic model of the Delmenhorst.

“The ship will remain in the environment where it has been doing well for 400 years,” Johansen explains. “Then we hope that in the future, someone will find a method that can ensure that you can get more knowledge out of such a wreck than we are able to pull out of it today.”