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Underwater archaeologists discovered the sunken Swedish 17th century warship. Source: Gordon Milligan / CC BY 2.0

Swedish Warships Stir From Davy Jones’ Locker


Marine archaeologists have discovered two well-preserved 17 th century warships off the coast of Stockholm in Sweden.

Last Tuesday Stockholm’s Vrak Museum of Wrecks announced in a press release that Swedish maritime archaeologists have discovered two shipwrecks believed to be 17 th century warships. One is thought to be the ill-fated sister ship of the Vasa, a warship that sank on its maiden voyage in the Baltic Sea in 1628 and the identity of the other is still a mystery.

Horrific Wreck of the Swedish Warship

The Vasa was discovered in 1956 when amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén persisted after three years of failed attempts at locating the missing ship. In 1961 the 300 year-old ship was finally salvaged and the magnificent reconstructed vessel is now the centerpiece of Stockholm’s Vasa Museum.

Exterior of Swedish warship the Vasa. (Alexey M. / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Exterior of Swedish warship the Vasa. (Alexey M. / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1625, King Gustav II Adolf commissioned the master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson to build the Vasa and on August 10, 1628, she set sail on her maiden voyage. According to PRI she was equipped with “64 bronze cannons and was the most powerfully armed warship in the world”. However, all the cannons in Europe were no match for mother nature’s wrath, and soon into the voyage a strong gust of wind turned the ship over and in view of a large crowd, 30 people died horrifically in the disaster.

Seeing A Ghost For The First Time

One of the newly discovered ships is believed to be roughly the same size as the 226 foot (69 meter) long  Vasa and the underwater archaeologists found its bow protruding about 16 feet (5 meters) above the seabed. Archaeologist Jim Hansson was the first diver to see the wreck and he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) “I saw this wall 16 or 20 foot (5 or 6 meters) high and I came up and there was a massive warship… It was a thrilling feeling”.

The bow of one of the wrecks discovered off the coast of Vaxholm (Jim Hansson/Vrakmuseum/SMTM)

AFP also said the archaeologists think the second of the two shipwrecks recovered is probably larger than the first and that historical records suggest several large decommissioned warships, including  Vasa’s sister ship, the  Äpplet, (Apple), “were strategically sunk” near Vaxholm during the second half of the 17th century, in order to create underwater “spike strips” to defend Stockholm against enemy ships.

Wood Samples Hold The Key

The archaeologists reported that they can clearly see where the timber has been cut down and with this data they can research shipping archives to help identify these two ships, said Hansson to AFP. The marine research team’s next steps will be to test wood samples from the wrecks to try and identify ‘where’ the lumber originated and ultimately when the ships had been built.

The researchers are cautiously optimistic that the smaller ship found is the  Äpplet, which after its launch in 1629 joined Sweden’s invasion of Germany during the Thirty Years’ Wars and records state that the  Äpplet was sunk in the strait off of Vaxholm in 1659. The second wreck might be the  Kronan (Crown), launched in 1632, or the  Scepter, which launched in 1634, both of these warships were sunk near Vaxholm in the 1670s.

Still Seas Hold Sunken Stories

When the Vasa was raised in 1961 around 95% of its wooden structure was intact but since then the ship has faced various preservation challenges which according to a Guardian article have been caused by the acidic conditions in the interior of the wood, and caretakers at the museum fear the ship’s integrity will further weaken over time. So, having learned from this, the modern researchers say they have no plans of salvaging the two ships as the best way to preserve them is to simply leave them alone.

The lower gun deck of the Swedish warship Vasa, some of the wood has deteriorated. (Peter Isotalo / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The lower gun deck of the Swedish warship Vasa, some of the wood has deteriorated. (Peter Isotalo / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The two newly discovered ships were found excellently preserved because of what the Local Sweden calls the “brackish waters” of Lake Mälaren. Archaeological diver Patrik Höglund told AFP “We don’t have saltwater and some organisms that live in other waters don’t exist in the Baltic so it is very well preserved generally in our waters”. And it was these chemical properties that also preserved a ship that has famously become known as Sweden’s “Baltic  Mary Celeste”.

Discovery Of The Pristine “Baltic  Mary Celeste

In July of this year the “best preserved shipwreck ever found from the age of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama” was discovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Estonia. According to The Independent, this “Baltic Mary Celeste”, was discovered in virtually pristine condition at a depth of around more than 394 feet (120 meters) some 100 miles (161 kilometers) southeast of Stockholm.

1861 painting of ‘Ghost Ship’ Mary Celeste. (Jbarta / Public Domain)

Built somewhere between 1490 and 1540 the ship masts were perfectly intact, it had two swivel guns in their ready to fire positions, a small tender boat was found still sitting on the deck and even the bilge pump and rigging were all found still in place. But, the 52 foot (16 meter) long vessel’s aft-castle was completely destroyed. This, coupled with the guns being “ready to fire” suggested that the ship was sunk in a previously unknown naval battle during Sweden’s war of independence which raged between 1521 and 1523.

Dr. Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, a maritime archaeologist working for the Swedish offshore survey company, MMT in collaboration with the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton and the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University, Sweden said the ships remarkable level of preservation after 500 years at the bottom of the sea is a result of the “very low levels of oxygen” near the seabed in that part of the Baltic.

Top image: Underwater archaeologists discovered the sunken Swedish 17 th century warship. Source: Gordon Milligan / CC BY 2.0

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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