Ancient Shipwrecks A Wonder Of 'Baltic Triangle'

The figurehead on a sailing ship. Nord Stream via AP

hide captionA figurehead on a sailing ship from the second half of the 19th century is among the well-preserved details of 12 wrecks found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Nord Stream via AP
The wheel of an 18th or 19th century sailing ship. Nord Stream via AP i i

hide captionThe wheel of an 18th- or 19th-century sailing ship is one of the treasures deep beneath the Baltic waters.

Nord Stream via AP
The wheel of an 18th or 19th century sailing ship. Nord Stream via AP

The wheel of an 18th- or 19th-century sailing ship is one of the treasures deep beneath the Baltic waters.

Nord Stream via AP

A dozen ancient shipwrecks have been discovered in the Baltic Sea, just east of Sweden. The well-preserved ships are hundreds of years old. The oldest wreck may date back 800 years.

"They're preserved as if they were sailing just yesterday," Andreas Olsson tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. Olsson is the head of the archeological unit of the Swedish National Maritime Museum. On some vessels, he says, even the masts are still standing.

At depths of 430 feet and more, the ships are too deep for divers to reach, but robotic submersibles have been taking video and photos. The images show intact hulls and even cargo — such as limestone and wooden barrels.

The medieval ship is more deteriorated, Olsson says, but on younger ships you can see structural details and equipment. "You see the wheels, you see rigging details, doors — everything is still there."

The amazing condition of these wrecks is because of the low salinity of the Baltic Sea, which helps preserve the wood. Plus, the ship worms that eat away at wrecks in other seas can't survive in Baltic waters, Olsson says.

He credits intense shipping traffic along the 30-mile corridor of the Baltic for the large number of wrecks found. "It's bordered by many countries — it's quite a small sea — and we also have the Swedish archipelago, which is difficult to navigate."

With so many shipwrecks in the area, you might call it the "Baltic Triangle."

"It's quite amazing," Olsson says.

There aren't any plans to raise the ships yet. They were discovered by a company scouting the area to lay gas pipe on the sea bed. "The gas pipe can be placed without damaging the ships," Olsson says.

As an archaeologist, Olsson's excitement at the discovery is still high. "I'm still so fascinated. I've seen many shipwrecks," he says, "but each time you see footage of a wreck with all these details from the past, you know, it's really a time capsule that's lying there beneath."

See Video Of The Wrecks

Underwater mysteries -- in Swedish.

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