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Lübeck: A barrel is recovered from the wreck of a centuries-old cargo sailing ship in the Trave

Photo: Markus Scholz / dpa

In the mouth of the Trave near Lübeck, experts began on Monday with the salvage of an approximately 400-year-old cargo sailor from the late days of the Hanseatic League. According to the city administration, divers from a specialist company have already brought a first piece of wreckage to the surface after several days of preparations. It was a piece of a wooden barrel that had once belonged to the cargo of the sunken ship. The object could be recovered from a depth of about eleven meters, it was covered with algae and shells.

All finds would first be documented and taken to a water basin in a hall for desalination, it said. It is unclear what else lies dormant at the bottom of the Trave. "We are very curious to see what awaits us there," project manager and underwater archaeologist Felix Rösch told Norddeutscher Rundfunk. It can be assumed that coins, cutlery, ceramic shards or parts of footwear can also be found – testimonies of everyday life in the 17th century.

The recovery and documentation of the historical remains is expected to take around three months and will be completed in September. The work is carried out according to recognized scientific standards and is accompanied by archaeologists from the Schleswig-Holstein city. Digital 3D scans of the wreck and all finds are also planned.

According to previous findings, the ship, which dates back to the 17th century, had been discovered during surveying work in the Trave estuary off Lübeck, and the authorities announced the archaeological find at the end of July 2022. They hope to gain valuable insights into the history of Lübeck and trade relations within the Hanseatic League of Cities, in which Lübeck played a leading role for centuries.

Sunk after an accident?

According to the experts, the approximately 20-metre-long ship sank presumably after an accident, and wood from the wreck was dated to around 1650 during investigations. There may also be a connection with an accident on the Trave in 1680, mentioned in documents from the city archive, when the ship was loaded with more than 150 barrels. Some have already been investigated. They contain quicklime, a raw material for building materials.

According to the city, the wreck find from the Hanseatic period is the first discovery of its kind in the southern Baltic Sea region. The ship, which is partly sunk in the sediment of the seabed, is therefore exceptionally well preserved. It is to be recovered and preserved because it could decompose under water or be destroyed by ocean currents and shipping traffic. The Lübeck parliament released the necessary funds in 2022.

The salvage of the wreck, which lies at a depth of eleven meters, is being carried out by an internationally active specialist company from Poland. It operates from a working ship lying in the Trave, which serves as a base for archaeologists and divers. First, according to the city, the sediment will be removed with suckers, then finds and wreckage will be lifted layer by layer.

From the end of the Middle Ages to the early modern period, Lübeck was an important trading metropolis within the Hanseatic League. The rise of the city with access to the Baltic Sea began in the 13th century, and at the end of the 14th century Lübeck was at times the second largest German city after Cologne. By the end of the 17th century, the Hanseatic League of Cities lost its once great importance.