Friday, August 07, 2009

13th Century Shipwreck Sheds New Light On Medieval Trade in Finland

An underwater archeological investigation of the wreck of a 13th century ship in Finnish waters is providing new insights into Baltic maritime trade during the Middle Ages. Divers this summer have been bringing up unusually well-preserved ceramic and bronze artifacts.

An exceptionally large number of artifacts have been discovered in the wreck of a ship that went down in the Finnish archipelago sometime in the late 1200s or early 1300s.

The Engelskär wreck in Nauvo, as it's called, was first discovered in 1996 by marine biologists working in the area. This summer, the site is the most important field operation for archeologists from the National Board of Antiquities.

Over the past four weeks, divers have found an unusually large number of artifacts including many well-preserved ceramics, such as medieval beer mugs, rare in being nearly complete 800 year old specimens.

"For us researchers, these are unique and valuable. Archeological digs on land usually only turn up fragments. At sea, some of these are preserved well and whole," says team member Riikka Tevali. Earlier finds also include a bronze church bell.

Scientists say that their work will shed new light on the role of medieval maritime trade in the Baltic.

"We have some wrong pre-conceptions about maritime history. In the Middle Ages, the sea was the superhighway along which people and a lot of goods travelled," points out Research Director Stefan Wessman.

Luckily for scientists the wreck was untouched even though it lies under only 10 meters of water. It is expected to keep archeologists busy for many more years.

The archaeological finds in the wreck in Nauvo have a lot to offer to the medieval research also for the reason that medieval archive information about e.g. cargoes is very scattered and nearly non-existent. When it comes to the Baltic countries, there are very few archive notes from the times before the middle of the 14th century. For example, the oldest Hanseatic customs lists and other catalogues that would tell us about sea trade are from the end of the 14th century.

What is also noteworthy in the wreck in Nauvo is the fact that many of the dishes in the cargo are either unbroken or in big pieces. Dishes found on dry land are usually thrown away intentionally and they are thus in very many small pieces, which have then grinded in the ground in the course of time. Because archaeological finds preserve very well in the Baltic Sea, the ceramics and other artefacts in the wreck in Nauvo are unique research material for those who study the Middle Ages in Finland and in all Europe.

Click here to go to website for the National Board of Antiquities' section on the Medieval site in Nauvo.