Archaeologically researched wrecks in Finland

Field surveys are conducted annually at several sites. Invasive surveys, such as excavations, are only carried out after much consideration.This perspective text presents ten interesting archaeologically researched wreck sites in Finland. All of these shipwrecks have been the subject of research for several years and have provided new insights into life at sea over the centuries.

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Laura Tuomisalo & Sinikka Kärkkäinen

Writers worked as a project researchers in the Finnish Heritage Agency

The second naval battle in the Ruotsinsalmi Strait was at its fiercest. The Swedish navy fired broadsides at the Russian archipelago frigate Sviatoj Nikolai, which tilted sharply and began to sink. From a nearby ship, it was seen how this large three-masted ship went down: the water closed over it and the Nikolai and its crew disappeared into the depths without leaving a trace. This sinking took place in less than a minute.
The Nikolai took 400 men into the depths.

A contemporary account of the sinking of the Nikolai (Johnsson, Grönroos, Karttunen 2010:318)

Pioneers of marine archaeological research

The Russian frigate Sviatoj Nikolai (St. Nikolai) is one of the most famous wrecks in our country and the first to undergo archaeological research. As the description above shows, the ship sank in the Battle of Svenskund in 1790. The wreck was found at a depth of about 17 metres during the improvement of the shipping lane leading into the Port of Kotka in 1948, and the discovery aroused enormous interest. The bow of this 42-metre vessel was decorated with a figurehead and the deck equipped with 38 heavy cannons. In the 1950s, an attempt was even made to raise this fine wreck in its entirety to the surface. However, it failed. The wreck was demolished, and its artefacts were recovered instead. From the 1960s onwards, the activities became more methodical and the wreck also began to be seen as a valuable object of research. At the same time, a lot of new information was gained about the methods of marine archaeological research.
Artefacts and other research material lifted from the wreck are on display at the Finnish Maritime Museum and the Kymenlaakso Museum in Kotka. Large components of the wreck, which were raised in the 1950s, can be seen on Varissaari Island, near Kotka. Free recreational diving on the wreck is prohibited.

A religious travel icon found in the excavations of the sunken frigate St. Nikolai. 

The wreck of the merchant ship Borstö 1 has also been one of the pioneering research subjects of Finnish marine archaeology, i.e. during its survey, various marine archaeological research methods have been tried and developed. The ship ran aground on the rocky shoals in the waters off Parainen Island in 18th century. The entire crew was lost, as well as the valuable cargo, which was on its way to the imperial court. The 25-metre wreck was found nearly intact in the 1950s, after which several field surveys have been conducted at the site from the 1960s to the1990s.

An exceptional number of valuable objects has been found on the Borstö 1 wreck. Artefacts included gold and silver snuff boxes, as well as objects decorated with diamonds and rubies. Also, the cargo included a large shipment of Meissen porcelain tableware and objects, along with textiles, dyes, timber, food, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco. Many utensils used by the crew, as well as the bones of at least three corpses were also found on the wreck. Unfortunately, due to its discovery, the wreck quickly gained a reputation of being a treasure ship, leading to unauthorised dives at the site. These dives caused damage to the wreck and the archaeological site as a whole.

By 1997, a total of more than 500 objects or parts of objects had been removed from the wreck. The story of this wreck can be seen at the Finnish Maritime Museum in Kotka. Free recreational diving on this wreck is forbidden.

Pictured is the wooden figure of a Swedish infantryman, behind which can be seen the foremast of the Borstö 1 wreck.

The oldest wrecks found in Finland

In 1975, a wreck measuring about 14 metres in length was found in Virolahti Bay, north of the island of Lapuri. The ship had carried a single sail and was open, low-sided, and of lightweight construction. It was also propelled by rowing. The wreck has been dated to between the 13th and 14th centuries.

Three replica ships have since been built based on the design of the Lapuri wreck. One of these copies, i.e. the Helga, can be visited at the Old Castle of Lieto, near Turku. The Viking boat Sotka, on the other hand, can be seen at the marina of the Joensuu Farm in Sipoo. The third replica is known as the Hemlösa Rus.

The wreck of Lapuri during excavations.

Another wreck which dates from between the 13th and 14th centuries was found off the northern shore of the island of Egelskär, in the outer reaches of the Parainen Archipelago. However, it is impossible to say with certainty what the ship was like, where it came from or why it sank.

Hundreds of objects have been lifted from the Egelskär wreck and they are on display along with parts of the wreck structure at the Finnish Maritime Museum in Kotka. As its cargo, the ship carried abundant ceramic ware originally from northern Germany and Lower Saxony, as well as whetstones, most likely from Norway. In addition, the cargo included bronze pots, a church bell, and possibly limestone also. These finds bring new information about medieval trade and the artefact culture in the Baltic Sea region. In addition to the items, the ship may have also had other merchandise on board, such as grain or salt.

The churchbell found near Egelskär wreck.

In 1966, one of the oldest known wrecks in Finland was found in the municipality of Kimitö, near the island of Metskär. In the decades following the discovery, several objects and their pieces have been lifted from the wreck. Based on the finds raised to the surface and the structure of the wreck, the ship has been dated to the end of the 16th century. The vessel was a single-masted, half-deck merchant ship, capable of operating in various tasks in different waters as the need arose, and with a crew of only a few hands. While there is no certainty about its country of origin, the ship’s structure indicates that it is Dutch, and its artefacts originate from Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. 

Many objects were recovered from the wreck e.g. intact ceramic dishes, the mouth of a bronze pot, the hobs of a galley oven, wooden objects, as well as parts of the vessel itself. Most of the pottery consists of cooking utensils which belonged to the crew. The story of the wreck can be seen at the Finnish Maritime Museum in Kotka.

Divers near the sternpost of the Metskär Wreck.

Wreck finds made by fishermen

In 1977, the nets of a local man who was fishing in the Raasepori Archipelago near Hässelholmen became snagged on the seafloor. The fisherman reported the matter and the divers who arrived to investigate found the remains of an old ship, which later became known as the Esselholm wreck. The wreck rests on a steep slope at depths ranging from 11 to 17 metres. The ship’s building material is oak.

The wreck was excavated immediately the following year. The research aimed to ascertain both the type and date of the ship. Recovered finds included approximately thirty earthenware vessels, comprising jars, three-legged pots, and frying pans. An iron pot and pieces of a bronze pot were also found in the wreck. Since so much earthenware was found at the site, it is likely that they have originally been, at least in part, the ship’s cargo. The objects found in the wreck are dated to the end of the 16th century. The pottery is of Dutch and northern German origin. However, the port of departure or destination of the vessel could not be ascertained. The story of this wreck can be found in the Finnish Maritime Museum.

A scale model of the Esselholm wreck by Harry Alopaeus, based on fieldwork carried out in the 1970s. This scale model is in the collections of the Finnish Maritime Museum.

In 1859, the Dutch vessel Sophia Maria was sailing to Oulu when it was wrecked northeast of Hailuoto Island. More than one hundred years later, the trawl nets of a local fisherman accidentally caught on a wooden wreck lying at a depth of less than 20 metres. The wreck was discovered to be a ship type known as a koff and called the Sophia Maria. This information was uncovered after a history student from Oulu found an old maritime account of a shipwreck from the Oulu Provincial Archives, where the records corresponded to the archaeological data obtained from the wreck.

The ship was coming from Hull in England to Hailuoto to pick up cargo from the Bergbom Trading Company. On the approach to Hailuoto, attempts were made to get pilots on board the ship, but this was unsuccessful. In the waters off Hailuoto Island, it struck the Pallosenkari Reef, sprang a leak, and sank with its entire cargo on July 19th, 1859. The six-member crew survived the shipwreck.

Over the years, more than 700 objects or their pieces were lifted to the surface, mainly crew utensils, tableware, bottles, tobacco pipes, and tools. The objects are of Dutch, English, and German origin. The story of the wreck can be found in the Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia.

A model made of the wreck of Sophia Maria in an exhibition at the Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia.

A research wreck for marine archaeological courses

The Joskär wreck is named after the island of Joskär, which is located east of Tvärminne, on the Hanko Peninsula. This wreck has been known to seafarers since the 19th century. Measuring almost 30 metres in length and dating back to between the 17th and 18th centuries, this wreck can be seen from the surface even in good weather, as it is located in water only a couple of metres deep.

In 1988, Hanko Summer University adopted the Joskär wreck as its research site. Since then, various groups of students and divers, such as marine archaeologists, marine biologists, and student research divers, have used the wreck as a training site every year. The shallow depth and location near the Tvärminne Zoological Research station have made it easily accessible. Archaeological excavations have been carried out here for 12 years.

The wreck consists of the bottom portion of a sturdily built Dutch-style sailing ship constructed from timber material from the region of Karelia, in eastern Finland. Archaeological finds consist mainly of everyday objects and the personal belongings of the crew. These objects refer to origins from Northern Europe, e.g. the Netherlands, England, and Germany. Many objects and artefacts composed of organic matter have been also found on the wreck, such as seeds, wooden objects, bones, and leather shoe parts.

A large portion of the wreck’s wooden structure has already been demolished and used after the shipwreck, probably for firewood or construction or it has been auctioned on. Objects have been left on board accidentally or intentionally. The reasons why the ship sank or where it was coming from have not been ascertained.

A piece of rope found from the excavation pit of Joskär.

Ships of plunder and treasure

In the late 1980s, some sports divers diving off the Hanko Peninsula, north of an island called Mulan, spotted two church bells amid the remnants of an old, badly decayed wreck. Parts of a pistol, a gunpowder container, lead bullets, and a piece of breastplate armour were found on the wreck. Also, equestrian tack was found, such as saddle parts, straps, as well as the metal parts belonging to harnesses and riding accessories. The bones found on the ship indicate that at least part of the ship's crew went down with it.

Investigations began in January 1988 with the raising of church bells. These belonged to the Novgorod monastery of Derevjanitski. It is assumed that the bells were part of the plunder looted from the monastery by Swedish soldiers. Based on dendrochronological samples and objects discovered in the wreck, the ship was dated to the early 17th century. The finds included hundreds of objects such as pottery, wooden objects, personal belongings, and money. The findings from the excavations are in the Finnish Maritime Museum, where visitors can learn more about the story of this wreck.

Were these church bells from a Russian monastery perhaps part of the spoils of war?                                                                         

One of Finland's most famous wrecks is the Dutch merchant ship, Vrouw Maria. The vessel was travelling from Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg when it was wrecked in a storm in the Parainen Archipelago near an islet called Namnlösan in the autumn of 1771. Although the crew was rescued, most of the valuable cargo en route to the imperial court in Saint Petersburg sank to the seabed. The ship lies upright on the bottom on its keel and has remained astonishingly well-preserved. The two masts of this 26-metre long and 7-metre wide ship are still standing. Branch-themed decorative carvings can still be seen on the wooden parts. The wreck was located in 1999 with a side-scan sonar lying at a depth of about 40 metres.

An auction document found in the archive caches and a maritime account of the shipwreck by the captain of the Vrouw Maria led searchers to the wreck a couple of hundred years after it sank. The Vrouw Maria gained the reputation of a treasure ship because of the art treasures of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, which were part of the ship's cargo.

During the investigations, objects have been lifted to the surface and samples have been taken from packing boxes and barrels. Besides the valuable objects destined for the imperial court, the cargo consisted mainly of the typical merchandise of the time, such as food, fabrics, and pigments. Also, coffee beans, grape seeds, and dyes, such as indigo and madder have survived amazingly well in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea.

In 2012, a virtual simulation of the Vrouw Maria was produced from the research material, which can be viewed on YouTube. A well-preserved wreck offers a myriad of different research paths from shipbuilding to colonial trade or the preservation of wrecks. Free recreational diving on the wreck is prohibited. The story of this wreck can be found in the Finnish Maritime Museum.

A view of the wreck of the Vrouw Maria as seen from the bow.