A Shipwreck, 500 Years Old, Appears on the Baltic Seabed

Its condition is pristine, but its identity is a mystery. For now, maritime archaeologists call it Okänt Skepp, Swedish for “unknown ship.”

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CreditCreditVideo by Deep Sea Productions/mmt

For 500 years, the Baltic Sea held in its depths a tall ship of the Renaissance era. Around the time the ship sank, Columbus was discovering the New World. His fleet vanished long ago. But the Renaissance vessel suddenly reappeared recently, remarkably well preserved in the icy Baltic waters.

The first hint of its existence came in 2009, when a sonar survey by the Swedish Maritime Administration registered an anomalous blip on the Baltic seafloor. Then, early this year, a robotic camera, employed by a commercial team surveying an undersea route for a natural gas pipeline, illuminated not the gooey seabed but a mysterious hulk.

In March, an international team of scientists lowered a pair of tethered robots to explore and document what turned out to be the Renaissance sailing vessel.

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“It’s amazing,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Southampton, in Britain, who led the investigation. “We’re still a little bit over the moon.”

A lack of oxygen in icy depths can discourage the usual riot of creatures that like to feast on lost wooden ships. After centuries of wear and generations of aquatic colonizers, masts and planking can disintegrate into mounds of debris and layers of seabed ooze.

The Baltic discovery is being announced on Monday. The research team, which includes a number of doctoral students, found the ship lying intact, its hull well preserved from keel to deck, as well as its masts and some rigging. Resting on deck, leaning against the mainmast, was a small wooden boat for ferrying crew members to and from the larger ship.

Various rare items were also visible aboard the ancient wreck, including a wooden bilge pump and a capstan, a wide cylinder used for winding up lengths of rope. The ship’s anchor was also visible, and its presence helped date the wreck to the late 15th or early 16th century, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said.

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CreditCreditVideo by Deep Sea Productions/mmt
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Researchers merged thousands of high-resolution photos of the wreck into portraits so detailed as to look three-dimensional.CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT
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The identity of the lost Baltic ship is not yet known. For now, the marine archaeologists are calling it Okänt Skepp, Swedish for “unknown ship.”CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT

The craft was probably a merchant vessel rather than a warship, but it bore swivel guns — “a testament of the tension” at the time, according to an expedition statement.

In an interview, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said the wreck was 52 to 60 feet long. The Santa Maria — flagship of Columbus’s expedition — is thought to have been roughly 60 feet long, with the expedition’s other ships, the Niña and the Pinta, closer to 50 feet. Records indicate that the Santa Maria had 52 crew members, and the other two ships each had 18.

The name and origin of the lost Baltic ship have not yet been identified. For now, the maritime archaeologists are calling it Okänt Skepp, Swedish for “unknown ship.” Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz and his team are deliberately keeping its exact location secret, to deter scavengers and treasure hunters.

They plan to return to the Baltic site for another round of exploration, in particular to retrieve a wooden plank. Laboratory analyses can date ancient wood to within a year of its human acquisition, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said, which would help pinpoint exactly when the ship was built and put to sea.

The expedition is a collaboration among the Center for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, where Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz is a fellow; the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University in Sweden; Deep Sea Productions in Sweden, and MMT, a Swedish firm that performs seabed surveys, often for offshore energy companies. Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz also works for MMT as a maritime archaeologist.

ImageA Shipwreck, 500 Years Old, Appears on the Baltic Seabed
The Baltic shipwreck was explored by two undersea robots, one here launched from the vessel the Stril Explorer.CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT

The March expedition was aided by doctoral students from the University of Southampton and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Those students are developing artificial intelligence to improve the maneuvering and sensing of robots in the sunless depths.

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The Surveyor Interceptor enters the icy Baltic to examine the Okänt Skepp.CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT

The archaeological team illuminated the wreck with bright lights and took thousands of high-resolution photos; with the help of a computer, these were merged into portraits so detailed that they seem three-dimensional. Such composites can be startlingly clear and sharp, compared to single frames, and they also can reveal the shipwreck as a whole. In contrast, even a large mosaic of close-ups typically fails to provide an overall sense of a lost vessel.

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Pilots of the tethered robots conducting an inspection of the intact Renaissance shipwreck (Okänt Skepp) in the Baltic.CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT
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Students from Southampton University and Stockholm KTH joined the expedition onboard Stril Explorer.CreditDeep Sea Productions/MMT

In 2016, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz used the same method to bring to light a medieval ship found at the bottom of the Black Sea. The portraits captured the hulk in remarkable detail. That expedition was also organized by the Southampton maritime archaeologists.

In an interview, Johan Rönnby, director of the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University, said the Baltic shipwreck was important because it opened a new window on the development of early modern sailing ships and the resulting age of global exploration.

“It’s something special because it’s so extremely well preserved,” he said. “It really looks fantastic.”

Over the years, marine archaeologists have learned a great deal about the age of exploration and its fleets of tall ships. “But there are gaps,” Dr. Rönnby said. The Baltic discovery will help fill in some of the particulars.

“These kinds of discoveries are really, really important for our understanding of history,” he said.

Earlier reporting on shipwrecks and maritime archaeology

William J. Broad is a science journalist and senior writer. He joined The Times in 1983, and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes with his colleagues, as well as an Emmy Award and a DuPont Award. @WilliamJBroad

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