Fish and Ships

Weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse"

Welcome to the weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse". The aim of the project is to investigate the economic and cultural connections of merchants from Northern German cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland and Faroe during the 15th to 17th centuries. The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven and funded by the Leibniz Association (2015-2018).The research is carried out by four team members, each with their individual research objectives and disciplinary background. With this blog we want to provide information about the current state of our research, and create a platform to make available results and new knowledge. Read more...

German merchants at the trading station of Básendar, Iceland

Bart Holterman, 9 March 2018

The German merchants who sailed to Iceland in the 15th and 16th century used more than twenty different harbours. In this post we will focus on one of them: Básendar. The site is located on the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula and was used as a trading destination first by English ships, then German merchants from Hamburg and later by merchants of the Danish trade monopoly. Básendar is mentioned in German written sources with different spellings as Botsand, Betsand, Bådsand, Bussand, or Boesand.

Aerial image of Básendar (marked with the red star), located on the Western end of Reykjanes peninsula, and Keflavík airport on the right (image Google Earth).

Básendar was one of the most important harbours for the winter fishing around Reykjanes. In the list of ten harbours offered to Hamburg in 1565, it is the second largest harbour, which annually required 30 last flour, half the amount of Hafnarfjörður (the centre of German trade in Iceland). German merchants must have realised it´s potential at a very early stage, and it is therefore the first harbour which we know to have been used by the Germans, namely by merchants from Hamburg, in 1423.

The trading station was located on a cliff just south of Stafnes, surrounded by  sand. Básendar was always a difficult harbour, exposed to strong winds and with skerries at its entrance. Ships had to be moored to the rocks with iron rings. The topography of the site also made the buildings vulnerable to spring floods, and during a storm in 1799 all buildings were destroyed by waves, leading to the abandonment of the place. Today, the ruins of many buildings can still be seen, as well as one of the mooring rings, reminding the visitor of the site’s former importance.

Básendar also became a place for clashes between English and German traders. Already the first mention of Germans in the harbour came from a complaint by English merchants that they had been hindered in their business there. In 1477 merchants from Hull complained as well about hindrance by the Germans and in 1491 the English complained that two ships from Hull had been attacked by 220 men from two Hamburg ships anchoring in Básendar and Hafnarfjörður.

Remains of an iron mooring ring at the harbour of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The famous violent events of 1532 between Germans and English started in Básendar as well, when Hamburg skipper Lutke Schmidt denied the English ship Anna of Harwich access to the harbour. Another arrival of an English ship a few days later made tensions erupt, resulting in a battle in which two Englishmen were killed. The events in 1532 marked the end of the English presence in Básendar, and we hear little about the harbour in the years afterwards. The trading place seems to have been steadily frequented by Hamburg ships, sometimes even two per year. In 1548, during the time when Iceland was leased to Copenhagen, Hamburg merchants refused to allow a Danish ship to enter the harbour, claiming that they had an ancient right to use it for themselves.

Hamburg merchants were continuously active in Básendar until the introduction of the Danish trade monopoly, except for the period 1565-1583, when the harbour was licensed to merchants from Copenhagen. From 1586 onwards, the licenses were given to Hamburg merchants again. These are the merchants who held licences for Básendar:

1565: Anders Godske, Knud Pedersen (Copenhagen)
1566: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1569: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1584: Peter Hutt, Claus Rademan, Heinrich Tomsen (Wilster)
1586: Georg Grove (Hamburg)
1590: Georg Schinckel (Hamburg)
1593: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)
1595: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)

Ruins of the trading site of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The last evidence we have for German presence in Básendar provides interesting details about how trade in Iceland operated. In 1602 Danish merchants from Copenhagen concentrated their activity on Keflavík and Grindavík. A ship from Helsingør, led by Hamburg merchant Johan Holtgreve, with a crew largely consisting of Dutchmen, and helmsman Marten Horneman from Hamburg, tried to reach Skagaströnd (Spakonefeldtshovede) in Northern Iceland, but was unable to get there because of the great amount of sea ice due to the cold winter. Instead, they went to Básendar which was not in use at the time. However, the Copenhagen merchants protested. King Christian IV ordered Hamburg to confiscate the goods from the returned ship. In a surviving document the involved merchants and crew members told their side of the story. They stated that they had been welcomed by the inhabitants of the district of Básendar, who had troubles selling their fish because the catch had been bad last year and the fish were so small that the Danish merchants did not want to buy them. Furthermore, most of their horses had died during the winter so they could not transport the fish to Keflavík or Grindavík and the Danes did not come to them. The Danish merchants were indeed at first not eager to trade in Básendar, and did not sail there until they moved their business from Grindavík in 1640.

Further reading

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, Fornleifaskráning á Miðnesheiði. Archaeological Survey of Miðnesheiði. Rannsóknaskýrslur 2000, The National Museum of Iceland.

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Where have all the ships gone? The absence of German shipwrecks in Iceland

Bart Holterman, 22 December 2017

with Kevin Martin and Bart Holterman

Detail from Olaus Magnus Carta Marina 1539: The ship-destroying sea monster is symbolising the perils of a journey across the open ocean.

A Project on the Low German merchants’ trade from Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands is not complete without the vessels that made trade across the ocean possible. The written sources tell us that many German ships were lost along the coast of Iceland, but until today, not a single mentioned shipwreck was found. This is not surprising, given the circumstance that underwater archaeology in Iceland is not even twenty years old.


Some facts about finding shipwrecks

The saying “Searching for a needle in a haystack” is fitting pretty well to the search for shipwrecks mentioned in historical documents, considering the abilities to determine a ship’s position in the past and the fact that 71 % of Earth’s surface is covered by water. Even today, many ships vanish without a trace. On top of that, the number of archaeologists looking for certain shipwrecks is extremely low. Therefore, most shipwrecks are found by accident and they remain more or less anonymous.

However, technology has improved and the potential for finding shipwrecks is much higher today than in the past. A number of devices can be used and combined for surveying the sea floor. A common combination is a side-scan sonar and a number of magnetometers, but this is still no guarantee for finding wrecks. When a ship is too decayed, or has settled into the sediment, the sound-rays of the side-scan sonar will not be able to produce a recognisable image. Moreover, magnetometers will not detect anomalies from the earth’s magnetic field when there is not enough metal on board the ship. Especially for medieval ships and early modern merchant vessels without guns, this can easily be the case. A sediment sonar could be a solution, which measures changes of density in the sediment with sound signals. The disadvantage is that waterlogged wood has the same density as waterlogged sediment. If a shipwreck has no denser cargo or ballast on board, the sonar will not detect density changes. Therefore such ships will remain hidden, even if an area is surveyed. Divers might be suggested as a final solution but a diver’s operating range is very limited, as he/she depends on depth, weather conditions, visibility and air supply.

The fact is that archaeologists rely in most cases on coincidences, which is how most of the known shipwrecks were found. The reason for this is that many other professions like builders, fishermen, geologists etc. spend much more time working on the sea floor than archaeologists, and sometimes stumble upon a wreck. One famous example for this is for example the “Bremen Cog” in the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven. A suction-excavator operator found it in the river Weser close to Bremen, when he was working on an extension of the riverbed. It became one of the most important finds in ship archaeology. Over the past decades, since underwater became an area of archaeological interest, hundreds of shipwrecks have been registered by the heritage departments of the German federal states but only a few of them could be identified by historical documents.

The author examining an anchor off the west coast of Gotland, at the site of the Visby-Disaster of 1566 (Photo: Jens Auer).

When we approach the shipwrecks from the historical documents, we have to realize that mentioned positions for lost ships are most of the time very vague. This situation can extend the search area dramatically without even knowing if the wrecks still exist as a coherent site. The conditions of the natural environment are vital to the survival of remains. Rugged coastlines, strong currents, micro-organisms, the chemical consistence of the water and the like can severely contribute to the decay of organic matter, metals and even certain types of stone. In the Mediterranean Sea, for example, ship hulls will not survive for a long time above the sea floor due to temperature, salinity and micro-organisms. Iron will soon vanish by the reaction with salt and oxygen and even marble and copper-alloys will decay. The opposite situation can be found in the Northern Baltic or the Sea Black Sea, for example. The Northern Baltic is deep, has a very low salt content and is cold. This prevents wood-decaying organisms to multiply and destruction from anchors or looting divers. The Black Sea water, on the other hand, has hardly any oxygen in a certain depth, which almost freezes time on the sea floor.

In addition, the circumstances of the sinking in connection to the natural environment play an important role. A German ship in Spanish service in 1588, the Gran Grifon, hardly left any structural remains. Another extreme example is the destruction of a united navy fleet of Lübeck and Danish ships during the Nordic Seven Years War on the west coast of Gotland in 1566. Out of thirty-seven ships, fifteen were lost and 6000 to 8000 sailors lost their lives in the so-called Visby-Disaster. Intensive archaeological diving surveys for several years could not reveal any wreck site. The ships literally vanished, most likely because they disintegrated in the storm on the rough sea floor and their remains were thrown up on the beach.

These examples shows us that a sunken ship mentioned in the historical documents does not always leave a proper wreck site. Sometimes scattered debris spread over square kilometres of sea floor can be all that is left of a ship.


The missing wrecks of Iceland

The site of the Bremen trading harbour Búðir/Bodenstede on the west coast of Iceland. It continued to be used by the Danes after 1601.

In theory, Iceland has a high potential for finding shipwrecks. Since the late 9th century, humans settle here and they had no other way than to cross the rough North Atlantic Ocean and make landfall on a rugged coast. Many ships, Norwegian, Danish, English, Low German and Dutch, evidently got lost on their route between continental Europe and Iceland. A considerable number of these found their end on the coast of Iceland, as we can read in the historical documents. Ragnar Edvardson has calculated a number of about 450 shipwrecks in Iceland, from the period from 1100 to 1900, most of which foundered on the West coast. Until today, no wreck from the period of the Low German trade has been found. The oldest ship found in Iceland is currently a Dutch merchantman, which sank in the harbour at Flatey in Breiðafjörður in 1659, and is currently under investigation by Kevin Martin. The scarcity of known shipwrecks in Iceland is not necessarily because they vanished completely, but because maritime archaeology is a very young discipline in this country and started only with sporadic projects from 1993 onwards. The relatively few inhabitants of Iceland also reduce the possibility of coincidental discoveries of wrecks due to the lack of building activities.


Vive la Coïncidence!

However, coincidences happen – even in Iceland. In 1998, an excavator hit timbers while digging a cable trench near Búðir on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Western Iceland. They turned out to be fragments of a ship that was buried under the sand of an estuary. Some timbers and ballast stones were recovered by archaeologist Björn Stefánsson, and brought to the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, were they were documented and put in storage. None of the recovered timbers was suitable for dendrochronological dating, but the ballast included stones that can possibly originate in Norway, Britain or Greenland. However, this does not give any indication were the ship was coming from, because ballast was taken from board and loaded in all harbours depending on the cargo and to adjust the angle of the ship in the water, to trim the ship. The recovered timbers give the impression of an old carvel-built ship. The material seems not to be of the finest quality, but this is hard to judge from only a handful of timbers. A promising fact is that Búðir was an important trading centre in Iceland for at least 200 years. It was already visited by Bremen merchants in the late 16th century, who called it “Bodenstede”. For a long time it was the main trading site for the Snæfellsness Peninsula, called first by cargo ships of the Low German merchants and later by Danish and Dutch ships. It was abandoned as a trading post in 1787.

The recovered ship timbers from Búðir today at the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik (Photo: Kevin Martin)

For this reason, we have written sources on the activities on this site including the loss of several ships during these 200 years. The problem for the identification of the accidental found ship is the fact that there was not only one ship lost near the site. We know at least about eleven ships that are reported to have been lost at Búðir and its harbour Búðavik. Of those eleven ships, one was from Bremen. It belonged to the merchant Vasmer Bake and sank in or close to the harbour of Bodenstede in 1587. This was reported by Carsten Bake, his son, who himself was involved in the Iceland trade. In 1607, a Danish ship wrecked at Búðir. For 1666, another ship sank west of Búðir. More ships sank in this area in 1724, 1728 (Danish) and 1754, and lastly, Bjarni Sívertsen’s cutter, which got lost here in 1812.

Certainly, it is possible that the ship found in 1998 is Vasmer Bake’s lost vessel from 1587, but the timbers cannot give us any more detailed information. All we can say today about the few recovered timbers is that there are five floor timbers and two fragments with an unknown function. The floor timbers indicate that the cable trench hit the wreck most likely in the bow section, leaving most of the buried remains uncovered. Each plank was attached to each frame with at least two tree nails, and each frame was connected to the keel with one or two tree nails. The dimensions of the floor timbers vary a lot, from flat and wide to high and narrow. This might be an indication that whoever built the ship faced either a shortage of crooked compass timbers, or the building did not rely on an even framing in a shell based building method, or both. However, it can also not be excluded that we face the remains of Bjarni Sívertsen’s cutter from 1812. Only future investigations might give us an answer.



Edvardson R. and Grassel Ph., The Potential of Underwater Archaeology in the North Atlantic. In: N. Mehler, Travelling to Shetland, Faroe and Iceland during the 15th to 17th centuries (in press).

Stefànson, B., Skipsviðir úr Búðaósi. Rannsóknaskýrslur fornleifadeildar 1998. Fornleifadeild þjóðminjasafns Íslands, Reykjavik 1998

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Newspaper article: Reger Handel mit dem hohen Norden

Bart Holterman, 7 September 2017

Bart Holterman presentated the project and his own research on August 5 in Haus der Wissenschaft in Bremen. Matthias Holthaus was there as well and wrote the following article about it in the Weser Kurier of August 21, which gives a nice overview of the situation German merchants had to deal with when trading in the North Atlantic in the late Middle Ages (in German).,-reger-handel-mit-dem-hohen-norden-_arid,1638338.html

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German-Icelandic trade relations: the case of Eiríkur Árnason

Bart Holterman, 30 March 2017

Trade in the North Atlantic was neither simply an exchange of goods between ports in Iceland and in Germany, nor did the islanders stay at home and wait for German merchants to show up each spring. In some cases, more complex relations between islanders and Germans existed, and in what follows we will present an example from Iceland to highlight the complexity of the trade relations between Icelanders and Germans. Germans were not allowed to settle in Iceland, but Icelanders were free to move or travel to Germany, which some did, and established networks of their own. Sometimes these links can be reconstructed in considerable detail with the help of both historical and archaeological sources. In this post, we will focus on one such case, that of Eiríkur Árnason Brandssonar (c. 1530-1586), sýslumaður (bailiff) of Múlaþing district in the East of Iceland.

Eiríkur Árnason was a powerful man in Iceland, who repeatedly got into trouble with Guðbrandur Þorláksson, bishop at Hólar. Eiríkur was appointed klausturhaldari, the keeper of the property of Skriðuklaustur monastery, located in the valley of lake Lagarfljót about 50km inland from the southeastern coast of Iceland. The monastery had been secularized in 1554, and the now royal property was administered by the klausturhaldari. Eiríkur, whose grandfather Brandur Hrafnsson had been the last prior of the monastery, held this office between 1564 and 1578.

So called Bartman jug made of Rhenish stoneware, found in the house of the klausturhaldari of Skriðuklaustur (image Helgi Hallgrímsson).

In 1584, it seems that Eiríkur settled in Hamburg. He embarked on a voyage to Hamburg on the ship of Jochim Warneke and shortly afterwards married Anna Korfemaker and bought a brewery. The next year he travelled back and forth between Iceland and Hamburg and it is most likely that he was a member of the fraternity of St Anne that united most merchants and sailors who travelled to Iceland. In 1586 he died in Hamburg and was buried there at the cemetery of St Jakob.

There are numerous sources which shed a light on Eiríkur’s contacts with German merchants in Iceland. In the fjord now known as Berufjörður, south of Skriðuklaustur, Bremen merchants (who called the fjord Ostforde) had been trading for a long time. In 1575, a conflict broke out between two of them, Bernd Losekanne and Christoffer Meyger, due to alleged mutiny. In the ensuing court case before the Bremen city council, one of the problems discussed was the ownership of a barrel of osemund (iron from Sweden) which Losekanne had sold to Eiríkur Arnason but which was left in the merchant´s booth, of which Eiríkur as bailiff had the keys. Also, a load of vaðmál he left in the booth was destined for a Hamburg merchant named Matthies.

It is clear that during his time as sýslumaður and klausturhaldari, Eiríkur had been trading actively with the German merchants in the area. This is also attested by contemporary objects. From the house of the klausturhaldari stems a complete Bartman jug of the 16th century, a common pouring vessel of that time, produced in one of the major stoneware production centers along the Rhine (such as Frechen, Raeren or Cologne). It is more than likely that this jug was used by Eiríkur who had bought it from the German merchants in Berufjörður. Another link is the gravestone of his mother Úlfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir which is thought to have been imported from Germany by Eiríkur.

Eiríkur’s connections with German merchants probably went further than that. In 1580 Bernd Losekanne and Christoffer Meyger (who had apparently reconciled) complained about interference of Hamburg merchant Matthias Eggers in Ostforde. Eggers, on the other hand, said that he had a general trading license for Iceland which obviously permitted him to use any harbour he liked. Losekanne and Meyger then replied to this that this was unfair because Eiríkur had acquired that license for himself when he had visited the Danish royal court, and had entered into a trade agreement with the Hamburg merchants, in return for a part of their ship. Eggers was also probably the man named Matthies for which Eiríkur had put aside the vaðmál in 1575.

Merchants from Bremen are known to have entered into trade relations with Icelanders as well, but that might be a topic for a future post.


Friederike Christiane Koch, Isländer in Hamburg 1520-1662. Beiträge zur Geschichte Hamburgs vol. 49 (Hamburg 1995) pp. 150-153.

Staatsarchiv Bremen, 2-R.11.ff.

Staatsarchiv Hamburg, 111-1, Cl. VII Lit. Kc. no. 11, Vol. 3.

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Newspaper article about our workshop in Stade

Bart Holterman, 5 January 2017

A short article about the workshop we organised in Stade about the cultural impact of the German trade in the North Atlantic at the end of October appeared in Stader Tageblatt on 5 November 2016.

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