Fish and Ships

Weblog about pre-modern international trade in the North Atlantic

Welcome to the weblog about research into the late medieval and early modern international trade on the North Atlantic islands. It investigates 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 research is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven in cooperation with the University of Highlands and Islands in Orkney. 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...

The enigmatic Icelandic hare, which turned into a sock

Hans Christian Küchelmann, 4 January 2021

Writing about Hamburg trading connections with Iceland in 1899, Richard Ehrenberg mentions cursorily in a footnote that Hamburg merchants received hares from Icelanders (Ehrenberg 1899, 25). He refers to an entry in the donation register of the Annenbruderschaft (confraternity of St. Anne). The Annenbruderschaft was a caritative organisation, for which Hamburg merchants trading with Iceland, Shetland and the Faeroes regularly gave money after returning from their journeys. The account book lists goods bought in Iceland and the donations given as a share to the fraternity for the period 1533-1628. The specific entry concerns the donations of the ship’s crew of skipper Marten Horneman after their journey to Iceland in 1587 and reads:

item up der Öhe geschattet 15 hovet f und 1 par hasen darvor 5 s“.
(Staatsarchiv Hamburg 612-2/5, Kaufmannsgesellschaft der Islandfahrer, Annenbruderschaft, 1520-1842, 2, Band 1, folio 327r; see HansDoc, document ID 5330000HAM00).

Bart Holterman transcribed and analysed several hundred historic documents relating to Hanseatic North Atlantic trade for his PhD-thesis (Holterman 2020; Holterman & Nicholls 2018), which allows us to decipher the data given in the documents in more detail:
• „Öhe“ is a lower German term for island and since we know from the account book that Marten Hornemann traded in Keflavík (Kibbelwick), Reykjanes peninsula from 1586-1595 it will have been an island near this trading station.
• „schatten“ is a legal term comparable to a monetary fine, indicating that somebody had to pay a fine for something not further specified.
• „f“ is the shortcut for fish used throughout the whole document. From the overall context we can be almost certain that „fish“ always indicates cod (Gadus morhua) prepared as stockfish. Stockfish made from cod is the bulk item bought by German merchants in Iceland and all other fish species or product types are usually indicated as such separately. We are not yet certain what „hovet fisch“ indicates in particular. „Hovet“ is lower German for „Haupt“ (= main, head, capital), so we assume so far that it is a large kind of stockfish.
• „Hase“ is the German name of the hare (Lepus europaeus).
• „5 s“ specifies that 5 shilling have been given to the confraternity as share of the items received.
• A term that will become crucial in the interpretation is „1 par“. The German speciality with the modern word „paar“ or „Paar“ is that it can have two different meanings. If written with a capital P as „Paar“ it means „pair“ specifying (exactly) two items which are connected to each other, like e. g. a pair of gloves or two people married to each other (Ehepaar). If written with a small p it denotes a small but uncertain number of items: „ein paar Kekse“ being „some cookies“.

Summarised, the information given is that skipper Marten Horneman received 15 (large?) stockfish and some hares as a fine from somebody on an island near Keflavík and gave five shilling to the St. Anne confraternity for this. Further research for hasen in the Iceland trade documents revealed that hasen appear in fact three times in the account book of the Annenbruderschaft in similar contexts:

folio 369 r (1592): “Noch van Jon lochman vor norden den armen gegeven 9 ele min 1 q(uart?) wadtman und 1 par hasen darvan gekamen in gelde.“
folio 398r (1596): “Otte Eddelman 1 par hasen darvor entfangen,“

Jon Lochman is better known as Jón Jónsson, lawmen (ĺögmaður) in northern and western Iceland at the end of the 16th century, who is known to have cooperated closely with German merchants. Additionally, there is another document, which lists hasen being bought from Icelanders: An account book of merchants from Oldenburg trading 1585 in Neßwage (Nes), Snæfellsnes peninsula, mentions hasen four times:

page 38: “1 paer haesen
page 38: “1 par haesen 1 fordung […] 1 paer haesen
page 45: “3 par haesenn up 1 wett
(Stadtarchiv Oldenburg, Rechnungsbuch über die 1585 in Island verkauften Waren, Best. 262-1, no. 3; Holterman 2020, 45; HansDoc ID 15850000OLD00).

Hasen mentioned in Oldenburg account book of the goods sold and bought 1585 in Iceland, page 38 and 45.

This is a good example for the advantage of interdisciplinary research. From the historic point of view the interpretation here is clear and unequivocally: hares were among the goods bought in Iceland (see Holterman 2020, 45). They were not an item of major importance, but at least appear several times in the 16th century Hanseatic trade in different locations in western Iceland on the Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes peninsulae. From the zoological point of view, however, a major interpretation problem evolves here. According to zoogeographical sources, hares do not inhabit Iceland, neither the European hare (Lepus europaeus) nor the snow hare (Lepus timidus) (see e. g. Grimberger et al. 2009, 211-212, 214-216; see also the list of mammals of Iceland). There are neither archeozoological nor palaeontological records of hares from Iceland, indicating that the genus ever inhabited the island.

Important here, and even more convincing from the historic point of view, is an account of Arngrimur Jónsson from 1593, who states in his “Brevis commentarius …“ that:

Eodem crimine tenentur, quicunque; Islandiæ, coruos albos, picas, lepores, et vultures adscripserunt: Perrarò enim vultures, cum glacie marina, sicut etiam vrsos (sed hos sæpius quam vultures) et cornicum quoddam genus, Islandis Isakrakur, aduenire obseruatum est. Picas verò et lepores, vt et coruos albos, nunquam Islandia habuit.
(Jónsson 1593, sectio 14, quoted after Hakluyt 1598).


Jónsson refers to the description of a not specified author, who claims the mentioned species (white ravens, magpies, hares and vultures) as resident species of Iceland. He is very precise in his comment and disclaims this notion clearly as being wrong, except for vultures, which sometimes reach Iceland with the sea ice. Thus, zoological, archaeozoological and additional historic evidence points to a wrong interpretation of the Low German term hasen as hares here. However, there is one slight possibility that needed to be cross-checked before refuting hares and searching for alternative interpretations. One species frequently mistaken for hares, at least by non-specialists, is the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits spread in Europe from the 12th century onwards, first as gifts changed between monasteries. They were high status animals first, jealously guarded by monastic circles and the gentry, becoming more widespread since the 16th century (Benecke 1994, 356-361; Küchelmann 2010, 183-184). Therefore, an introduction of rabbits to Iceland in medieval or early modern time is theoretically not impossible. I am grateful to Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir (Institut of Archaeology Reykjavik), who kindly checked this question:

Rabbits are a modern intrusion to Iceland, being imported as pets, which were let loose, mostly around Reykjavík but they have also become an ecological problem in Vestmannaeyjar since they are using puffin holes as habitation and the puffins usually use the same ones again and again. They are also living in areas around Akureyri at present. The oldest example of “wild” rabbits in Iceland (that I know of) is from 1942, a farmer in Saurbjæjarhlíð in Hvalfjarðarströnd started to breed rabbits around 1932 but some had gotten away and had started to breed in the wild at least in 1942 (see Morgunblaðið 7.3.1942). Rabbits had been imported earlier to Iceland but had never been able to survive the winters but now they can. At present the numbers of them are rising instead of declining which is not good since they are causing havoc to the quite sensitive Arctic environment.“ (Guðmundsdóttir, personal comm. 16. 11. 2020). 

Summarising the historical and zoological information, it seems unlikely that hares could have been bought by the Hanseatic merchants in Iceland. Even the slight possibility of introduced rabbits is extremely unlikely. Reanalyzing the historic accounts and searching for alternative interpretations the above mentioned word „par“ becomes important. In all seven evident cases of the term „hasen“ bought in Iceland, they appear in combination with the word „par“. They never occur as single items (1 hase) nor in an uneven number (e.g. 3 or 5 hasen). This makes it likely that in this case „par“ does not mean an uncertain small number of hasen, but that instead hasen are a good regularly traded in pairs. The most probable solution here is that of a sound shift from o to a. „Hosen“ is the German term for trousers, which then would make perfect sense as a „pair of trousers“. Indeed, there is historical evidence for a sound shift from o to a in several Middle Low German words related to hosen, which are listed e. g. in the Middle Low German word books of Köbler (2014) and Schiller & Lübben (1876/1995, 212, 305-306). Vaðmal and trousers – two textile goods – donated by Jón Jónsson in 1592 would also fit well together. The term „1 par hasen“ also appears in another document related to Icelandic trade: The account book of the Bremen merchant Clawes Monnickhusen, who traded 1557-1558 in Kummerwage (= Kumbaravogur, Snæfellsnes), lists hasen two times. But here the hasen appear in that part of the document listing debts of his customers in Bremen 1560-1577. The hasen again are listed as pairs, adding weight to the argument of a sound shift:

folio 24r (1571): „Item den man dar ick den ossen van krech XV grote vor I par hasen.
folio 30r (1575): „Item Devert Jebelman I par hasen XX grote.
(Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Bremen 7,2051 (formerly Ss.2.a.2.f.3.a.), HansDoc ID 15570000BRE00).

To conclude, the former interpretation of the term hasen as the zoological species Lepus can be refuted, but the entries then become an interesting evidence for Icelandic textile production and trade. According to Michèle Hayeur Smith, researcher on historic textiles at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, Bristol, Rhode Island, USA, the trousers bought by the Hanseatic merchats in Iceland most probably were knitted stockings:

In the 16th century they were in the habit (in Europe) of wearing long knitted stockings, in fact it was all the rage. Knitting was introduced into Iceland in 1500 and I know that the Icelanders and Faroese were busy knitting for these foreign markets and one of the main things they were knitting were stockings. I think that we are probably not talking about hosen as trousers, but rather as stockings and sold in pairs would make a lot of sense.“ (Hayeur Smith, personal comm. 17. 11. 2020).

Icelandic knitted stockings found in Copenhagen in the exhibition of the Nationalmuseet København, most probably 17th -18th century (photos: Michele Hayeur Smith).

For further research on Icelandic knitted stockings see e. g. Thirsk (2003), Róbertsdóttir (2008) or Hayeur Smith et al. (2018, 5).

References:
• Benecke, Norbert (1994): Der Mensch und seine Haustiere, Stuttgart
• Ehrenberg, Richard (1899): Aus der Hamburgischen Handelsgeschichte, Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte 10, 1–40
• Grimmberger, Eckhard / Rudloff, Klaus / Kern, Christian (2009): Atlas der Säugetiere Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens, Münster
Hakluyt, Richard (1598): The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, v. 1, Northern Europe
Holterman, Bart (2020): The Fish Lands. German trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroe Islands in the late 15th and 16th century, Berlin
Hayeur Smith, Michèle / Lucas, Gavin / Mould, Quita (2018): Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. – Journal of Social Archaeology 0(0), 1-26
Holterman, Bart & Nicholls, John H. (2018): HANSdoc Database, Bremerhaven
Jónsson, Arngrímur (1593): Brevis commentarius de Islandia
Köbler, Gerhard (2014): Mittelniederdeutsches Wörterbuch, 3. Ausgabe, Erlangen
Küchelmann, Hans Christian (2010): Vornehme Mahlzeiten: Tierknochen aus dem Dominikanerkloster Norden. – Nachrichten aus Niedersachsens Urgeschichte 79, 155-200
• Róbertsdóttir, Hrefna (2008): Wool and society, Reykjavík
• Schiller, Karl & Lübben, August (1876/1995): Mittelniederdeutsches Wörterbuch, Zweiter Band: G–L, Vaduz
• Thirsk, Joan (2003): Knitting and Knitwear, c 1500-1780. in: Jenkins, David (ed.): The Cambridge History of Western Textiles I, 562-584, Cambridge

Posted in: General, Sources, Stories

Razorbill in Bremen

Hans Christian Küchelmann, 20 March 2019

During excavations in 2011 in the former defense ditch of the city of Bremen huge amounts of animal bones have been found. The material has been analysed in the course of the Hanse Project since it contained a large amount of cod (Gadus morhua) bones. But there were also other interesting finds pointing to a trade connection with the North Atlantic. Of particular interest is a bone of a razor bill or lesser auk (Alca torda) with cut marks. This bird does not live on the North Sea coast and must have been brought to Bremen from North Atlantic regions e.g. from Shetland, Iceland, the Faroes or Northern Norway, probably as a by-product of the Bremen North Atlantic trade for stockfish.

Julia Schmidt, public relations officer of the Landesarchäologie Bremen, has written a blog about this find (in German) that can be accessed on the Facebook page of the Landesarchäologie.

Posted in: Announcements, General, Press, Stories

Till death do us part: Graves of sixteenth-century German merchants in the North Atlantic

Bart Holterman, 11 October 2018

When one has the chance to visit the northernmost island of Shetland, Unst, it is worth visiting the ruined church at Lunda Wick, in a bay to the Southwest of the isle. To get there, one has to take a small gravel road across a barren moory landscape where nothing seems to live but sheep and the occasional marsh bird. At the end of the path, one reaches a secluded bay where the grey waves and the rain torture the sands of the beach, and out of the fog a ruined medieval chapel appears with a graveyard around it. Inside the roofless chapel are a number of old tomb stones, the text made almost illegible by the lichen that overgrows them and centuries of rain and salty sea wind. In a corner lies a grave slab, on which it is possible to discern a text written in Low German, with great difficulty: “Here lies the honourable Segebad Detken, citizen and merchant from Bremen, who has traded in this country for 52 years, and died [in the year 1573], the 20th of August. God have mercy on his soul” (see below for the Low German text).

Segebad Detken is known from written sources about the Bremen trade with Shetland. He can be tracked from 1557 onwards as a skipper in the northern harbours Burravoe in Yell, and Baltasound and Uyeasound in Unst. In 1566, he was robbed by Scottish pirates in the harbour of Uyeasound. As his tomb slab mentions that he had been trading for 52 years in Shetland, he must have died in the late 16th century (see below). After his death, his relatives took over the business: among others his son Herman and grandson Magnus are recorded as merchants in northern Shetland in the early 17th century.

The grave slab of Segebad Detken in the ruined church in Lunda Wick. Photograph: Bart Holterman, 2018.

Given the long careers of German traders in the North Atlantic, and the fact that Bremen and Hamburg merchants dominated this trade for over 100 years (for Shetland even longer), it is not surprising that some of these merchants were buried on the islands when they died there. We can find another example just a bit outside the same church. There is another grave of a contemporary of Segebad Detken, that of his fellow citizen Hinrick Segelken. The Low German text on his slab translates as: “In the year 1585, the 25th of July, on St James’ day, the honourable and noble Hinrick Segelcken the Elder from Germany and citizen of the city of Bremen, died here in God our Lord, who has mercy on him.”

The tombstones were most probably imported by the German merchants, as the sandstone from which they were made is not available on the islands. By erecting a distinct grave marker for their deceased colleagues, they did not only honour their remembrance, but it also served to strengthen their ties with the local communities. The material and textual aspects of the monuments reminded the observer of the importance of the German merchants for the local economy, even across the boundaries of life and death.

A similar situation we find on Iceland, where we can also find tombstones of German merchants. The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, for example, houses the tomb slab of Bremen merchant Claus Lude (follow link for an image), who was originally buried in the monastery Helgafell on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The stone shows his house mark, a seal with two crossed stockfishes, and a text which mentions that he died on 3 June 1585. Lude is known to have been active in harbours in Snæfellsnes in the 1550s, and held a license for the harbour Grindavík in 1571.

In southern Iceland, at the graveyard of the former monastery Þykkvabær, one can still find the tombstone of Hans Berman the Younger from Hamburg, who died in 1583. The monastery records reveal that he was administrator of the monastic property (klausturhaldari) and was killed by the parish priest of Mýrar. His name also appears in the register of the Confraternity of St Anne of the Iceland merchants in Hamburg, where another Hans Berman (probably his father) was elderman around the same time.

In Hafnarfjörður near Reykjavík, the Hamburg merchants had their headquarters and also erected their own church. It is likely that they also had a graveyard where they buried their dead. During construction of the modern harbour of Hafnarfjörður in the 1940s, human bones were found which many believed to be from the old German graveyard in the town. It might even be possible that these bones once belonged to Hamburg merchant Hans Hambrock, the only death of a Hamburg merchant in Hafnarfjörður known from the written record. Hambrock had died from the injuries inflicted upon him by his colleague Hinrick Ratken, who drew his knife against him after Hambrock had hit Ratken on the head during a conflict about the unloading of a ship in 1599. Regrettably, the remains of the German church in Hafnarfjörður are now buried below the modern town.

 

Inscriptions on the discussed tombstones

Lunda Wick, Shetland

Segebad Detken: “HIR LIGHT DER EHRSAME / SEGEBAD DETKEN BVRGER / VND KAUFFHANDELER ZU / BREMEN [HE] HETT IN DISEN / LANDE SINE HANDELING / GEBRUCKET 52 IAHR / IST [ANNO 1573] DEN / 20 AUGUSTI SELIGHT / IN UNSEN HERN ENT / SCHLAPEN DER SEELE GODT GNEDIGH IST.”

Hinrick Segelcken: “ANNO 1585 DEN 25 IULII / UP S. JACOBI IS DE EHRBARE / UND VORNEHME HINRICK / SEGELCKEN DE OLDER UTH / DUDESCHLANT UND BORGER / DER STADT BREMEN ALHIR / IN GODT DEM HERN ENTSCHL / APN DEM GODT GNEDICH IS.”

Helgafell, Iceland

Clawes Lude: “Anno 1585 de.3. Junius starff clawes lüde van Bremen der olde. Dem godt gnedich seij.”

Þykkvabær, Iceland

Hans Berman: “HIR LICHT BEGRAVEN SALICH HANS BIRMA[N] D:I:V:H [i.e. “De Junger van Hamborg”] ANNO 1583.”

 

Further reading

Hofmeister, Adolf E. Sorgen eines Bremer Shetlandfahrers: Das Testament des Cordt Folkers von 1543. Bremisches Jahrbuch 94 (2015): 46–57.

Holterman, Bart. The Fish Lands. German Trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroes in the Late 15th and 16th Century. PhD thesis, Universität Hamburg, 2018.

Koch, Friederike Christiane. Das Grab des Hamburger Hansekaufmanns Hans Berman/Birman in Þykkvibær/Südisland. Island. Zeitschrift der Deutsch-Isländischen Gesellschaft e.V. Köln und der Gesellschaft der Freunde Islands e.V. Hamburg 5.2 (1999): 45.

MacDonald, George. More Shetland Tombstones. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 69 (1934): 27–48.

Posted in: Sources, Stories

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.

Posted in: General, Stories

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.

 

References:

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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