Unknown wrecks explored on the West Coast

27 December, 2021

The Baltic Sea is famous for its ability to preserve old wrecks. But along the West Coast there are many wrecks that have never been properly investigated, according to Staffan von Arbin, who researches the subject at the University of Gothenburg.
“Each ship gives us a new piece of the puzzle to history, so we can paint an even better picture of how society used to work,” he says.

Anders Gutehall and Staffan von Arbin
Anders Gutehall and Staffan von Arbin at the inspection of the wreck in Brännholmsviken. Photo: Jens Lindström/Nordic Maritime Group.

“People think that almost all the wrecks are in the Baltic Sea, but there are also lots of wrecks here on the West Coast.

Staffan von Arbin is a researcher at the University of Gothenburg and is currently working on his thesis in marine archaeology. It includes that he will map the medieval shipping along the Swedish west coast. So far, Arbin has investigated shipwrecks from Fjällbacka down to Styrsö.

“I’ve worked in marine archaeology for over 20 years, but no one has examined these wrecks before. Most wrecks are still anonymous and undated.

So far, Arbin has managed to make a general survey of about ten wrecks from the Middle Ages. One of the wrecks was discovered back in 1994, at Brännholmsviken on Styrsö. But no one, until Staffan von Arbin’s investigation, had the knowledge to be able to date the ship. Now Arbin can report that the ship dates from the 1500s – and built of wood from western Sweden.

“It’s been buried in the sediments, so it’s been protected from shipworms, which has probably made the wood hold up so well. We can also use the annual rings and analyses to see that the wood comes from Western Sweden.

Anders Gutehall
Marine archaeologist Anders Gutehall inspects the bottom. Photo: Staffan von Arbin/University of Gothenburg.

Arbin believes that the vessel was used for fishing during the great herring period of the 1500s, when the coast brought in large quantities of herring.

“We know that during the same period there have been settlements and other settlements linked to fishing here, so it is most likely connected. Each ship gives us a new piece of the puzzle to history, so we can paint an even better picture of how society used to work.

There are few wooden ships from the 1500s that are as well preserved as what has been found off Styrsö, says Staffan von Arbin. But it is not yet known why the ship sank or exactly how it was used in fishing.

“We will have to wait for future surveys to get more answers. And it’s exciting, it’s part of our economic history. It is often said that the boats reflect the technology of that time. When examining a shipwreck, you can learn a lot about transport patterns and trade connections.

Dendrochronological test
Dendrochronological test from the plating in the wreck in Brännholmsviken. Photo: Jens Lindström/Nordic Maritime Group

The ship has been built using clinker technology, a traditional technique used in the Nordic countries since the Viking Age. This means that the boards overlap each other instead of lying side by side. On December 14 of this year, construction technology was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Arbin does not plan to re-dive at the wreck in the near future, but will continue his thesis investigating and mapping this and other wrecks he has discovered during his field studies.

“It’s going to be exciting. We’ve only scratched the surface so far.

Text: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: Jens Lindström/Nordic Maritime Group, Staffan von Arbin/University of Gothenburg

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