Mystery wreck discovered in the Baltic Sea

Oct. 8, 2002 at 3:05 PM
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STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- The Royal Swedish Navy said Tuesday it has discovered an underwater mystery shipwreck with skulls littering its centuries-old wooden decks.

The sailing ship, which marine archaeologists think is more than 200 years old, was found standing upright on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The reason for why it sank is so far an enigma, because its hull and masts remain perfectly intact.

"We don't have any clues whatsoever right now on what made it sink. We don't have any hints whatsoever," marine archaeologist Bert Westenberg of the Swedish National Maritime Museum in Stockholm told United Press International.

The Swedish rescue ship HMS Belos was searching for a lost dredger in the middle of the Baltic Sea when a sonar sweep picked up signs of a wreck more than 300 feet down in early 2002. The crew then deployed a remote controlled robot Sjöugglan -- Swedish for "sea owl" -- to check out the murky sea floor.

Their TV monitors revealed a beautifully preserved 85-foot-long ship, with twin 65-foot-tall masts standing upright and a gilded seahorse on its prow -- a pony's head with human hands instead of front hooves clasped under its belly and instead of rear legs, a fish's tail.

"Everything's in mint condition," Westenberg said. "It must have went down very fast. Everything looked the way it did when it was sailing. Perhaps it met some bad weather, or it started leaking and then went down very fast."

In an unusual detail, skulls are lying on the ship's deck from at least two crewmen. Normally, casualties float away as their ships sink into the deep. "They could have been trapped," Westenberg speculated.

What appear to be gunports are visible on each side. No guns, however, are seen. "We're not sure they're gunports. They could be decorations to make this ship to look like a naval vessel, maybe to fool pirates and keep them away," Westenberg said.

Researchers at the Swedish National Maritime Museum said that judging by its rigging, the twin-masted vessel appears to be a snow brig, a type of fast sailing vessel from the 18th century. Westenberg said the low salinity of the Baltic Sea, coupled with its far-off, deep-down location, have helped preserve the ship.

"What a wonderful find. It's a great discovery," said marine archaeologist Kevin Crisman at Texas A&M University in College Station. "It's pretty rare to find 18th century wrecks with the masts still standing and the carvings still preserved. You get that in few parts of the world, and the Baltic's one of them."

The identity of the ship is a mystery, researchers said. The ship appears to be a naval or postal ship and is not any known Swedish vessel. It could be from Russia or elsewhere, Westernberg added. The researchers hope archive searches will reveal more about the ship's history.

"We haven't been able to go down and look in the cargo holds and see if there's any post that are late for delivery by several hundred years," Westenberg said.

At present, neither the Swedish National Maritime Museum nor the Royal Swedish Navy has the money for an investigation.

"I hope they can do more with it," Crisman said. "This is a magnificent find. A wreck like this offers a great window to life in the 18th century. We can research it in libraries, but there's no substitute for an actual ship like this."

(Reported by Charles Choi, UPI Science News, in New York)

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