German ‘Time Capsule’

Rare 400-year-old ship found in River Trave, near Lübeck, Germany.


The Hanseatic League dominated much maritime trade across the Baltic and North Seas between the 13th and 17th centuries. Much of this commerce was in basic commodities such as salted cod from Iceland and northern Norway, also bulk cargoes like grain and wine.


The Hanse used flat-bottomed merchant vessels called galliots, designed with straight sides and a single square sail, to carry heavy loads. They were the first bulk carriers that carried cargoes shipped in standard-sized casks and other containers. Once commonplace in Baltic ports, we know surprisingly little about them, because wood disintegrates rapidly thanks for termites in these cold waters and wrecks rarely survive long. Fortunately (for us), a 400-year-old galliot that ran aground in the late 17th century was buried rapidly in a layer of fine mud in the Trave River as it was entering the major port at Lübeck.


The heavily-laden ship sank in an upright position, thanks to its cargo of barrels filled with quicklime. A prosaic commodity, perhaps, but one of great importance, made by burning limestone, a necessary ingredient for mortar used in stone buildings. Since limestone does not occur in northern Germany, the ship was probably carrying it in from sources in northern Denmark and Central Sweden. About 150 wooden barrels lay in or close to the wreck, 70 of them still in place inside the ship.


The apparently well-preserved hull is sediment filled, so there is a good chance that future excavations may throw light on the crew and their equipment, also details of the ship’s construction. Plans are being made to raise the wreck, which appears to be a unique time capsule of day-to-day maritime trade in the medieval Baltic.


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Image: The ship under investigation.

Credit: Research diver, Christian Howe.