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Field research on the wreck of the Vrouw Maria in 2011

The National Board of Antiquities' Archaeological Field Services Unit studied the wreck of the Vrouw Maria on 4-15 July 2011. The aim of the research was to identify the contents of the packing cases and barrels in the hull of the ship, determine whether the mercury amongst the cargo had spread into the hull and to continue research on the structures of the vessel. Although over ten years have passed since the finding of the wreck, there is much that remains to be documented in the well-preserved shipwreck. Working underwater at a depth of 40 metres is slow and diving time is limited.

Photo: National Board of Antiquities

There are an exceptionally large number of written sources related to the Vrouw Maria, such as the list of cargo in the Danish Sound Dues ledgers, a list of the objects salvaged from the ship written after the wreck, the sea protest, an extract from the logbook about the wreck and the days following it, correspondence on the salvage of the ship and the paintings that went down with it, the report of the diving commissioner on the search for the wreck and even mentions of art works lost at sea in the Vrouw Maria in letters between Empress Catherine the Great and French philosopher Voltaire. However, the written sources do not tell the full story, for example cargo was generally listed as quantities of raw materials and goods, and goods for the court, which were exempt from duty, were not recorded. The records may only state "undefined goods" followed by a customs fee. Nor is cargo to be insured always specified in the insurance documents. The pipes and lenses visible through the hatches of the Vrouw Maria are not among the goods listed and it is to be assumed that there may be more similar such cargo. The cargo hold still contains a large number of packing crates and barrels which are in their original locations but partly broken. It is not possible to dive safely inside the hull but a survey has been carried out using a robot camera, for example, and by pushing a video camera used by a diver through a hole in the hull as far inside as the arm could reach. On the basis of these documents it was decided to take samples from those barrels and packing crates that it was possible to reach using sampling equipment or by hand without placing the wreck, the cargo or the divers at risk.

The contents of the hull are covered in grey-brown sediment which has accumulated over two hundred years. It was only possible to identify the pipes and glass lenses. There was also a sample previously taken from one of the packing crates which contained red fibres. The purpose of taking this sample, however, was to identify the white matter covering the crate, so the red fibre was not analysed in this context. The white matter turned out to be sulphur-reducing bacteria. In summer 2011 a new sample was taken from the crate which showed that it contained red-dyed wool fabric. One of the elements used to dye the fabric was cochineal, obtained from aphids. The fabric in question would have been a valuable commodity due to its quality and expensive dyestuffs.

Photo: Krista Vajanto

Samples were taken from two barrels and two packing crates and objects were raised from two packing crates. Six pipes were raised, in order to obtain more information about their origin. There was no information about the materials in which the pipes were packed, the pipes were in pieces on top of the rest of the cargo. The samples taken from the barrel contained grape seeds and blossoms, lingonberry leaves and a blue dyestuff which is likely to be indigo. The packing crates contained wool fabric and rolled tobacco leaves. Close to the fore cargo hatch there are two packing crates containing pumice. This volcanic stone is used, for example, for whitening teeth, polishing horses' hooves, trimming dogs' coats, polishing floors and removing hard skin. Wooden floors are still polished using pumice stone, for example. The pumice may have originated from Italy. One packing crate, divided into compartments, contained rows of glass lenses, 24 of which were raised. The lenses are very thin and they were partly stuck together. It is still unclear what the lenses were intended to be used for. Judging by their size, they might have been lenses for glasses but they are very thin for this purpose. Research into the lenses and the pipes continues. Research to identify the cargo will continue this spring in conjunction with field research.

Photo: Aki Leinonen

The purpose of documenting the hull is to determine the ship's construction method and the materials used. Samples have been taken from the structural parts of the ship to identify the materials. We know from this research that the hull of the ship was made from oak and the rig from pine. The dendrochronology sample taken from the deck planking shows that the last growth ring in the wood dates from 1729. It must be assumed that some of the tree rings were removed when carving the timber so the deck of the ship would appear to have been built in around 1750 or thereafter. The wood seems to originate from the area of Poland. A ring sample taken from part of the capstan produces almost the same result, its last preserved tree ring dates from 1728. A three-dimensional model has been created on the basis of measurements of the Vrouw Maria's hull, which will be supplemented by the results of future field research on both the hull and the rig.

Photo: National Board of Antiquities


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Last updated 30.10.2015
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