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The Vrouw Maria Underwater project 2009 - 2012 has ended and achieved its aims

The Vrouw Maria Underwater project ended, as planned, on 31.12.2012. The four-year project, which ran from 2009 to 2012, was headed by the Finnish National Board of Antiquities and funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. We would like to express our great thanks to all the different bodies who participated in the project. We would like to thank the Ministry of Education and Culture for the funding that made the project possible, and would also like to thank the Dutch and Russian embassies for working with us on the various research and organisational aspects of uncovering the story of the Vrouw Maria. Particular thanks are also due to the divers who went 40 metres below sea level to the Vrouw Maria itself.

The project's aims were achieved:

  1. The fieldwork carried out at the Vrouw Maria produced new information about the ship itself, its cargo and the landscape at the wreck site. 38 objects were raised from the wreck, including 24 small round glass discs, clay pipes, pumice stone, a knotted coiled strip, and a sounding lead used to measure the depth of the water. Samples were taken of the packing cases and barrels in the ship's cargo hold. The samples included indigo, madder, traces of grapes, tobacco leaves, coffee beans and other plant residues, not all of which have been able to be identified. Also 11 wood samples were taken from the wrecks' structural parts. 538 digital photos and around 30 hours of video were selected for archival. Almost 140 hours of diving were carried out at the wreck. Furthermore, new multibeam sonar images were commissioned and underwater soundscape recordings made.
  2. The accessibility of the wreck was increased through the blog, Facebook, the Vrouw Maria virtual simulation, 3D scanning of objects raised from the wreck, the exhibition "Lost at sea - the story of the Vrouw Maria and the St. Mikael" and the publication "Lost at Sea, Rediscovered" which accompanied the exhibition, as well as the public seminar "From the Vrouw Maria to the Titanic". Tens of presentations were also given in Finland and abroad. The project also attracted a great deal of media attention.
  3. The project also produced new information about the conservation and management of the Vrouw Maria. In the light of the information currently available, the conservation of the wreck is sufficient but cooperation between authorities, for example, could be increased and developed. The condition of the timber structures of the wreck was studied during the project (see field research report 2010) and was found to be reasonably good. Various chemical elements have, however, accumulated on the surface of the timber, such as iron and sulphur, while bacteria and fungi are also feeding on the timber. The decomposition processes are slow, however.

The Vrouw Maria Underwater project addressed challenging, innovative and internationally topical interdisciplinary subjects such as the in situ preservation of wrecks and virtual accessibility. The project succeeded in identifying and developing good practical methods for improving access to underwater sites without raising them or carrying out extensive excavations. These methods can also be applied to other underwater cultural heritage sites. One such method is the virtual simulation produced on the basis of a scale model of the Vrouw Maria and the results of the field research.

The story of the Vrouw Maria can be encapsulated at this point as three different storylines, as follows:

  1. The story of the archaeology/history
  2. The story of the ecosystem/environment
  3. The story of the landscape/soundscape

Research into the first story began immediately the wreck was discovered in 1999. The theme of the historical story also continued in the EU-funded "Monitoring, Safeguarding and Visualising Northern-European Shipwreck Sites" project (MoSS) in 2001 - 2004. This was naturally also a central theme of the Vrouw Maria Underwater project. Research to survey the underwater environmental conditions of the Vrouw Maria began during the MoSS project, where measuring equipment was used to obtain information on the temperature, current and oxygen content. During the Vrouw Maria Underwater project information was gathered on the organisms on the seabed, etc. and a more accurate view of the condition of the wreck was obtained. The Vrouw Maria Underwater project added a new perspective on the underwater landscape and soundscape. The divers were also interviewed about their experiences of the site and what it was like under the water. The landscape of the Vrouw Maria can be explored in the virtual simulation and the exhibition "Lost at sea - the story of the Vrouw Maria and the St. Mikael" at the Maritime Museum of Finland until 13 January 2013.

Access to the wreck of the Vrouw Maria was increased by different methods

The purpose of the Vrouw Maria Underwater project was to improve access to the wreck by means other than raising the wreck. Accessibility was increased through a blog, Facebook, an interactive 3D virtual simulation, an exhibition, an exhibition publication and by digitising the objects raised from the wreck. New archive and literature research was also carried out and research into the ship and its cargo was continued, for example, by taking samples from the cargo hold. The project sought to determine the best ideas and approaches to in situ preservation of wrecks, as is primarily recommended by UNESCO and ICOMOS.

A central part of the project was the underwater archaeological research carried out at the Vrouw Maria. The scientific work was made more accessible by reporting the progress of the fieldwork and its results on the project's blog and on Facebook. Besides text, the blog also contains video, photographs and the sound samples recorded underwater at the wreck site. The project website also provides information on the project, the fieldwork and the research results.

As its name suggests, the main emphasis of the Vrouw Maria Underwater project was on the underwater world. Its aim was to broaden people's assumptions about wrecks by showing that each site is governed by its own unique underwater landscape and soundscape and that each and every diver who has visited and worked at the wreck site has their own memories and experiences of it. The divers' experiences remind us that cultural heritage is made up not only of the site itself but of its users and their personal experiences.

The Vrouw Maria's underwater landscape and soundscape will be on display until 13 January 2013 at the Maritime Museum of Finland in the exhibition "Lost at sea - the story of the Vrouw Maria and the St. Mikael", where it is possible to make a virtual underwater journey to the wreck of the Vrouw Maria and its underwater landscape using an interactive 3D simulation. This simulation, the only one of its kind in the world, opens a window on a landscape which no single human being has ever seen before - even the divers are only able to see a small part of the wreck or the seabed at a time because underwater visibility at the wreck site usually varies between about half a metre to five metres. The simulation was created in partnership with the Media Lab at Aalto University and it will remain part of the permanent exhibition of the Maritime Museum of Finland.

The "Lost at sea - the story of the Vrouw Maria and the St. Mikael" exhibition also provides additional information about the story of the Vrouw Maria, the finding of the wreck and its cargo, the ship itself and the eighteenth century, when people were already living in an international age. The exhibition also offers a chance to explore the digitised objects raised from the wreck and to find out more about the debate surrounding its discovery. In addition, the illustrated exhibition publication "Lost at Sea, Rediscovered" provides interesting and informative reading.

The high point of the Vrouw Maria Underwater project was the international seminar "From the Vrouw Maria to the Titanic - What to do with intact wrecks?" run in partnership with the Maritime Museum of Finland on 9 - 10 November 2012 at the Maritime Centre Vellamo in Kotka. Besides the research into the Vrouw Maria, the seminar also explored other current wreck projects. It also provided an excellent opportunity to consider what should be done with well-preserved wrecks in the Baltic.

Archaeological diving research produced new information about the Vrouw Maria's cargo

During the Vrouw Maria Underwater project between 2009 and 2012, a total of eight weeks of fieldwork were carried out. The aim was to continue documenting the wreck and to gather together the measurements of the vessel already taken to reconstruct the sailing ship, and to research the content of the cargo hold by taking samples and raising objects. The Vrouw Maria has been documented by measurements, photography and video. A remotely controlled video camera was used to monitor visually observable changes in the wreck. The fieldwork produced new information about the ship and its cargo, and, for example, its trade links and the life of the upper echelons of society in the eighteenth century. Numerous analyses and the interpretation of the results from these, cooperation between experts, and research into the archival and literature sources have produced further details about the story of the Vrouw Maria. The research into the wreck also demonstrated that non-intrusive or minimally intrusive techniques were capable of providing new information.

The contents of the packing crates and barrels remaining in the hold were studied by taking samples and raising some objects to the surface. Items raised from the wreck included glass lenses, pumice stone, clay pipes and a sounding lead. Samples were also raised which enabled the contents of the barrels and packing crates on the ship to be identified. The cargo hold still contains woollen fabric in wooden, rectangular packing crates, pumice stone, round glass discs in compartments in a box, traces of grapes, coffee beans, tobacco leaves and indigo. The tobacco leaves were packed in a packing case separated into compartments by interior walls. The other products above were packed in barrels. Some of the finds are listed in the cargo list while others are completely new discoveries. Some of the results of the analysis have confirmed the information in the written sources, but some of the raw materials and objects have provided completely new information on the contents of the hold. The cargo list and the list of salvaged goods include valuable dyestuffs such as madder, indigo and brazilwood. Indigo is mentioned in both documents, the others only in the cargo list. There is a large amount of dyestuffs, including almost 9,000 kilos of madder and about 1,600 kilos of indigo. In 2011 a blue dyestuff was found in a sample from a barrel in the hold which, following analysis, is either indigo or woad. In 2012 further research was carried out and a new sample was found to contain a leaf of indigo which had been preserved despite the dye plant having been processed. Traces of madder root were also found in the samples from 2012.

The cargo list also includes a significant amount of textiles, such as wool and cotton fabrics. Some of the fabrics were salvaged, although they were wet and spoiled. Close to the hatch to the larger cargo hold there is still a packing crate which contains a beautifully red coloured wool fabric. Study of the textile has established that it was dyed using the valuable dyestuffs cochineal, madder and archil, obtained from lichen. New finds include grape seeds and pumice stone, which was used to polish floors. In summer 2012 one sample was found to be a large amount of coffee beans. They were partly responsible for the sinking of the ship as, according to the logbook, coffee beans blocked the ship's pumps. We do know that some of the coffee was saved because in 1772 a small ad in a newspaper published in St Petersburg stated that coffee salvaged from the Vrouw Maria was to be sold at auction.

New information about the snow, the Vrouw Maria

The hull of the Vrouw Maria was built using frame-built construction. The frame of the ship was built entirely in oak, while the parts of the rig were pine. The total length of the hull is approximately 26.3 metres, the beam at its widest point at deck level approximately 7.1 metres and the maximum beam at the waterline approximately 8.2 metres. The height of the hull was measured at three points. In considering the measurement results it should be borne in mind that the ship, which is slightly tilted to starboard, has settled unevenly an estimated good metre into the sediment of the sea bed along its entire length. At the bow the ship measures 5.5 metres from the highest point of the prow to the sea bed and at the stern 6 metres correspondingly from the upper edge of the sternpost. In the centre of the ship at the lowest point of the hull the height from the top of the rail to the sea bed is approximately 3.6 metres.

The interior of the ship can be divided into three main sections: the aft cabin, the cargo hold and the galley. The galley in the bow of the ship has an oven whose brick flue rises to the deck in front of the windlass. The total length of the cargo hold between the aft cabin and the galley is approximately 19 metres. The layer of sediment that has accumulated on top of the cargo of the ship, the parts of the rigging that have fallen into the hull and also collapsed structural parts of the hull in places have made it harder to document the cargo hold. Although at the moment the hull looks like a long open space, in amidst the layer of sediment it is possible to see the remains of vertical and horizontal bulkheads that have broken at the top. No mid-decks have been observed and it was not possible to investigate this without removing the cargo from the hold. According to the sea protest the height of the cargo hold at the pumps was over 9 (Amsterdam) feet.

The shipwreck and the salvage work that followed it have particularly damaged the stern of the vessel. The ship is entirely missing its transom, parts of which have, however, been found on the sea bed. The deck beams of the raised deck at the stern are still in place but all the deck planking has been lost. The total length of the raised deck was approximately 4.2 metres measured from the inside edge of the sternpost to the first decorated deck beam on the bow side. Next to the sternpost on the starboard side there is a rectangular cargo hatch approximately 80 x 90 cm for the planks and other long timber goods.

From the fore side of the aft deck the Vrouw Maria's deck continues at the same level up to the prow. There is a very well preserved windlass in the bow, the barrel of which is carved from oak. Loading and unloading was carried out through the two cargo hatches between the masts. Between the mainmast and the raised aft deck there was a wooden deckhouse. The measurements of the deckhouse, which has almost entirely collapsed, have been reconstructed on the basis of the structural components found at the site. The width of the rectangular room was approximately 3.7 metres, the length approximately 5.3 metres and the height approximately 1.6 metres. The lightly built deckhouse would have been used as crew quarters, for storage or possibly both.

Approximately a metre of deck space remains between the deckhouse and the raised deck. Roughly half way along are the ship's two pumps, still in their original positions. The rudder of the ship has been lost but the tiller used to steer it has been found and measured. The tiller is 5.2 metres long and assuming it was positioned attached to the upper edge of the rudder, it can be calculated that the head of the tiller would have extended between the raised deck and the deckhouse, at a height from which the ship would have been steered at that point.

Many of the component parts of the rig lie on the deck and on the sea bed, particularly on the starboard side. So far, the attention has mainly been focussed only on the rounded timbers (masts, spars, yards, bowsprit and gaff). The Vrouw Maria had two three-section square-rigged masts (standing mast, topmast, topgallant mast). The height of the large standing mast, still upright on the ship, is 15.2 metres from deck level, while that of the foremast is 13.9 metres. The diameters of both masts are 47 cm at deck level. The snow mast has not yet been found on the wreck but its 8.1 metre-long gaff has been identified and documented. On the basis of the measurements of the gaff throat it can be determined that the diameter of the snow mast would have been a maximum of approximately 25 cm. Both masts are assumed to have had three yards. Timber samples show that all the parts of the rig were pine.

A reconstruction has been completed on the basis of the documented parts of the rig of the Vrouw Maria, according to which the height of the mainmast would have been approximately 26 metres measured from deck level and the foremast approximately 24 metres. With the bowsprit (length 13.5 m) and the jib boom that extends it (length 8.3 m) the total length of the Vrouw Maria was a good 40 metres. Heavy rig and the ability to maximise the sail surface area are indicated by interesting information in the auction document stating that the Vrouw Maria's equipment included two studding sails.

The origin and the dating of the Vrouw Maria which sank in the outer Nauvo archipelago in autumn 1771 have given rise to debate in the past. Research at the wreck site year by year has not produced any new information to contradict the known archival sources describing the shipwreck or the subsequent research carried out after the ship was located. For example, there appears to be no confusion regarding the type of rig - according to the sea protest by Captain Reynoud Lourens himself the vessel he commanded on the voyage from Amsterdam to St Petersburg was a snow, "Snau Skieppet Fru Maria". The sale document which, besides the rig and the main measurements, would also state where the ship was built and when - has not yet been found. On the basis of dendrochronological sampling from the structures of the Vrouw Maria, the construction of the ship can, however, be dated to roughly the mid-eighteenth century.

New information about the Vrouw Maria's underwater landscape and soundscape

One of the important aims of the Vrouw Maria Underwater project was to study the underwater landscape and the soundscape of the Vrouw Maria site. The name of the project itself refers to the fact that the focus is mainly on the underwater setting. Here the aim was to share the fascination of the underwater world and emphasise the fact that every wreck has its own unique landscape and soundscape and that documenting and presenting these provides added value to research into underwater cultural heritage and its in situ preservation. Landscape studies can also be considered to bring a new and fresh angle to wreck sites.

The underwater landscape and soundscape were approached from a human geography landscape research point of view, or point of hearing, one might say. The aim was to use words and various pictorial presentations, video and photographs as well as an innovative, interactive 3D virtual simulation, to describe the surroundings of the Vrouw Maria in her underwater valley, the soundscape and what the location and the space could be like beneath the water. Additionally comparisons were sought with onshore landscapes and familiar presentations of scenery. Other important elements were the personal experiences of the divers who visited the Vrouw Maria of the place, the space and the soundscape. The Vrouw Maria's landscape and soundscape were described in more detail in two articles in the National Board of Antiquities' book "Lost at Sea, Rediscovered". The source material used in the articles includes multi-disciplinary data collected during the fieldwork at the Vrouw Maria site, statements of experts, literature and interviews with the divers.

Humans cannot see or hear very well underwater. Seeing and hearing are also different from on land. In the Baltic Sea the challenge is even greater due to the hooded diving suits worn against the cold and to the darkness and opacity of the water. Due to restricted underwater visibility, the landscape of the Vrouw Maria's underwater valley can never be perceived at a single glance. This means that the people who have dived on the Vrouw Maria have not seen this landscape from the wreck.

The underwater valley in which the Vrouw Maria sank in 1771 is located in the Archipelago Sea on the edge of the Baltic Basin. The valley is approximately 850 metres long and approximately 300 metres wide. The valley is approximately 850 metres long and approximately 300 metres wide. This valley landscape can be examined from constructed images which provide a panoramic bird's eye view from above, in which the wreck can be distinguished in the middle of the valley at a depth of 41 metres on its northern slope. Other elements are the flat bottom of the valley, the low terraces next to the wreck and the rocky slopes surrounding the valley. At the bottom of the valley the environmental conditions, the "underwater weather", are largely stable. It is likely that they were the same at the time of the shipwreck. There is no plant life in the valley but it is home to various fauna. The effects of the winter ice do not extend as far down as the wreck. No people were drowned in the shipwreck of the Vrouw Maria so it is not a burial site. The wreck is the only historic element in the valley landscape and it can be seen either as a romantic ruin or as material evidence of a maritime disaster. The valley can unofficially be termed the Vrouw Maria valley. The maritime archaeological research saw the start of interaction between humans and nature in the valley and the advent of humans as users also means taking possession of the location. The importance of the site is also increased by legislation, as is its identity by naming it.

The Vrouw Maria site also has a geographical and spatial dimension. As a site, the wreck has a concrete location and a material form. It encompasses places of departure, arrival and waiting, non-places, paths and intermediate waters representing abstract space. The landscape and soundscape of the Vrouw Maria are also linked to the experiences and memories of the divers, which produce cultural meanings and tell the story of the site. The Vrouw Maria has been made a workplace, characterised by the fact that it is not possible to dive there for merely recreational purposes and that almost all diving is linked to professional maritime archaeological research. The divers have observed their environment by multi-sensory means, distinguishing, among other things, worlds of colour, auditory experiences, and pressure and temperature variations.

The landscape of the Vrouw Maria's underwater valley can be observed as a whole entity only indirectly and with the aid of equipment, including representations made using data produced by various remote sensing equipment, particularly images. The landscape can also be experienced through a broader range of methods; it is not necessarily essential to go and visit the site itself or even to be present at presentations of photographic or video material. The landscape can also be conveyed through books, television programmes, websites and second-hand reports. It can also be merely a mental experience, a landscape of the mind, founded on the knowledge, experience and the mental interpretation of the individual or the group.

The landscape also incorporates a soundscape. Nature has always been the main feature of the soundscape of the Vrouw Maria. This can mainly be categorised into daily changes, weather conditions and seasonal changes. The sounds produced by nature do not usually carry very deep into the water. Until the early 20th century the Vrouw Maria's location was allowed to remain in acoustic peace. With the dawn of modernisation, various mechanical sounds arrived in the area at the same time as the depopulation of the archipelago and the founding of the Archipelago National Park silenced the soundscape. Today the research into the Vrouw Maria is temporarily changing the nature-based emphasis of the soundscape. The typical and prevailing element of the Vrouw Maria's water column is silence, which even at deck level is undisturbed by the sound of the fieldwork. The soundscape of the Vrouw Maria can be said to be silent in four respects: 1. under the water it is generally silent as far as human hearing in concerned, 2. the Finnish underwater soundscape is generally silent, 3. the location of the wreck in an underwater valley surrounded by underwater shallows muffles the sound from outside the valley and 4. the wreck is located in the restricted area of the Archipelago National Park in which there is a year-round movement ban which considerably limits human activity and ship movements and the sound these produce. Divers have personal experience of the soundscape of the Vrouw Maria. Silence at the Vrouw Maria can also act as a shared sound memory for the divers.

Various presentations of the current underwater landscape can be found, e.g. on the internet, and all of us have some kind of concept of what can be seen under the sea. The surface of the water is no longer the limit of the landscape. Different landscapes are not merely found at one particular stage but are produced structures, interpreted in different ways. They also have their own fashions, whose origin is influenced by different western concepts of landscape. Is it the turn of the underwater landscape next?


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