The disaster at Visby 1566 – a maritime archaeological project

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HUMA Maritime archaeology Gotland

The following text is a translation of a Swedish article published in “Gotländskt Arkiv”. The text is published on this website with permission from Länsmuseet in Visby. Illustrations (drawings and pictures) are not original illustrations from the article, but new pictures from the ongoing exhibition at the museum or illustrations based on pictures from the original article.

The disaster at Visby 1566 – a maritime archaeological project

By Rune Fordal

A maritime archaeological project
The wreck site at Brissund was discovered in 1982. This paper seeks to describe both the proce-dure of finding the artefacts on the sea floor and also the process of documentation and recovery. This paper also contains some descriptions of artefacts.

The historical background for the disaster is a battle at sea during the Nordic 7 Years War. On July 26th the Danish-Lübeck fleet had fought the Swedish fleet at the northern tip of Öland. After a furious battle (but with no considerable loss of ships) the Danish-Lübeck fleet headed for Visby to bury a Danish nobleman that had been killed during the battle. It was the commander of the Danish ship “Akilles” – Kristoffer Mogensøn – whose head had been shot off. As a nobleman he had the right to be buried in sacred ground. Gotland was Danish territory at this time. The fleet anchored at the roadstead outside Visby In spite of warnings from the lord of Visborg castle Jens Bille and reservations of several of the fleet commanders.

 All high ranking officers participated in the funeral that took place in Visby cathedral on July 28th. During the night (after everyone had returned to the ships) a horrendous storm broke out with strong winds from the northwest. Cables were torn or cut and many of the ships capsized, sank or drifted towards the beach where they were broken to pieces. The storm lasted for 5-6 hours.

 The sun rose upon a frightening sight in the morning of July 29th 1566. The losses were enormous. Only 17 Danish and 8 Lübeck ships had managed to stay afloat and away from the coast. Many masts had been cut and many cannons thrown over board in the desperate attempt to save the ships. Eleven Danish ships and three Lübeck ships were lost. The beaches were full of the bodies of the thousands of drowned people. Sources estimate that between 6000 and 7000 people drowned that night. This was likely to be one of the greatest disasters at sea in the Baltic ever.

 The search for the remains of the disaster started in the early 1960’s. Some members of the dive club of Gotland who had heard Anders Franzén tell of the disaster became interested in trying to find the ship remains. In the beginning the search consisted of sporadic dives at the assumed anchor sites on the roadstead outside Visby. Nothing was found and the interest faded. The author and another diver continued the search. Then a wreck site was discovered south of Visby by the old hemp factory. The water depth was 6-7 meters. Permission to recover some finds was given, but the investigations stopped when the outlet of the sewage treatment plant was constructed just by the wreck site. The interest in the disaster of the Danish-Lübeck fleet had now been revived and archival research began. The best information was to be found in a chronicle written by Peder H. Resen in 1680. He was professor and mayor of Copenhagen, ennobled in 1686. In the chronicle of King Frederich the 2nd (Kong Frederic Den Andens Krönicke) he describes the events before and after the disaster. A copper plate illustration belonging to this chronicle indicates the position of the Danish-Lübeck ships during the storm.

Copper plate 

Most ships of the 30 unit strong fleet had set their sails and managed to move away from the coast. Some of the ships that survived the storm can be seen in the foreground of the copper plate. Some of the other ships are fighting a hopeless battle. They sank with men and mice. The Danish vice admiral ship “Hannibal” can be seen just south of Visby. This is the previously mentioned wreck site that we found in 1965. The silver spoon of the vice admiral was amongst the item we recovered. Heraldic decorations and initials engraved on the back of the spoon handle linked the spoon to the vice admiral of “Hannibal” Jens Truidson Ulfstand and his wife Lisbet Bille.

 The position of this wreck site corresponds well with the copper plate illustration. Are the other ships also correctly positioned on the copper plate? Several years of research and diving were to pass before we found more traces of the disaster. The reason that we had moved our in-vestigation northward to Brissund was a passage in the chronicle. The Danish ship “Engelen” was mentioned to have wrecked at a place called “Gniessund”. Could this be a misunderstanding by the author of the chronicle, we thought and moved our investigations to Brissund.

 When in 1982 we discovered the wreck site just north of the fishing village we first thought that it was the wreck site of “Engelen”. The find material clearly indicate that certainly is a vessel from the Danish-Lübeck fleet, but we have since the discovery concluded that it cannot be that of the ship “Engelen”.

 How could one of the ships end up this far north? Back to the copper plate. The ship that wrecked at Brissund could have had some sail set at the beginning. The crew must have fought in the strong storm to get the ship away from the coast and into open waters. Maybe they tried to tack against the wind, but failed. The drift was too large and they came dangerously close to the break-ers at Brissund.

 Suddenly the ship hit the shoals approximately 220 meters NNW of Krusmyntagården. The ship started to break apart and many of the crew were thrown into the water and drowned. The beaten and water filled hull was thrown against the underwater ledges and broke further apart. We have discovered a 250 meter long trail of wreck material. It stretches from the shoal at Krusmyn-tagården along the underwater ledge towards the beach at Brisssund.

 We made our first contact with this wreck site in the summer of 1982, when we were diving in the southern part of the find area. We found some lead bullets and cannon balls in the sand by using the metal detector. Our curiosity was awoken and we made more dives in the area. We searched an area of approximately 500 m2 before we reached the center of the wreck site. Here we discovered large artefacts such as a cannon in its wooden bed, iron concretions containing cannon balls and parts of a large block. The block consisted of two massive bronze wheels at-tached to the remains of the wood block. All the artefacts were left untouched to be photographed in situ. We contacted the head of RAGU (riksantikvarieämbetets gotlandsundersökningar), Erik Nylén, to inform him of our findings and he informed the relevant authorities.

Cannon balls

 On April 7th 1983 Bert Westenberg from the State Maritime Museum came to inspect the wreck site. He agreed with us that it was the wreck site of an old vessel, probably from the 16th or 17th century. An oak sample was taken for C14 dating. We were not allowed to do any further div-ing in the area until we were given permission to do so.

 A diver with no maritime archaeological experience will most likely find the wreck site rather uninteresting. Besides the few large artefacts one cannot immediately see anything that resembles a large war vessel. One can swim past a large iron cannon at a distance of just 5 meters without noticing it. Without a metal detector we could not have assessed the area of the wreck site. As we had previous experience with maritime archaeological investigations we were given permission to recover and document artefacts from this wreck site (in cooperation with RAGU).

 In the beginning we were diving and making reconnaissance of the area. There were only a few large artefacts. Some large iron concretions containing cannon balls were plotted on a provi-sional sketch of the area. The reason for the absence of large artefacts in the area is that many artefacts (especially cannons and rigging) were recovered from the wrecks immediately after the disaster. Proof of this can be found in letters exchanged between Visborg castle and Copenhagen. Artefacts were recovered as late as 1575. Recovered items were shipped to either Copenhagen or Lübeck.

 After reconnaissance we established a right-angled coordinate system with squares of 5x5 meters. We used lines marked with labels for every 5 meters. The two parallel lines were secured to the sea bottom by iron stakes. The iron stakes are still visible in the firm clayey sea bottom. Be-tween the lines we attached plastic chain to indicate the squares. Systematic investigation of each square was made both visually and with Garrett UW metal detector to identify metal objects. When one square had been thoroughly searched we moved to the next square. Documentation of the position of objects was done by measuring the distance to two of the corners of each square. An ordinary 30 meter measuring tape was used. Sketches of finds were made on drawing boards. The survey squares were drawn onto the drawing boards in a lesser scale. The diving sketches were transferred to a larger map at the end of each dive.

 Almost immediately after the onset of our investigations we discovered precious metal in the form of large German silver coins dated between 1500 and 1566. We therefore concluded that this was not the Danish ship “Engelen” that we had discovered. It had to be one of the three Lübeck ships that were lost.

 On the copper plate we can see that one of the Lübeck ships “Josva” is situated far north. Only the masts are visible. The other Lübeck ships “Morianen” (situated off the southern end of Visby) and “Haffruen” (situated outside Högklint or further south). Until proven otherwise we as-sume that we have discovered the wreck site of “Josva”.

 In the spring of 1983 the authorities asked us to aim our investigations at the coins. During the summer of 1983 we recovered a total of 233 silver coins of the values taler, ½ taler and ¼ taler, all from the German regions. Many market towns, bishoprics and principalities are represented in this silver treasure. The coins were spread out in a fan-shape starting by a large boulder and stretching along the direction of the find area. The coins were found in an area of 15x20 meters. It probably was a ships chest. The coins are believed to have been kept in a chest or similar.
 
 Amongst the coins we also found a beautiful dagger handle made of solid silver. The handle consists of three pieces: knob, handle/grip and guard. The blade itself has corroded completely (see Per Lundströms article: Knife and boatswains call). Later that summer another beautiful find was made. This was a boatswains call with 4 chains for hanging. In spite of its broken chains the boatswains call was in amazingly good condition. We have great hopes conservation can restore the boatswains call in its original beauty (see Lundströms article).

 Much ceramics, mostly sherds, have been found within area B. In this area we also found red tiles that probably originate from the ships galley. We have found both the ordinary rectangular tiles, but also some more unusual square tiles.

 We have also recovered a piece of hemp rope. The rope was very fragile, which made it difficult to recover. We had to make a special container (dividable tube) that could be used for transporting the rope to shore. A little horn knife handle with flowery brass decorations was found completely engulfed in a concretion.
 
 Lead objects are numerous and appear both as bullets of varying sizes and as plates and moulding scrap. Metal pieces (scrap) of brass, copper, bronze and pewter are abundant. Amongst the copper items are a number of taps (for tapping liquids from barrels). The taps are made of solid copper. An interesting copper container (15 cm diameter and 64 cm long) may have been used for transportation of gun powder between the gun powder storage and the gun deck. The container has had a lid and a handle. Handling of gun powder on board had to be very careful. The gun powder was not to be spilled, get wet or kept close to fire. There are several examples of shipwrecks caused by explosions in the gun powder storage. The container probably held enough gun powder for two charges. A similar container is described in Nautical Archaeology no. 2, 1975.
 
 A number of coin-like copper discs (tokens?) have been found at two spots. Most of them have the letters H and B engraved and in addition some also have emblem like engravings. One may assume that these tokens have been used for internal trade on the vessel.
 
 The project has now been ongoing for 6 years. Our area of investigation has expanded every year. I 1984 we discovered new finds in the shallow waters just north of the area, that we originally believed to be the main site. We then had to twist our coordinate system towards this new area. The new area is called area B. In this area the finds are more inaccessible. Each square in the coordinate system is 5x5 meters and contain 10-15 m3 of compacted sand and stone. Until the autumn of 1988 approximately 500 finds have been recovered. The iron objects are the most problematic as they must be kept in water until conservation can take place. At present there are no institutions in Sweden that can handle conservation of large iron objects. At the moment these iron objects are kept on Gotland and we hope that maybe a conservations studio can be established here.   

 Experiments with digitising the documentation are ongoing. We are using an AUTOCAD-system into which we have transferred the survey grid. The data can be presented as maps of the survey area with information on the specific finds. One can even extract find lists from the data. Data processing has been done by Göte Stengård.

 The participants in the project until the autumn of 1988 were Arne Adolfsson, Rute, Tonny Westerberg, Fårösund and Rune Fordal, Visby (head of project). In 1989 the group was expanded with a new participant – Göran Svensson, Visby. We are hoping to conclude the investigations at Krusmyntagården in the summer of 1989. Then the work of finding the remaining 12 wreck sites can begin.

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