Medieval ships discovered in Tallinn are rare well-preserved cogs

One of the medieval shipwrecks at Tivoli construction site (National Heritage Board)
7/2/2015 1:38 PM
Category: Society

A few weeks ago ERR News reported a find of medieval ships at a construction site in Tallinn. Excavations are now well under way and the first results in.

Of the two ships laying close to each other, one is at least 600 years old, the other a bit younger.

"Some have already claimed this the find of a century," Research in Estonia reports.

One of the vessels, a merchant ship from 13th or 14th century, bears sings of fire. "The wooden ship where tar and moss had been used as insulating materials was excellent food for fire that spread fast," said archaeologist Maili Roio, who is excavating the ships. The fire ravaged through the vessel so quickly that even most of the ropes and moorings were left on the ship when it sank.

Roio's team is performing an emergency dig on the ship, required before the construction of a new residental area can continue on the site where the ships were found in June. “Nothing would have happened to the ship, had she stayed where she was. But now we have to move quickly as exposure to oxygen, wind, and sunlight has been a real shock to her,” Roio explained.

As preserving and conserving would be too expensive, both the older ship and another one found a few metres away from the 15th or 16th century, will be removed from the site, researched as much as possible and then stowed away. In other words – the ships are going to be sunk back to the sea and covered, as the cold and wet environment is the best place to avoid further damage to them until funds to restore them can be found. “At the moment, we don’t even have the possibilities to conserve them. So sinking them is the most reasonable thing to do. That way, maybe someone some day will find a way to lift, conserve, and exhibit them.”

“We won’t have the time to analyse the ships very thoroughly in situ, but we try to document and research the wrecks as thoroughly as we possibly can in current conditions. We also try to preserve them as compactly as possible,” Roio said.

Maili Roio at the excavation site (Photo: Liis Kängsepp/Research in Estonia)

Hence, Roio and her colleagues have managed to gather a lot of new information and artefacts that will be displayed on an exhibition, most likely to take place in the next few years. The finds include mortars, footwear, textiles and pottery found in the ships stowage.

The ships are almost definitely cogs, a popular type of vessels built in the Medieval times and used for many centuries. It was 2 metres deep, about 20 metres long and 6 metres wide. Only parts of such vessels have been found in Estonia before and even on a global scale, well-preserved wrecks are rare. The most famous of them, the Bremen cog that was built in the late 14th century and found some fifty years ago in Germany, is now displayed as one of the key exhibits in the German Shipping Museum in Bremerhaven.

An engraving of 15th century Hanseatic cog by German printmaker Israhel van Meckenem (Wikimedia Commons)

Roio also expressed hope that this might not be the last to be unearthed in Estonia. "Although these vessels are quite extraordinary, it is possible we’ll encounter more such findings in the future," she said. "Tallinn was, after all, a Hanseatic city, so who knows."

"I just hope we find it when we are more prepared for it than today,” she admitted.

The wrecks of three Medieval ships were discovered in June in an old harbor near Kadriorg, which was filled in toward the end of the 1930s. The vessels lied 4 meters deep in sea sediments.

M. Oll

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