Medieval shipwreck discovered in Tallinn continues to confound the experts

A late medieval shipwreck found during the course of construction work in central Tallinn has continued to bring surprises to archaeologists.

Whereas initially the wreck, found during work on Lootsi close to the Old City Harbor, was categorized as a fourteenth-century cog, a clinker-built single-master typical of the Hanseatic League trade routes, now it appears that it was a considerably larger ship.

The vessel was probably Scandinavian built, and with a structure which international experts had not seen before, at least in boats of that era.

The find has also yielded a haul of fascinating details, including rats preserved in pitch, and the fact that people ashore were aware of the wreck and even seem to have broken off bits of it as trophies.

Maritime museum researcher Priit Tätti told ETV current affairs show "Ringvaade" that the vessel "Has characteristics which don't match to those which, historically speaking, have been considered to be cogs."

Usually with cogs, waterproofing was achieved via the use of moss, but in the Lootsi street example used pitch-covered animal fur, in addition to moss, for this purpose, Lätti said.

This indicates the vessel was likely of Scandinavian origin, meaning it was not laid down in that part of Europe associated with cogs - mainly northern Germany.

This is not the only idiosyncrasy of the find, Lätti added.

"It has a flat bottomed-hull, which at first glance seems exactly like that of a cog, but in fact the structure is quite unusual. Colleagues from abroad, who have seen more of these kinds of wrecks, have thrown up their hands and said they are not aware of anything similar," he went on.

Additional plank structures also raise questions. Lätti said that these have been seen before in shipbuilding, but were thought to have been introduced a hundred years later than the vessel's date. "These are all things that are very interesting to find, but every such find raises more questions than it answers," he said.

However, what is known is that it constituted a cargo ship built for the open seas; its last consignment before being wrecked was a cargo of large oak timber and ceramic roof tiles, all to be used in construction.

The location of present-day Lootsi street is on reclaimed land which would have been underwater in the late middle ages.

While the stern of the ship is very well preserved, with the bow the case is the opposite. "We don't know the story of the wreck to a great degree of accuracy, but we do know it was also located while in situ in such a way that it could be observed that the stern was lower and the bow was higher," Lätti said, adding that it was heeling to port when it sank.

The attitude at which it sank and the fact that this happened in shallow waters meant that the wreck would have been visible from the shore, which also explains some of the damage to the bow, he added.

"Examining this picture from the inside, it seems that some time after the sinking, the bow breached the surface of the water and local 'enthusiasts' then tried to take some of the details from there, as it is clear that some of these have been sawn off," he went on.

While it was initially thought that the wreck was about 10 meters long, by the end of the excavation work, a 20-meter-long ship was revealed. "It is still among the three biggest found in Europe, from that time," Lätti said.

While medieval ships found on the coasts of Europe are otherwise quite empty of finds, according to Lattti, both wrecks from that era found in Estonia have given archaeologists plenty to rejoice about.

According to Latti, it is, for instance, amazing how well the organic matter left on the ship has been preserved - preserved fruit and fish have been found inside, and more than twenty leather shoes have also been discovered.

"Were we otherwise used to archaeological finds coming in fragments, here they all came out intact," he went on.

The real "hit" find was the dead rats found well-preserved in tar which had flowed from barrels ruptured in the sinking, or at some point.

However, the hit find of the shipwreck turned out to be rats, which were buried under the tar that flowed out of the broken barrel. At the moment, the rats are in the laboratory's refrigerator, but since they are completely preserved with both skin and fur, it is hoped that various analysis, including of stomach contents and DNA, may shed more light on the stricken vessel's origins and history.

When initially found last summer, the ship was thought to be something of a transitional type, between a single-masted cog, and a double-masted hulk.

The wreck was found at a depth of around 1.5m during construction work for a planned office building, and is dated to the 1360s.

The wreck is 24.5m long, 9m in beam and 4m in height.

The hull was transported to the museum in two halves (see photo), a job which itself required some organization and had to be done in the small hours.

The original "Ringvaade" segment (in Estonian) is here.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Karmen Rebane

Source: 'Ringvaade', ERR Menu

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