In 1961, the 17th-century Swedish warship Vasa was recovered from the Baltic Sea. King Gustavus Adolphus had spared no expense in building what was to be one of the most powerful warships of its day, carrying more than 60 cannons on two gun decks and decorated with exquisite sculptures of mythic gods and mermaids.
Sadly, the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage not far from the Stockholm harbor. More than 300 years later, its salvagers were astonished by the pristine condition of this 225-foot-long, three-masted ship, nearly all of which was found intact. Indeed, the vessel was so well preserved, the minutest of details could still be distinguished in the artwork onboard.
The Vasa tale is just one of many that fascinates maritime archaeologists exploring the Baltic region. The semi-enclosed sea is strewn with shipwrecks: Sweden claims an estimated 900 off its shores, while nearly 1,000 lie in German waters. The majority are from the early 20th century—the haunting remnants of two World Wars—although a number of immaculately preserved wrecks hundreds of years old reveal the long battle to control these northern waters, particularly between Sweden and Denmark.
Because it is mostly landlocked, the Baltic has a low salinity (about a quarter of normal sea water); the lack of salt prohibits the growth of marine organisms that would typically erode organic materials, particularly wood. Thus, sunken ships are able to stay intact for centuries, turning the Baltic’s floor into a sort of maritime time capsule that reveals innovations in shipbuilding over the centuries, as well as important societal and economic changes.
In 2003, a crew searching the Baltic for a WWII plane accidentally came upon a near-intact 17th-century vessel that has come to be known as the “Ghost Ship.” The mystery craft is believed to be fluyt, a type of Dutch sailing cargo ship, built around 1650. Eight years later, divers finally located the 16th-century Swedish navy ship Mars, one of maritime archaeology’s greatest discoveries. The fiercest warship of its day met a fiery end in a battle with German forces in 1564, sending nearly 900 sailors to the bottom of the Baltic—along with a cargo in gold coins estimated to be worth upward of $180 million.