A lost warship whose sinking forever changed Scandinavian history has been found “gleaming like gold” on the ocean floor, pitting archaeologists in a race against the clock.
The Delmenhorst, a Danish warship, was sunk during the Torstenson War, in which Sweden won a decisive victory over Denmark and replaced them as the leading Nordic power.
For centuries, the ship sat unnoticed in just 3.5 metres of water, but now it’s finally been found – just weeks before the wreck site is buried by a land reclamation project.
Marine archaeologists from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, must now take 30,000 photos of the wreck, digitally building a 3D model of the entire area before it’s buried.
“In this way, the shipwreck can be exhibited digitally at the museum, even though it is still on the seabed,” said museum curator Morten Johansen.
He continued: “The wreck is situated in a reclamation area where new land will be established. This means that the wreck will stay ‘in situ’ under the new land areas.
“We hope that in the future someone will find a method that ensures you get more knowledge out of such a wreck than we are able to pull out of it today.”
The wreck presently lies 150 metres from the Danish island of Lolland. Archaeologists say it matches the historical accounts of the Delmenhorst, which describe how the vessel was destroyed by a Swedish fire ship.
“On the very first dive, the sun shone down through the water,” said Johansen.
“It made dozens of bursted and melted pieces of bronze cannons twinkle like gold between the charred wreckage.
“The wreck shows clear signs of being burned – possibly exploded. Remnants of the cannons are seen as molten bronze lumps and only a few objects have survived the fire.
“What is left is the timber structure from the bottom of the ship largely hidden under rocks from the ballast.”
For centuries, all foreign ships entering or leaving the Baltic Sea had to pay a toll, the “Sound Dues”, to pass through Danish waters – or else be sunk in a hail of cannon fire.
At its prime, the toll generated up to two thirds of Denmark’s income, but it angered neighbouring countries and ultimately contributed to the Torstenson War.
The Delmenhorst sank during the Battle of Fehmarn in 1644, which was won by the Swedish in a critical engagement of the war.
Johansen said: “In the last hours of the naval battle, the Delmenhorst ran aground near the coast. The crew hoped to be able to defend the ship with the help of a huge cannon battery on the coast.
“But the Swedes sent a burning ship directly into the Danish warship, which then broke into flames and ended up being lost.”
He added: “The war signalled the end of Denmark’s time as a European power. After the loss, Sweden pretty much replaced Denmark as the leading power in the Nordic region.”
Part of what makes the Delmenhorst such a unique wreck is the way it was constructed.
“The Delmenhorst is one of the first ships built according to a preserved drawing,” the curator said.
“From 1624 to 1644 a total of eight ships were built according to this drawing – but only the Delmenhorst has been found.”
The new land is being created in connection with a planned undersea tunnel that will connect Lolland with the German island of Fehmarn.
The land, which will extend 500 metres into the sea, will be created with material dredged from the route of the tunnel and will be kept as a natural recreational space.
The Delmenhorst was found during a feasibility scan of the area where the new land will be.
Johansen said: “We found an oval pile of stones – ship-shaped, you could say – that were densely overgrown with seaweed.
“It was quickly clear that it is ballast stone from a larger vessel, and between rocks and algae we could see the ship’s frames and inch-thick cladding planks.”
The Delmenhorst was one of three ships sunk during the Battle of Fehmarn. The other two were the Lindormen, also from Denmark, and the Swarte Arent, a hired Dutch vessel fighting for the Swedes.
Both wrecks were found in 2012 as a result of the upcoming tunnel project.
The Danes also saw 10 of their ships captured, along with 1,000 men, and 100 lives lost. Sweden, meanwhile, suffered 59 deaths and lost no ships except the two fire ships it chose to sacrifice.
Soon after, the Danes sued for peace and were forced to exempt Sweden from the Sound Dues, as well as handing over swathes of territory.