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A 15th-Century Shipwreck Lights Up New Knowledge Of Medieval Europe

The shipwreck was found in Sweden, but it was embarking on an epic journey across Europe.

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockNov 21 2022, 17:11 UTC
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A lone cabin sits on a rocky cliff next to choppy waters in Sweden.
The Skaftö wreck was found at the bottom of the sea off Lysekil, north of Gothenburg in Sweden. Image credit: Kedardome/Shutterstock.com

Almost 600 years ago, a ship loaded with cargo was wrecked off the southeastern tip of Sweden. In a new study, researchers dived into this ship’s history by taking a close look at its cargo and tracing its journey. Although its journey mysteriously ended in devastation, it appears the ship crashed while in the midst of an epic journey through Medieval Europe.

The vast merchant ship, known as the Skaftö wreck, was first discovered in 2003 by a local diver at the bottom of the sea off Lysekil, north of Gothenburg. Later that year, maritime archaeologists from Bohusläns Museum carried out an organized dive on the wreck site and discovered it loaded with a rich variety of cargo when it was sunk around the year 1440 CE. 

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Now, a fresh analysis by maritime archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg has put together a detailed list of the shipwreck’s bountiful contents. Through chemical analysis and advanced imaging techniques, they found the cargo was made up of building supplies, including copper, oak timber, quicklime, tar, bricks, and roof tiles.

Underwater image of a shipwreck's cargo covered in seaweed.
Copper ingots onboard the wreck. Image credit: Jens Lindström/Bohusläns Museum


The researchers managed to identify calcium oxide, commonly known as quicklime or burnt lime, that appears to have originated on the Swedish island of Gotland. This was particularly surprising as the researchers didn’t know it was exported from Gotland in the 15th century.

“The analyses we have carried out give us a very detailed picture of the ship’s last journey and also tell us about the geographical origins of its cargo. Much of this is completely new knowledge for us,” Staffan von Arbin, lead study author and a maritime archaeologist, said in a statement

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The copper, it appears, was mined in two areas in present-day Slovakia. By looking at medieval sources, the team believes that the copper was transported from the Slovakian mining districts in the Carpathian Mountains through river systems around the Polish port town of Gdańsk.

“It is therefore very likely that it was in Gdańsk that the ship took on its cargo before it continued on what would be its final voyage”, he explained.

A diver explores the Skaftö shipwreck in Sweden.
Excavation of the Skaftö wreck in 2009. Image credit: Staffan von Arbin, Bohusläns museum


Further analysis of cargo suggests the ship was on its way to a western European port, perhaps in Belgium, when it succumbed to the waves in the Bohuslän archipelago of Sweden for unknown reasons. 

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“We believe that the ship’s final destination was Bruges in Belgium. In the 15th century, this city was a major trading hub. We also know that copper produced in Central Europe was shipped on from there to various Mediterranean ports, including Venice”, added von Arbin.

The new study was recently published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology


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  • tag
  • archeology,

  • shipwreck,

  • history,

  • Sweden,

  • sailing,

  • Middle Ages,

  • trade,

  • maritime archeology,

  • medieval history

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