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Sunday, 7 January, 2001, 04:22 GMT
Landlocked shipwrecks

By Malcolm Billings

If an archaeologist claimed to find medieval shipwrecks in forests and cornfields you might well be sceptical.

Shipwrecks in the normal course of events are rarely found by farmers. But the plough has become a major archaeological tool in the Netherlands.

Many of the ships discovered by farmers in the Netherlands have V-shaped slices out of their sides. It is where the plough has taken a bite just under the surface.

More than 400 wrecks have been found like this and more turn up every year.

It only made sense to me when I realised that I was on reclaimed land and that the cornfields and forests were about three metres below sea level.

I was on the bed of the former Zuider Zee - what was once a large inland sea in the centre of the Netherlands.

Since the 1930s the Dutch have systematically created a unique landscape by reclaiming large parts of the sea for farmland.

New landscape

Whole new provinces have been created by pushing back the water and new towns, industrial areas and much-needed agricultural land has emerged from the sea bed.

In some cases ancient fishing ports which were on islands in the sea have survived as part of this new landscape with their harbours and sea fronts stranded in hectares of arable crops and market gardens, and miles from the new coast line.

It is in this landscape that the shipwrecks turn up.

Many are well preserved having been deeply buried and it is not unusual to find all or most of their cargo still on board, along with the personal possessions of the crew.

I could see some of these wrecks a long way off as I drove across the flatter than flat landscape.

They stick up out of the fields like prehistoric burial mounds. These are wrecks that were discovered and which are now are being protected with plastic sheeting under and over the ships' timbers.

Looking a bit like a ship in a squidgy bottle it is then covered with sods of earth and the top left open so that the rain can get in and keep the timbers from drying out.

Remarkable ships

The farmers then plough around the wreck which in theory can stay where it is until time and money are available to investigate it further or conserve it as a museum object.

Some remarkable ships have been discovered. There was one medieval ferry that sank in a storm in the 1440s.

A passenger must have been carrying some eggs and you can imagine the surprise of archaeologists when they found them with their shells in perfect condition.

The egg inside however had been replaced by sea water.

Unusually there was a skeleton left in that wreck. The bones were scarred in a way that suggests the man may have been a leper.

In medieval times they were obliged to carry a warning device that gave out a clackety clack sound a bit like castanets.

Such a thing was found by archaeologists when the wreck was excavated. The device had a handle carved in the shape of St Katherine - the patron saint of lepers.

We know that ships did carry lepers and that ship owners of the time could not refuse a leper passage.

Tropical climate

But from the evidence it looks as though there was no obligation on anyone to get the leper ashore when the ship got into trouble.

Some of these wrecks are dug up and carefully transported to a museum and conservation centre specially set up to deal with them at Lelystad - a new town on one of the biggest tracks of reclaimed land.

The National Institute for Ship and Underwater Archaeology is long tunnel of a building - like a huge Nissan hut.

I walked into a climate that was like a tropical rain forest with a mist of water sprayed from nozzles in the roof to stop the timbers from drying and cracking into dusty piles.

The ship or parts of it can then be dismantled and the individual timbers soaked and washed in large tanks of water that are kept clean by shoals of small fish.

The timbers then embark on months or even years of soaking in vats of hot liquid wax.

Galley intact

This soaks into the eroded wood, replaces the water in the cells and gives the timber back its strength.

After that they can reassemble the ship and put it on display further along the museum tunnel.

One very well preserved vessel from the early 17th century was a fish transporter. It had part of its main deck, much of the hull and many of the interior divisions.

The ship's stove in the galley was intact and in the hold there were large tanks that could be flooded .

There was no fishing gear on board and archaeologists soon realised that they were dealing with another unique find - a medieval fish transporter.

A fast vessel with tanks full of live fish that could be landed in the fish markets ashore, while the fleet pursued the herring or the cod at sea.

Sizeable coaster

But the most extraordinary ship was a mid-19th century cargo vessel.

I had to hike into a forest with an archaeologists from the museum to find the site. We followed a path through birch trees and oaks.

The grasses and brambles on either side of us were waist high and impenetrable - it was almost impossible to imagine that 50 years ago all this was at the bottom of the sea.

We came across a sizeable coaster about 30 metres long and with high sides that needed a viewing platform to see into the hull. It was sitting on its keel under a shelter exactly where it was found in the 1960s.

A plough had located the top of it and the rest was three or four metres under the ground. They had to excavate a very wide and deep trench to get under the keel.

They found that entire hull was there and at one point the pumps could not keep up with the seepage of water into the trench and a small lake began to surround the vessel.

Then something extraordinary happened unique in the history of maritime archaeology.

As the water rose the ship bobbed up like a cork and floated as if nothing had happened to interrupt her voyage.

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