‘It’s a Baltic problem’: the Swedish coastguards saving shipwrecks from looters | Europe

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Among the rocky shores and picket summerhouses of Dalarö, an unique Swedish summer time retreat, there was little to point something apart from a typical summertime scene on the Stockholm archipelago.

It was solely because the coastguard boat reached a discreet yellow buoy that there was any suggestion of the Seventeenth-century shipwreck mendacity, preserved, 30 metres beneath it. “STOP,” learn an indication. “Marine cultural reserve.”

Bodekull, constructed by the English shipbuilder Thomas Day, is believed to have run aground in 1678 and sunk whereas transporting flour to the Swedish naval fleet in Kalmar, down the coast in south-east Sweden.

Because of the Baltic’s brackish water defending the wreck from shipworms, the 20-metre-long ship stays on the seabed, upright and largely intact, filled with relics which might be nonetheless being found. Two of its three masts poke up in the direction of the sky of their authentic place.

Onboard the Swedish coastguard vessel KBV 031 anchored in the Baltic Sea. Jim Hansson, a marine archeologist with Stockholm’s VRAK Museum, explains the day’s mission to inspect the site of the Bodekull wreck
Onboard the Swedish coastguard vessel KBV 031 anchored within the Baltic Sea. Jim Hansson, a marine archeologist with Stockholm’s VRAK Museum, explains the day’s mission to examine the location of the Bodekull wreck. {Photograph}: Rob Schoenbaum/The Guardian

However now Bodekull faces a human risk to its existence. Authorities say that it’s amongst 1000’s of historic wrecks throughout the Nordics which might be in danger from plundering.

On a monitoring operation final week, consultants shared images with the Guardian that present that objects are vanishing from shipwrecks.

A motor boat with Swedish coastguard divers on a mission to inspect an undersea wreck
A motor boat with Swedish coastguard divers on a mission to examine an undersea wreck. {Photograph}: Rob Schoenbaum/The Guardian
A diver enters the water to inspect the wreck
A diver enters the water to examine the wreck {Photograph}: Rob Schoenbaum/The Guardian

These accountable are believed to be a various array of offenders, from light-fingered sport divers seeking souvenirs to legal gangs in search of high-value objects to promote. Such is the size of the issue that the coastguard is now often sending divers down to watch at-risk websites.

“The plundering drawback isn’t only a Swedish drawback, it’s a Baltic Sea drawback,” mentioned Jim Hansson, a marine archaeologist at Vrak, the museum of wrecks, citing the ocean’s low salinity and relatively shallow common depth of 55 metres.

These distinctive situations, in addition to the existence of an estimated 100,000 shipwrecks, make the Baltic a “mecca for marine archaeologists,” he mentioned. However it’s additionally more and more attracting looters.

Round Stockholm alone, Hansson is aware of of six wrecks which have been looted by worldwide and Swedish divers.

A Swedish coastguard diver exits the water
A Swedish coastguard diver exits the water. {Photograph}: Rob Schoenbaum/The Guardian

Hansson and his colleagues began to get a way of the size of the issue once they have been organising the museum seven years in the past and realised, throughout a sequence of dives, what number of objects have been lacking. They’ve since teamed up with the coastguard and police to raised shield the wrecks.

“Sweden has one among Europe’s longest coasts so it’s numerous water to protect and it isn’t simple,” mentioned Hansson.

Authorities are eager to indicate that shipwreck looting is taken critically.

In September, 4 Swedish males aged between 57 and 70 got suspended sentences – and three of them neighborhood service – for a number of circumstances of gross antiquities violation after they have been caught with 100 objects looted from shipwrecks. Among the many objects discovered of their possession have been a Seventeenth-century iron cannon and clay mugs.

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Thedivers return to their ship, the KBV 031, after the inspection
Thedivers return to their ship, the KBV 031, after the inspection. Photograph: Rob Schoenbaum/The Guardian

Patrick Dahlberg, a coastguard commander, said the divers were caught with their haul after they were found on a wreck they did not have permission to be on.

Coastguard divers normally work on environmental disasters, inspect ships for drugs and weapons and help police looking for murder weapons. “It is very unique for us to be part of this,” he said.

In recent years, several objects on Bodekull have been moved around and a decorative ceramic bowl has gone missing.

On Tuesday, coastguard diver Patrik Ågren said he didn’t see any evidence of tampering as he emerged from recording the contents of a tool drawer on the ship containing planes, sledgehammers, a basket and carpentry equipment.

“There’s a lot of sediment and sludge, small particles,” he said. “When somebody has been there, swum or moved something, then it is usually clear.” Video footage he recorded during the dive will be compared with previous footage to check for changes.

But on a later dive they discovered that a wheel on a cannon had been removed, a deck beam collapsed and a wine bottle moved since they last visited in January. While some of the changes may have been caused by nature, Hansson said it was difficult to see how the wheel and wine bottle could have been moved without human intervention.

On a big coastguard ship anchored nearby, usually used for environmental rescue and which contains a sauna for the crew, marine archaeologists from Vrak showed footage from the latest dive, as well as evidence they previously recorded of missing objects.

Hansson said removing relics from wrecks prevented them from building a full picture of the type of ship, where it was going and what it was doing.

“We collect all the puzzle pieces just like a police or coastguard investigation,” he said. “That’s why it is super important that objects are not moved because it is like ripping the pages from a book. In the end all you will have left is an empty shell.”

Amid heightened tensions with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, allegations of spying and Sweden’s hopes of imminently joining Nato, it is a critical time for the Baltic.

But Hansson said that cultural monuments could also be used in war. “What happened with Nord Stream [gas pipeline bombings] might equally occur with nationwide cultural heritage monuments like shipwrecks. The very first thing that occurs with huge conflicts is that you simply erase a nation’s integrity and historical past.”

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