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Exhibition texts Darss

Darss, instruction

Start with the wall straight ahead to the left. Then move counterclockwise around the room.

The map shows the location of the remains, and the box contains short facts about it.

Facts about the find

FIND: Merchant ship from the Hanseatic trading region.

PERIOD: Circa 1350, Middle Ages.

LOCATION: Off the Darss Peninsula, Germany.

EVENT: No one knows why the ship sank. Large quantities of goods remain at the site of the wreckage, but no trace of any drowned.

A merchant ship from the Middle Ages

One of Europe’s best preserved ships from the Hansa era lies off the German peninsula of Darss. The wreck and all the objects on board tell us a lot about medieval shipping and trade on the Baltic Sea.

The Hanseatic League was an association of merchant towns that dominated trade on the Baltic Sea for a long time. Hanseatic merchant ships were a major part of medieval Europe’s economy, since transport by sea was the most cost-effective trading method.

The ship near Darss was built in the early 14th century, and made its last voyage about 50 years later. The wreck has remained protected, and both the cargo and equipment on board are well preserved. Archaeological studies give us a rich picture of life aboard a medieval merchant ship en route from the North Sea to one of the German merchant towns.

Illustration from the Hamburg Act

The image depicts the alliance between Hamburg and Lübeck in 1247, which was forged to control trade across the Baltic Sea. In the background, ships from the period are visible. The Hanseatic League dominated Baltic Sea trade for several hundred years.

Exhibits and map on left short wall

Cargo reveals the ship’s route

The ship was loaded with barrels of sulphur, dried fish, reindeer antlers and semi-finished whetstones. The geographical origin of the goods gives us clues of the ship’s itinerary.

Sulphur was an important export commodity for Iceland during the Middle Ages. The Hanseatic League did not directly trade with Iceland, so the sulphur was probably shipped through one of the commercial offices, probably in Bergen, Norway. The fish came mostly from the North Sea, and the stone for the whetstones from Eidsborg, Norway. The antlers are probably from northern Scandinavia.

The ship thus appears to have travelled across the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and perhaps even the Atlantic Ocean.

Objects in large exhibit. Left to right.

Reindeer antlers, tactile-visual interactivity

This material was used to make combs, spoons, game pieces, beads and many other small objects. These reindeer antlers from the wreck are originally from northern Sweden or Norway.

Interactivity: Touch the antler. The following text is shown on the map on the wall, step by step:

  • The reindeer antlers in the wreck probably comes from northern Scandinavia.
  • Travel at sea was not risk-free, and there were many dangers at sea that could not be controlled.
  • The reindeer antlers never reached their destination. This is where the ship sank.

Sulphur, tactile-visual interactivity

One of the barrels was still full of sulphur, something of a multi-purpose product in the Middle Ages. It was used when manufacturing gunpowder, as a drug for acne, leprosy and constipation, as a pigment with a lovely red tone, as a disinfectant and in canning.

Interactivity: Touch the piece of sulphur. The following text is shown on the map on the wall, step by step:

  • Sulphur was one of the most important commodities from Iceland.
  • The sulphur was in a sealed oak barrel with lid. The Hanseatic league did not trade directly with Iceland in the 14th century. The sulphur was probably first transported to Bergen or another town in Norway for further trade.
  • The sulphur never reached their destination. This is where the ship sank.

Fish bones, tactile-visual interactivity

Lots of bones from dried fish, mainly cod and sturgeon, were found in the wreck. It seems that the fish were shipped in bundles, wrapped in bark mats. Next to the fish were wooden sticks that might have been used to hang up the fish to dry.

Interactivity: Touch the object, an enlarged vertebra from cod. The following text is shown on the map on the wall, step by step:

  • The size of the fishbones indicates that the fish was cought in the North Sea.
  • The fish were transported without their heads, in wrapped bundles. The absence of heads indicates that the fish were processed, possibly smoked or dried, prior to transport. 
  • The fish never reached their destination. This is where the ship sank.

Film about Carta Marina

Spoken subtitled content.


Whetstones are used to sharpen the edges of tools and weapons. These were often sold as semi-finished products, so that the size could be adjusted. The wreck’s whetstones were made of quartz-mica schist from Norway, and were packed in bundles of 20 kilos (44 pounds).


Roof tiles, as well as hard coal, were also in the cargo, but only in small quantities. These were probably remnants from earlier trading voyages. The ship had likely made many voyages before it ended up at the bottom of the sea.

The Hanseatic League. Left of large exhibit.

The Hanseatic League was founded by German merchants who worked together to protect goods and traders on long-distance trading voyages. Over time, the League became a more organised association of the towns represented by the merchants. For several hundred years, they dominated trade in Northern Europe. The word ‘Hansa’ roughly means a guild, alliance or association.

Trade by water was essential to the League’s success. The road network was poorly developed, but large quantities of goods could be shipped far at low cost using ships. Northern Europe became a common trading area which also characterised cultural and social developments, especially around the Baltic Sea.

Table with tankard


The tankard is made of pewter and bears stamps and inscriptions with religious motifs. Tankards like this were quite common, but this particular one has an owner’s mark and is a personal possession. It perhaps belonged to a merchant on board.

Pilgrim badge from Gottsbüren

On the inside of the lid of the tankard to the right is an image of a well-known pilgrim badge. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus, with the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist on either side. The image served to protect both the tankard and its owner.

Food and fasting. Right of table with tankard.

Remains of many kinds of food were found on board, mainly large quantities of dried fish.

Christian Catholicism had a huge influence on the people of Europe in the Middle Ages. Strict codes of behaviour and rules dictated how good Christians should live their lives. Fasting was a central feature, and it was forbidden to eat eggs, milk and meat on Fridays and for several long periods of the year.

But fish was accepted. The belief was that aquatic animals came into being spontaneously, without any prior mating act. Fish was therefore ‘clean’ food. Since fasting lasted for more than half of all the days of a year, fish was an important commodity.

Fishing tools and fish bones

The fishing net needles were used to tie and repair fishing nets. Archaeologists have also found many lead weights used to keep the nets below the surface. The weights contain small fragments of preserved nets. The fishing tools suggest that the crew supplemented its diet with freshly caught fish. But even though fish was part of the crew’s diet, the large quantities of fish bones suggest that the fish was primarily a commodity. The fish was likely dried or smoked to last a long time.

Drinking spree on a medieval ship

The 14th-century original is in a cellar in Wismar, a Hanseatic town near Darss. The painting is thus contemporary with our shipwreck. As far as alcoholic beverages go, they often replaced drinking water whether on land or at sea, since water easily went bad.

Ave Regina

On the short wall is a replica of a stained glass painting depicting the Virgin Mary.

The wreck finds included a handsome tankard made of pewter. You can see it in the display behind you. The crucifixion of Jesus is depicted on the inside of its lid. The tankard’s handle carries the inscription ‘AVE: REG’. Below it, some characters are engraved, probably the owner’s monogram.

The tankard appears to be a personal possession. Associating one’s name with a prayer on an object was a way of asking for guidance or protection from a patron saint.

AVE:REG refers to the Latin prayer ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’, meaning ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’. The queen is the Virgin Mary, the most important saint for many Catholics, to whom one turned in matters both large and small.

What happened to the ship?

We do not know how or why the ship at Darss sank. There are several other wrecks nearby, so perhaps the area was hard to navigate. Much of the cargo sank along with the ship, but no traces of drowned were found during the archaeological excavations. Today the wreck lies fairly close to land. Perhaps the people managed to save themselves in the ship’s tender, a boat that took people and cargo from ship to land.

Maritime law governed how merchants and crew could interact on board. It also set out priorities in the event of a shipwreck. Only after people, valuables and cordage were rescued were the merchants allowed to borrow the tender and save their goods.

Sounding lead. In wall exhibit.

The equipment on board included this sounding weight in lead. With a lead attached to a line, the water’s depth could be measured. This was an important part of navigation, as were understanding the weather, wind and currents, and the movements of the sun and stars.

Quote. Above interactive station

If a ship sinks (God forbidding) and part of the cargo can be salvaged, the merchant is to pay the skipper full freight for the cargo that was salvaged.”

From the city law of Visby, 1340s

Find location, interative station

3D-image of the wreck, with five points of interest:

  1. Fish bones were found in several areas of the wreckage. Dried or smoked fish was shipped in bundles, wrapped in bark mats.
  2. Reindeer antlers, both whole and in parts, were found in the cargo.
  3. Here the tankard on the table behind you was found. It was a personal object that probably belonged to someone onboard the ship.
  4. Barrel, still full of sulfphur. On the lid a carved ownership mark can be seen.
  5. Whetstones och quartz mica shist was trasported in bundles of 20 kilo each.

Sulphur barrel

When archaeologists examined the interior of the ship, they found a well-preserved wooden barrel. The lid still bears a carved mark indicating ownership. The barrel was filled with sulphur, a common commodity from Iceland.

Divers at the wreck

The wreck lies at a depth of 6 metres (19.7 ft.). When the archaeological excavation was completed, the wreck was again covered up with bottom sediment. This way, it remains protected – mainly from attacks by the Teredo navalis shipworm, which occurs in this part of the Baltic.


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Page last updated: 2021-09-08