Various historical sources are often indispensable aids in the work of a maritime archaeologist. Old charts and maps can describe fairways where sailing ships used to travel. Works of art and texts can be descriptions of places, shipwrecks and battles at sea.
These historical sources can provide clues as to where archaeologists should look for wrecks and remains, and they can also help them learn more about what they have found. For example, when examining a 17th-century shipwreck there is plenty of information to be retrieved from the paintings, models, drawings, maps and texts of the period.
The historical sources and depictions can complement archaeology, just as archaeology complements history. The histories of the ships, people, events and places become richer, and perhaps more accurate.
Historical maps, perhaps hundreds of years old, can have many stories to tell. They indicate not only what areas looked like geographically – buildings and structures are often marked including shipyards, harbours, anchorages, shipping lanes and fishing grounds. The maps can also reveal activities carried out further inland, but that have left remains in the water or along the coast.
Therefore, archaeologists study historical maps as they prepare to explore an area. The maps give an idea of what types of artefacts they might find and what equipment they should bring along.
Shipping lanes and shipwreck maps
As they do today, shipping lanes showed which route was the safest and best to take. Shipwrecks are often situated in shipping lanes with heavy traffic. Sometimes wrecks are drawn on historical maps, and some are named. They are often scuttled ships that were used to block a fairway, or as foundations for bridges, piers and quays.
The Fornsök database
In the Swedish National Heritage Board’s search service Fornsök, you can find information about all known registered relics in Sweden, both on land and in water. Fornsök also contains several thousand pieces of data and preserved stories of ships that have been shipwrecked.