A ship marked “Tinfos 35” is one of 75 shipwrecks found at the bottom of Heddalsvatnet.
Over the course of two years, a major lake system between Heddalsvatnet and Norsjø in Telemark has been surveyed using high-resolution multibeam technology (sonar). Researchers discovered as many as 80 wrecks, making it Norway’s biggest wreck graveyard.
“This is an archaeological treasure trove that can enrich Norway’s history,” says Pål Nymoen, archaeologist at the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo.
This waterway in Norway has historically had the most traffic. Small boats, ships and barges have travelled the waters, sometimes meeting with an accident, or they have they been deliberately sunk.
“Usually we look for ships and cargo along the coasts of Norway, but the ships are best preserved in the lakes,” he continues.
The coast is often the preferred domain of recreational divers, who are often the ones to tip off the authorities about any shipwrecks.
“We’re talking about dark, deep waters, so no divers have shown interest in these murky lakes where it’s hard to see,” he says.
The depth of Norsjø, the lower of the two lakes, is between 100 and 170 metres.
Nymoen has long had a fascination with this lake system, which starts high up in the mountains and winds its way down to the sea. Rock carvings testify to the extensive activity that has taken place at the lakes since as early as the Bronze Age. Before that, the lakes were a bay in the sea.
“Here, people have been transporting iron, whetstone, copper, fur and other things for trade for several thousand years,” he says.
As an archaeologist, Nymoen now hopes to find some interesting cargo aboard the wrecks. He is especially curious about the two clinker-built sailing ships that are more than 30 metres long, possibly from the Viking Age or the Middle Ages. But even smaller finds pique his interest.
“What we see on the map could be a logboat or a sled that has gone through the ice.”
Skien, the main town where the wreck finds were discovered, has been a trading outpost since the Viking Age, around the year 1000. At Larvik, not far from there, is the famous Viking Age market town of Kaupang, comparable to Birka and Hedeby. A merchant ship from the 990s carrying a cargo of whetstone has been found there.
Notoden’s industrial heritage landscape at Heddalsvatnet is a UNESCO-designated world heritage site.
“About 50 of the barges found were probably important for transportation to and from Notoden during the 1800s and 1900s, and they now add maritime features to the world heritage site,” he says.
When the first industries emerged in the 1800s, locks were built down to the sea. There are eight locks between the highest lake, Heddalsvatnet, down to Norsjø, and there is a 30-metre long lock at Skien between Norsjø and the sea, which is 16 metres lower.
Several local teams of historians are collaborating with the project and can provide information about the trade route and the old industries around the lakes.
Now, the most interesting wrecks and remains will be further investigated. They will not be excavated for exploitation – instead, investigations are being led by individuals and organisations who have joined forces to obtain funding through an EU project and other sources.
“For wrecks that are deep down, we study them using a ROV, an underwater remote-controlled vehicle. And for the ones less than 30 metres deep, we maritime archaeologists will get to dive down there this summer,” Nymoen enthuses.
The Norwegian Maritime Museum will showcase the results, including underwater footage and 3D models, on its website at marmuseum.no.
Visit Telemark will showcase the new findings using information signs at the lakes and other communications material.
National Geographic has been contacted about the findings, and the project hopes that both Norwegian and global media outlets will follow the project.
Over the past two years, a team of specialists in underwater mapping and maritime archaeology has scanned large tracts of the seabed throughout Norsjøvassdraget, Sauarelva, Bråfjorden and Heddalsvatnet.
A total of 80 wrecks have been discovered, 75 in Heddalsvatnet and five in Norsjø. They include two clinker-built sailboats, 50 large barges and 23 smaller barges. Besides these ships, other potential finds include logboats, sleds and other objects that are older than the barges used in the industrial activities that took place at the lakes.