Underwater Excavations of the Cargo Ship Archangel Raphael

In the spring of 2014 a joint expedition of the Institute of Archaeology and the National Center of Underwater Research that has the status of the Autonomous Nonprofit Organization (St. Petersburg) launched underwater excavations of a cargo ship named Archangel Raphael, which had sunk in the Gulf of Finland in 1724. The ship was discovered in 2002 by a film-shooting expedition ‘Secrets of Sunken Ships’ thanks to documents found in the Russian State Navy Archives where information on shipwrecks that had occurred in the Gulf of Finland in the 17th–18th centuries was searched.  The archival records allowed the researchers to reconstruct Archangel Raphael’s last voyage.

The ship owned by a wholesale merchant called Hermann Meyer left St. Petersburg on October 15, 1724, with small cargo (150 bales of leather, a bale of cloth, 2 bales of yarn, and 30 barrels of cured pork fat). In early December of the same year inhabitants of the Saarenpaa farmstead on the isle of Björkö saw a top of the mast sticking out of an ice-hole and within three weeks they recovered 33 bales of leather from the unknown ship by diving. They noted that it was only a fraction of the cargo in the cargo bay. H. Meyer claimed the cargo lifted from the ship, but refused to pay compensation to the Björkö inhabitants for its rescue, which led to a high-profile court trial. H. Meyer paid a large amount only when Peter I took interest in the case. The investigation established that after leaving St. Petersburg, Archangel Raphael was lying at anchor for at least 50 days west of the isle of Kotlin where she took smuggled goods aboard from the boats, and for this reason the ship was late and when it entered the Gulf of Finland it was crushed by ice in the Björkösund Strait.

The archival documents determined the location of the shipwreck near the Saarenpaa farmstead on the isle of Bolshoy Beryozovy (Björkö), where the fairway was marked along the isle in 1722. This fact implied that when the ship entered the Gulf of Finland, she could have been crushed by ice only near the flats; in 2002 a hydroacoustic survey conducted precisely near the flats detected a ship hull around 28 long lying at the depth of 10 m. In the spring of 2003 R.Yu. Prokhorov did the spatial distribution photo survey and prepared its photo plan. The ship design features such as the raised foredeck and the stern, the hull narrowing towards the deck, the form of the knee of the head (an arrangement of timbers outside the stem and below the bowsprit) suggest that it was a three-masted fluyt built in the 17th century. In 2006 bricks with the SP maker’s mark (the House of St. Peter, Lübeck, 17th century), North Germany dishes carrying the dates of 1696 and 1699, a barrel with grain were retrieved from the shipwreck debris. In accordance with German archival records, Archangel Raphael was built in Lübeck in 1693. Interestingly, it is the dockyard of this city that specialized in construction of fluyts in the 17th century. The information collected allowed the researchers to identify the discovered ship as Archangel Raphael with confidence, thereafter her exploration was suspended.

In 2000–2006 the Primorsk oil loading port was built in the Björkösund Strait and large-capacity tankers started passing regularly near Archangel Raphael. The visual examination of the ship carried out in 2003 identified noticeable deterioration of her preservation conditions, apparently, caused by turbulent water flows from tankers passing through the nearest fairway. This factor along with commercial exploitation of the abutting aquatic area led to a follow-up examination of Archangel Raphael.

The main task now is to clarify the design of the hull bottom part; test methods for underwater excavations at deep depth in complicated conditions of the Gulf of Finland; select items for museification. The follow-up examination was launched in 2014; a large pile of wooden fragmented remains of the topside and the deck overlying the central part of the hull and the stern was cleaned. When the debris was removed, cleaning of the bed sedimentation overlying the ship cargo bay began. The sand and silt were found to contain a lot of splinters, which complicated the work. However, the controlled cleaning of bed sedimentation in the cargo bay continued and different layers were recorded with minimum equipment failures. Compactly placed intact and broken barrels were discovered lying under a seabed deposit 30–40 cm thick. Many broken barrels contained grains, cured pig fat, and tar. Clothes and footwear including a doublet, pants, shoes, and a sword-belt were recovered from the central part of the cargo bay and were immediately handed over to the State Hermitage Museum for conservation. The stern of the ship yielded items, apparently, from the master’s cabin, such as metal ware, scales and a pair of compasses.

When a part of the cargo bay was cleaned, it became clear that it was not possible to do precise measurement of dozens of identified finds in conditions of limited deep-water dives. In this situation photogrammetry, which creates a precise three-dimensional model of the excavation trench, was taken to be the optimal method; results of the photogrammetry were later planned to be used to identify location and size of the finds. For successful modeling, a large section of the cargo bay had to be cleaned from sedimentation; the work was completed by September 2014. However, the archaeological team did not manage to film the cleaned area, as water visibility reduced to 1–1.5 m. The cleaning of the cargo bay and systematic photo recording are planned to continue in 2015.

S.V. Olkhovsky

Digital Version of the Booklet