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August 11, 2009

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Technology puts Baltic shipwrecks in the picture

THE fire began in the galley, where the crew had kept a stove burning while they visited a tavern ashore. As the flames devoured her stern, the Anna Maria sank through the ice in the Stockholm archipelago.

Three hundred years later, the Dutch merchant ship rests amid seaweed and algae about 18 meters below the surface.

Marine archaeologist Niklas Eriksson relives the blaze.

"Now I'm swimming towards the stern where the galley was located and it was here that they had dinner, it was here that the fire started," Eriksson says, his voice transmitted through a cable to a research boat on the surface. "I think it's quite fascinating to be aboard the same ship as those fellows."

The Anna Maria is part of a vast graveyard of ill-fated ships hidden in the murky waters of the Baltic Sea, protected from the shipworm that destroys wooden wrecks in saltier oceans. Some 20,000 shipwrecks have been found - half of them in Swedish waters - dating back to as far as the Viking age.

Researchers believe there could be as many as 80,000 more.

Eriksson and his colleagues plan to offer boat tours where visitors can see some of the most spectacular wrecks through a camera attached to a remotely operated vehicle. The idea is modeled on a shipwreck tour in Lake Champlain, in Vermont, that uses the same technology.

The boats would have flat-screen TVs installed, and the story of each shipwreck site would be told through 3D animations and old sea charts.

They hope to start the tours next year off the town of Dalaro, about 40 kilometers from Stockholm. That area is rich in wrecks because it used to be the customs zone for ships traveling back and forth to Stockholm.

The "cemetery" in the Baltic Sea includes everything from medieval wooden ships to modern craft.

"They are like the pyramids of northern Europe, these wrecks, if we can only find a way to make them accessible," says Andreas Olsson, head of archaeology at the Swedish National Maritime Museums.


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