Vrouw Maria Hylyn Keulaosa Ja Sukeltajia  Piirros Tiina Miettinen 2004 Museovirasto
In the early stages of the work, investigations of Vrouw Maria were also illustrated by artwork. Drawing by Tiina Miettinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

20 years from finding the Vrouw Maria wreck – a 3D photogrammetry model now to be made

Archaeology, Maritime Heritage

The wreck of the Dutch merchantman Vrouw Maria was found 20 years ago. At the end of May, a new dive will be made to the wreck. The aim is to create a three-dimensional model for observing the wreck in detail even from dry land.

The Dutch merchantman Vrouw Maria was on its way from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg in autumn 1771, carrying a diverse cargo. After misnavigating into the Archipelago Sea she hit a rock, sprung a leak, and eventually sank with most of her cargo, including immensely valuable paintings ordered by Catherine the Great. 

Maritime historian Christian Ahlström found archival material of the shipwreck and salvage attempts already in the 1970s. Several attempts were made to find the wreck, until 20 years ago the Pro Vrouw Maria society under Rauno Koivusaari’s leadership located the wreck and identified her as Vrouw Maria.

The discovery of the wreck led to the development of the protection and documentation of our underwater cultural heritage, as well as redefining the related legal aspects. After the Vrouw Maria was found, the protection of underwater cultural heritage has become an ever stronger common interest between the Finnish Heritage agency and the diving community. This wreck find has also become a milestone for the development of maritime archaeology in Finland.

A 3D model of Vrouw Maria

The presentation of the wreck in 2012 peaked in a virtual simulation presentation of the wreck during the ‘Lost at sea, rediscovered’ exhibition at the Finnish Maritime Museum. Through a simulation constructed by Aalto University and the Finnish Heritage Agency, the general audience could examine in detail the treasure ship, which in reality is difficult to access. At the time, the Vrouw Maria simulation was a totally novel way of visualising the underwater world and making it accessible.

Video of the simulation: https://youtu.be/YS6ue-v9Jz4

Presentation techniques for underwater cultural heritage have developed rapidly. Today, wrecks are being presented as three-dimensional photorealistic models over the internet.  The Finnish Heritage Agency is now striving to present Vrouw Maria as such a photogrammetric model. For this purpose, a diving expedition for inspection and photography with voluntary divers from the Badewanne Team will be made during the last week of May. Badewanne divers are extremely experienced in documenting wrecks on the Baltic Sea. Among them is Roope Flinkman, who has written the book ‘The last voyage of Vrouw Maria’.

Video of the diving expedition in May 2019:


The wreck has kept her secrets

The wreck of Vrouw Maria has been investigated on many occasions during these past 20 years. The EU-funded international project Monitoring of Shipwreck Sites (MoSS) in 2001–2004 increased understanding of the present condition of the wreck and the aquatic environment to which she has adapted. The first simplified 3D model of the wreck was constructed during these investigations based on measurements carried out by the divers.

Another larger research project was‘ ‘Vrouw Maria under water’, which aimed to present the wreck and analyse her cargo. Samples from the content of her cargo hold revealed coffee beans, tobacco, and indigo, which was used for dyeing fabrics, among other things. These findings are analysed in the doctoral thesis by MA Riikka Alvik, currently in preparation at the University of Helsinki.

The Baltic Sea is an exceptional preservation environment for old wooden ships, but even there nothing lasts forever. Actual archaeological excavation has never taken place on the wreck of Vrouw Maria. Subsequently, many of the things loaded into her cargo hold in the autumn of 1771 in Amsterdam before she set sail for her fateful last voyage remain a mystery.

Further information:

Maritime archaeologist, PhD Minna Koivikko, Finnish Hertage Agency: minna.koivikko@museovirasto.fi, tel. +358 29 533 6215

Maritime archaeologist Riikka Alvik, the University of Helsinki, tel. +358 40 730 1481