12 Fascinating Things Found in Shipwrecks
When you think about amazing things found in shipwrecks, your mind might go to gold doubloons or other treasure. But would you think of centuries-old (and still potable!) champagne? Or love letters that can still be read decades later?
From seriously aged cheese to the world’s first analog computer, shipwrecks have produced some fascinating—and sometimes disgusting—artifacts. Let’s dive into this list, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. 200-Year-Old Beer
The merchant ship Sydney Cove was transporting goods from India to what was then the British colony of Port Jackson when it sank near Tasmania’s Preservation Island in 1797. The site’s frigid waters preserved many of the goods onboard, including the alcohol. When a team of divers, led by marine archaeologist Mike Nash, ventured into the shipwreck in the early 1990s, they found sealed glass bottles containing yeast that was still alive.
The 18th-century booze was salvaged, and years later researchers discovered that the yeast inside was a rare hybrid strain that’s no longer used by modern brewers. In 2018, the Australian brewing company James Squire worked with scientists to turn the historic yeast into a porter-style beer that anyone could buy and drink. Named “The Wreck Preservation Ale,” the beer’s taste was described as malty, spicy, and stormy. Because the yeast had spent so long in the briny depths, it packed a “splash of funk,” according to the beer makers.
2. Old Champagne
Beer isn’t the only booze that’s been recovered from the wreckage of a doomed vessel. Divers investigating the wreck of a trade schooner near Finland in 2010 found 168 bottles of champagne that went down with the ship roughly 175 years ago. Cold temperatures, minimal sunlight, and low salt and oxygen levels on the floor of the Baltic Sea had prevented the beverage from spoiling. This meant that scientists could study its chemical composition and better understand how winemaking in the 19th century differed from modern methods.
It also meant that the wine was safe to consume. A panel of brave wine experts agreed to sample the drink and record their impressions. Their initial tasting notes included comparisons to animal odor and wet hair—but after giving the champagne some time to breathe, the flavors reportedly mellowed out considerably.
3. 17th-Century Cheese
In 2016, divers stumbled upon a tin of cheese while exploring a 17th-century battleship that sank off the Swedish coast. Unlike the shipwreck champagne, this artifact didn’t age gracefully. The divers got a whiff of the stuff after bringing it up to the surface, and as expedition leader Lars Einarsson told a local news outlet, “It’s like a mixture of yeast and Roquefort, a sort of really ripe, unpasteurized cheese.”
4. A Now-Endangered Fish
The contents of a different shipwreck’s pantry led to an ecological discovery. When the Danish King Hans set sail for Kalmar, Sweden, from Copenhagen in 1495, he brought a 6-foot-long sturgeon with him. The purpose of his trip was to unite Scandinavia and lay claim to the Swedish throne. Hoping to dazzle the royal court of Sweden, he packed his best ship, the Gribshunden, with the most luxurious items available to him, and in the late 15th century, that included a really big trophy fish.
But King Hans never got to show off his sturgeon to the people he wanted to impress. The Gribshunden caught fire one night when the king wasn’t onboard and sank in the Baltic Sea. More than 500 years later, marine archaeologists found a barrel in the shipwreck containing the nearly whole fish. The preservative properties of the Baltic made it possible for researchers to identify the specimen as an Atlantic sturgeon, which was almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries. Atlantic sturgeon are still sometimes found around the Eastern United States today, but this finding confirmed that the fish species was native to Northern Europe half a millennium ago.
5. A Bronze Cannon
In 2015, treasure hunters with a company called Global Marine Exploration used a variety of magnetometer survey equipment to locate five shipwrecks off Cape Canaveral in Florida. One of the ships is believed to be La Trinité, a French ship that set sail for Florida in 1565 carrying weapons, treasure, soldiers, and French Huguenots seeking religious freedom in North American colonies.
But the ship never made it to its destination. La Trinité was caught in a storm and capsized off Florida’s east coast, where it remained for nearly 500 years. The amount of valuable items on board the vessel had long made it a holy grail shipwreck for Florida treasure seekers.
Among the artifacts pulled from the site were a rare bronze cannon bearing symbols of French royalty and a marble column engraved with the French coat of arms, along with six barrels of coins.
As of today, however, Global Marine Exploration hasn’t reaped any profits from the discovery. In 2018, a federal district court declared that the shipwreck and its contents were the property of France. The company is still engaged in the legal process. As company president Bobby Pritchett told Mental Floss, Global Marine Exploration is ”not interested in salvaging the wreck, but [in] getting paid for the work we did to find and document the five wrecks for the state [as] we were under contract to do.”
6. An Ancient “Smart Tablet”
Dozens of Byzantine-era ships have been uncovered at the archaeological site of Yenikapı in Turkey, and in 2014, an interesting item was pulled from one of the wrecks. The 1200-year-old artifact consists of five intricately carved wooden slabs stacked on top of each other. It’s low-tech, but that didn’t stop archaeologists from comparing it to a modern smart tablet.
The iPad-sized tool apparently served many functions, with wax panels for etching notes and a compartment with small weights. It’s believed that those weights were used as an assay balance for assessing the quality of precious metals. All that, and you didn’t even have to charge it.
7. The Antikythera Mechanism
Comparing that Byzantine tablet to an iPad may be a stretch, but it’s fair to call this next artifact an ancient computer. The Antikythera mechanism comes from a Roman ship that sank near the Greek island of Antikythera in the 1st century BCE. When divers retrieved the bronze-and-wood object from the wreck in 1901, no one knew what to make of it. It had gears like a machine, but centuries worth of corrosion had obscured its inner workings. It would be decades before researchers took a closer look at the item and learned that it was once capable of predicting celestial events. By combining user inputs with calculations “programmed” into the device during its creation, the device could forecast eclipses, the phases of the moon, and more. By some definitions, that makes the Antikythera mechanism the world's oldest analog computer.
Though we have a good idea of what it did, many questions still surround the machine, including who made it and why. Some theorists point to Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer sometimes called the inventor of trigonometry. A lot of his work dealt with how spherical bodies move through space, which fits perfectly with the Antikythera mechanism. Other evidence suggests that the device was made in a workshop, possibly for use in a school or even as a conversation piece in a rich family’s home.
8. A Partial Skeleton
A gadget that charts the stars is just one of many discoveries to come out of the Antikythera wreck site. In 2016, divers exploring the lower decks came across a partial skeleton buried beneath pottery shards and sediment. It had likely been there since the vessel sank 2100 years ago, placing it among the oldest human remains ever recovered from a shipwreck. The skeleton consists of rib bone fragments, two arm bones, two leg bones, and parts of a skull. Researchers nicknamed it Pamphilos —which is Greek for “friend to everyone”—and determined the sex to be male based on the size of the femur bones.
Due to the nature of the remains, we may be able to learn even more about who this person was. His bones were found in surprisingly good condition, which means they may still hold DNA that scientists can extract and analyze. Sequencing Pamphilos’s genetic material could reveal his ethnicity and country of origin, as well as broader insights into how ancient humans lived. Because the skeleton was found in Greek waters, the research team has been waiting for permission from authorities in Greece to analyze the remains.
9. Passengers from the Vasa
When it comes to watery graves, perhaps no shipwreck is as famous as the Vasa. In the early 17th century, Swedish King Gustav II Adolf commissioned the construction of a warship that would convey the country's naval strength. The ship's intricate exterior was impressive, but the structure itself was poorly designed. It sank in the Baltic Sea less than a mile into its maiden voyage, bringing down approximately 30 passengers with it.
The remains of at least 17 of these victims were uncovered when the shipwreck was salvaged in 1961. The skeletons pulled from Vasa belonged to many of the ship's crewmen as well as some women and one child. One particularly well-preserved body still had its fingernails, hair, and a complete brain. At the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, you can see facial reconstructions of some of these doomed passengers along with the salvaged ship itself.
10. A Stopped Watch
One noteworthy item pulled from the wreck of the Pulaski held clues to the ship’s final moments—literally. The steamship was sailing off the coast of North Carolina in 1838 when one of its boilers blew up, causing the vessel to sink. In 2018, divers recovered a gold pocket watch from the ruins of the ship that had stopped at 11:05—mere minutes after the ship’s boiler had reportedly exploded.
The solid gold watch and gold chain would have belonged to one of society’s wealthiest members, which fit Pulaski’s ridership. Prominent passengers on board at the time of the accident included former New York congressman Willam Rochester and Savannah businessman Gazaway Bugg Lamar.
11. Titanic Musician Wallace Henry Hartley's Violin
The Pulaski is often compared to the Titanic, another luxurious ship that met a tragic end. And while this next item wasn’t discovered in a shipwreck decades later by a real-life Brock Lovett, the poignant story still feels relevant.
Wallace Henry Hartley was the leader of the band that calmed passengers with music as the Titanic started to sink. Several survivors reported that, after the band roused spirits with upbeat tunes, Hartley played “Nearer My God to Thee” on his violin—the last song they remembered that night. Sadly, the entire band perished. A little over a week later, a ship recovered many of the bodies of those lost in the wreckage, including Hartley’s. And while the ship’s crew never recorded a violin, a handful of newspapers reported a "music case" had been found with Hartley’s body.
Whatever it was disappeared until 2006, when a man called up a UK auctioneer to say that he had found a violin in his late mother’s attic. The auction house determined that the Titanic bandleader's violin had been found decades earlier and returned to Hartley’s fiancée. When she died, her sister gave it to a Salvation Army bandleader, who gave it to a student, who was the mother of the man who appeared in 2006. After seven years of research, the artifact sold for an impressive $1.7 million at an auction in 2013.
James Cameron may have gotten the part of the dedicated musicians more or less right, but other scenes in his 1997 blockbuster based on the tragedy are misleading. In Titanic, Rose DeWitt Bukater is shown with an impressive art collection with paintings by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and “something Picasso.” Fortunately for the art world, those masterpieces were never on the ship: They can be found safe and dry in museums today, far from the wreck of Titanic.
12. Old Love Letters
Even in relatively recent shipwrecks, any delicate documents onboard rarely survive to see the light of day. That’s why deep-sea explorers were surprised to find 700 handwritten letters in the wreck of the Gairsoppa nearly seven decades after it sank.
The British cargo ship had been en route to Ireland in 1941 when a German U-Boat torpedoed it, killing all but one of the 86 crewmembers onboard. Among the lost cargo were 717 undelivered letters, many of them addressed to or from World War II servicemembers. The letters were believed to be lost for good until the American company Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered them in the early 2010s. They had been buried in the ship’s cargo hold beneath layers of mail bags and sand deposits, and with minimal exposure to the elements many of them were still legible after decades underwater.
As for what was contained in the correspondence, romance was a major theme. One letter from a serviceman stationed in India read: “Imagine that I have my lips tight against yours with my arms around you tight … hearts beating as one.” Private Will Walker, who was also writing from India, said this to his betrothed after she accepted his marriage proposal: “I wept for joy, I could not help it. If you could only know how happy it made me, darling, to know that you accepted me and that you will be mine forever.”