“Iron Man” meteorite carving may be fake

"Iron Man" carved from meteorite may not be ancient or TibetanNot the meteorite part. The figure was definitely carved from a piece of the Chinga meteorite which fell near the Mongolian-Siberian border 15,000 years ago. It’s the part about it being an 11th century Bön culture artifact that is suspect, and, even more sadly, the part about it having been found during Ernst Schäfer’s Tibet expedition. Buddhism expert Achim Bayer from Dongguk University in South Korea argues persuasively in this article (pdf) that the statue’s features mark it as a European counterfeit probably made between 1910 and 1970.

Bayer first notes that the team led by University of Stuttgart planetologist Dr. Elmar Buchner included no experts in Tibetan or Mongolian art, no ethnologists, no archaeologists. The team’s expertise rested entirely on the fields of mineralogy and planetary science, which is great for the analysis of the material but left them relying on what amounts to hearsay on the question of the sculpture’s origin. According to Bayer, Buchner’s team contacted museums and some individuals to determine which character from Tibetan culture the figure might represent, but no Tibetologists, a glaring oversight, especially considering that one of the paper’s authors is from the University of Vienna which has a well-known and highly respected South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies department.

Had they sought out the input of such experts in the field, Bayer believes they would have immediately been confronted with severe doubts about the statue’s authenticity. The pseudo-Tibetan characteristics of the iconography are glaringly obvious, in his opinion. He brings up 13 main examples, but there are even more minor issues. The posture, positioning and design of the hands, legs and feet are wrong, as is the full beard. The halos, the small one behind the head and the large one behind the body, are suspiciously round and plain. Halos are elaborately decorated in Tibetan art and either do not appear on metal statues or appear only as separate pieces.

The biggest red flags are with the garments. The sleeves, hat and cape do not match those worn by Vaiśravaṇa and other deities, or really anything at all in the Tibetan tradition — the knotted and draped cape looks more Roman than Asian — but it’s the shoes and pants that get top billing on Bayer’s list of errors:

1. The lama is neither barefoot nor does he wear traditional boots. The shoes cover the feet, like European shoes, up to the ankles and no further.
2. Obviously, the trousers worn by the lama do not resemble anything seen in Tibetan or Mongolian sculpture. Traditional statues feature robes, occasionally armour at the shins, but never trousers. The slits at the end of the trousers are probably meant
to make a vaguely oriental, mediaeval or pastoral impression.

That seems to be the common thread with all these would-be Tibetan elements: they’re what a Westerner with little knowledge of Tibetan and Buddhist iconography would imagine is Tibetan based on, say, a two dimensional image they’ve seen in a book. Tibet became a subject of fascination in Europe in the early 20th century, but since its traditional craftsmanship and iconography were not well-known, artists relied on images of sculptures and their own imaginations to create objects for the Tibetica market. The consumers didn’t know any better either. Genuine Tibetan scholarship took root in the European academy in 1970, and the art and antiquities markets followed suit. Bayer therefore places the creation of the Iron Man piece in the period between the dawn of European fascination with Tibetan art (ca. 1910) and the actual study of it (ca. 1970).

"Kim and the Lama" by J.L. Kipling, 1901One possible source of inspiration for this statue is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was published in 1901 with illustrations by his father John Lockwood Kipling. J.L. Kipling was a sculptor, art teacher and museum curator in India for decades starting in 1865. The illustrations depicting Kim’s Lama mentor have several elements in common with Iron Man: the non-standard short hat, the siddha-like earrings, even the swastika on his begging bowl which is positioned in the middle of his torso like it is on the statue (see illustration on page 44). The orientation of the swastika is reversed, probably from the printing, Rudyard Kipling's seal from "Kim"but Rudyard Kipling’s swastika seal before the title page is facing left as in the Asian tradition.

Is there a chance that even if it is a counterfeit it was produced in Asia to sell to Nazi dupes on an expedition to find the spiritual source of the Aryan race? As much as I’d like it to be so because it would make the whole Schäfer story even better, it’s unlikely that local craftsmen would have made so many iconographic errors. It’s more likely that the raw meteorite chunk made it to Europe from Asia and was carved there, either for the general market in Tibet artifacts or for the market in Nazi memorabilia. In the latter case, it would likely have been commissioned with the specific intent of selling it as an artifact from the famous Schäfer expedition.

Bayer has corresponded with Buchner and asked him what evidence the team was given for the Schäfer provenance. The answer is none. They have no evidence whatsoever beyond the word of the anonymous collector who believed that’s where it came from. Bayer’s doubts on the provenance were confirmed by researcher Isrun Engelhardt, an expert on Schäfer expeditions, who is also looking into the Iron Man story and believes the connection to Schäfer is fiction.


Stone slabs stolen from Brontë chapel churchyard

Old Bell ChapelMore than one hundred feet of gravestones, paving stones and coping stones have been stolen from the churchyard of the Old Bell Chapel (also known as the Brontë Bell Chapel because Patrick Brontë, father of the literary sisters, was the curate there from 1815 to 1820) in the West Yorkshire village of Thornton. It appears to have been a multi-stage plan involving multiple robbers.

Wall after coping stones were stolenMembers of the Old Bell Chapel Action Group, who have worked assiduously for 12 years to restore this historic chapel and cemetery from 150 years of neglect into a beautiful, welcoming site for history, nature and literature buffs alike to enjoy, first saw that coping stones had been torn from a wall outside the chapel on Wednesday, October 17th. On the morning of Saturday the 20th, they arrived to find even more devastation: paving stones from the Brontë Way footpath had been pried up and stolen, as were three horizontal grave slabs and 15 grave toppers from the cemetery.

Grave with missing slab and missing paving stones on the sidesThe grave slabs are huge, each of them six feet long, three feet wide, and four to six inches deep. Two have been marking the final resting places of the children of John and Mary Pickles and the daughter of Hannah and James Abbott since the 1820s. The third grave slab does not have a name inscribed, but it dates to 1790. It must have required a great deal of strength to pry up and remove these heavy slabs of solid rock. Police estimate that you would need four men to lift just one of them. The 15 York stone grave toppersStolen grave topper stolen are not as large as the gravestones, but are nonetheless ponderous, heavy pieces. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d do on the spur of the moment. The theft required tools, organization and manpower, in addition to a callous disregard for history and human dignity, of course.

Stolen paving stonesPolice ask that anyone with information about the thefts contact the North Bradford Neighbourhood Policing Team by calling 101. You can also report anything suspicious to CrimeStoppers at 0800 555 111. Meanwhile, police are patrolling the grounds regularly and have reached out to local stonemasons asking them to report anybody attempting to sell the looted stones. The large grave slabs are inscribed, some in more detail than the headstones, so they’ll be impossible to sell toInscribed grave slabs in the Old Bell Chapel churchyard buyers with any sense and morals. The paving and coping stones, on the other hand, have no distinguishing marks. Recycled York stone, the older the better, is an extremely popular material for landscape design and decorative construction. It’s durable and weathers beautifully.

Some path stones pried up and stacked by the thieves but not removed from the premisesThe Old Bell Chapel Action Group is hoping against hope that at least the gravestones, which are irreplaceable, may be found discarded somewhere. The publicity this dastardly act has garnered may hinder the robbers’ attempts to profit and force them to dump the highly recognizable pieces. Meanwhile, the organization is looking into security cameras and SmartWater, an ingenious anti-theft liquid that contains microscopic chemical particles encoded with a unique signature that glows under UV light. It identifies stolen property like DNA identifies people, and when found on a suspect, it ties them conclusively to the stolen object or the place where it was stolen.

These security measures cost money, money which this small, dedicated group of history lovers does not have. To donate, call Steve Stanworth at 07786 028 889 or email at this address. You can also follow them on Facebook to stay apprised of the investigation and rebuilding efforts.

Date stones in Old Bell Chapel wallThe Action Group had already increased fundraising efforts this year, selling commemorative plates and some lovely Christmas cards in honor of the 400th anniversary of the construction of Old Bell Chapel. There was an even earlier church known as Saint Leonard’s built in 1587 (the date stone is part of the walls of the chapel today), but in 1612 it was rebuilt from scratch and called Saint James’ Church.

Patrick Brontë in old ageBy the time Patrick Brontë arrived 200 years later, the chapel was dilapidated. The growing Dissenter movements of the 17th and 18th centuries had turned many people from the small, cramped Anglican church to its Independent Congregationalist competition, the Kipping Chapel. It was still a popular spot for burials, though. The churchyard has seen 6000 burials from 1597 until the last one in 1965, and up until Patrick’s time, people could pay extra and be buried under the floor of the church itself. Brontë put a stop to that practice because it was making the church smell awful. He also spearheaded a major renovation of the church in 1818, rebuilding the south walls with windows and erecting a bell tower.

Brontë baptismal font, St. James' ChurchAlthough the nearby village of Haworth where the children grew up and Emily and Charlotte would write their masterpieces is more widely associated with Patrick’s clutch of world-famous children, the five of them born during his curacy of St. James’ Church were baptized there: Elizabeth (baptized August 26th, 1815), Charlotte (June 29th, 1816), Patrick Branwell (July 23rd, 1817), Emily (August 26th, 1818) and Ann (March 25th, 1820). The baptismal font they all used still exists. It has been moved across the street to the current Saint James’ Church, built in 1872 to replace the old church which had fallen into disrepair after Patrick Brontë took the Perpetual Curacy of Haworth and moved the family there in April 1820.

Old Bell Chapel in 1988 before clearing and restorationIt was a crumbling ruin ceded to the wilderness when the Old Bell Chapel Action Group took it upon themselves to clear and preserve it starting in 2000. They cleared the brush, revealing the remaining walls of the chapel and opening the cemetery so locals could visit their ancestors’ and relatives’ graves and Brontë lovers could pay homage to where it all began.

14th c. sword looted in Alexandrian Crusade for sale

14th c. Italian-made sword with rich Cypriot and Mamluk historyAn arming sword (a knight’s sword for single-handed use smaller than a broadsword) from the 14th century with a storied past from the waning days of the Crusader kingdoms will be the star of Bonham’s Antique Arms and Armor sale on November 28th. The auction catalogue won’t be available until four weeks before the sale; bookmark this page and check back if you’re interested.

It’s longer than your average arming sword, with a tapering double-edged blade more than three feet long (92.5 centimeters or 36.4 inches). The hilt has an iron wheel pommel engraved with a crosslet cross (a heraldic symbol signifying the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the earth by means of four Latin crosses combined so that their tops point north, south, east and west), a leather-wrapped grip and a straight cross-guard. It is nine inches (23.2 centimeters) long, bringing the total length of the sword to an impressive three feet nine and 35/64 inches (115.7 centimeters).

The sword was made in Italy in the mid-14th century. Its first duty was diplomatic, as a gift to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt al-Nasir Hasan from Peter I, King of Cyprus. By Peter’s time, Cyprus was the last Crusader state in existence. Although he held the titles of King of Jerusalem and Count of Tripoli, these were in name only, and even the empty titles weren’t exactly grounded in valid claims of descendance. Peter was a Lusignan, a branch of a French knightly family whose most famous son Guy had married extraordinarily well. Guy de Lusignan was one of those troublesome knights who spent his downtime back home in Aquitaine assaulting people and stealing their stuff. One of his victims was Patrick, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, who died in an ambush by Guy and his scoundrel brothers in 1168.

The Lusignans were exiled for this crime, reputedly by their overlord Richard, acting Duke of Aquitaine and future Lionhearted king of England, but since Richard was 11 years old in 1168, it was probably his redoubtable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine’s doing. On the other hand, he did get a very early start. Richard was touring the duchy as official Duke just three years later in 1171. His mother was by his side, but by all accounts Richard was a well-established ruler in his early teens. He led his first army when he was 16.

As was so often the fate of the many and varied violent criminal knights of medieval Europe, Guy de Lusignan made his way to Jerusalem, which had been the capital of a Catholic kingdom in Palestine since the First Crusade in 1099. His older brother was already there and doing well for himself. Guy did even better, marrying Sibylla, sister of Baldwin IV, the leper King of Jersualem, in 1180. Baldwin IV died in 1185. His nephew, Sibylla’s son from a former marriage, was crowned Baldwin V, but he died soon thereafter. Sibylla became Queen, and she saw to it that Guy became King with a clever deception. She had the marriage annulled to appease his enemies in court, on the condition that she could choose her next husband. They agreed, the marriage was annulled and then Sibylla announced that her choice for a new husband was (drumroll) Guy de Lusignan. They remarried in August 1186, and she literally handed him her crown so he could crown himself King of Jerusalem.

Guy de Lusignan and Saladin by Jan Lievens, 1625The good times didn’t last. On July 4th, 1187, Guy made the extremely bad call of leading the army of Jerusalem across the desert in the middle of the summer day to relieve Tiberias, under siege by the forces of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, aka Saladin. The Battle of Hattin was a rout, the army destroyed and Guy captured. Saladin moved on to Jerusalem, besieging it from September 20th until its capitulation on October 2nd. The King and Queen of Jerusalem no longer had Jerusalem in their kingdom.

The movie Kingdom of Heaven depicts a highly fictionalized version of these events. Despite its many, many historical inaccuracies, it is a visually stunning film and well worth watching, especially the director’s cut on Blu-ray. Guy does not get a sympathetic portrayal, to put it mildly.

Guy was released in 1188. In 1190, he besieged Acre in anticipation of the arrival of the Third Crusade. His wife and daughters died of plague there, leaving him without even the titular right to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He insisted it was still his, though, and appealed to his old overlord Richard, now King Richard I of England and a vigorous crusader. Ultimately he would lose, but as compensation for Guy’s loss of the crown his wife had given him, in 1192 Richard pulled some strings so Guy could purchase Cyprus from the Knights Templar, who had just purchased it from Richard after he had taken it from self-styled Byzantine “emperor” Isaac Komnenos in 1191. Guy ruled there as king (even though it wasn’t really a kingdom) and kept his fake King of Jerusalem title to boot. Thus began the reign of the Lusignan Dynasty in Cyprus which would continue until 1474.

As for Peter I’s claim to be Count of Tripoli, Qalawun, the seventh Mamluk sultan of Egypt, captured Tripoli on April 27, 1289, putting an end to the Crusader County of Tripoli for good. In 1291, Qalawun’s son and successor, Al-Ashraf Khalil, took Acre, the last fragment of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem remaining in Palestine. After that, Cyprus, once the consolation prize for the failed would-be King of Jerusalem, was the only Crusader kingdom left.

King Peter I of Cyprus, detail from fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365Peter’s fondest dream was to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity, redeem the Lusignan name and make his phantom title real. Since his ascension to the throne in 1358, his allies in Armenia had asked him to fight the Turks, who were harrying the town of Korikos. Seeking to establish a bulwark in Asia Minor, Peter sent troops to Korikos who successfully defended the city. Now the Turks were mad, so they sent ships straight to Cyprus. Peter was again successful, and he responded by attacking Antalya and other towns in Asia Minor.

While all this was going on, he really didn’t need the other Islamic powers on his jock, so he struck a treaty with the Sultan of Mamluk Egypt, even though he was fully planning on attacking them too when he got a moment. That moment came on October 9th, 1365, when a Cypriot force, fortified by ships and troops from Venice, the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes and the other European powers he had lobbied for three years to support him in this new crusade (which like many of the old crusades turned out to have less to do with religion than with plunder), attacked Alexandria. For the next three days, Peter’s troops sacked the city, helping themselves to its armory which of course included the sword he had given the sultan a few years before.

The Taking of Alexandria, illumination in book by Guillaume de Machaut, 1372-1377Peter wanted to move on to capture Cairo, but his patchwork army had zero interest in going against the far stronger Mamluk garrison there, so they just loaded the treasures of Alexandria onto ships and went home. The exact path of the sword from that point on is unknown, but I suspect it ended up back on Cyprus again. The reason I suspect this is the Arabic inscription on the blade, which translates to “Donation to the armory in the frontier city of Alexandria in the days of al-Sayfi Faris al-[Muhammadi].” Amir Faris was a inspector in Alexandria in 1436-7, so that means the sword made its way back to the armory after the Alexandrian Crusade. Mamluk Sultans attacked Cyprus in force in 1426, capturing King Janus and pillaging far and wide, so perhaps they got this hot potato of a sword back then.

Janus was eventually ransomed, but from then on, the Lusignan kings of Cyprus paid a yearly tribute to the Sultans of Egypt. The last Lusignan king of Cyprus was James II. He died in 1473, just a few months after his marriage to an 18-year-old Venetian noblewoman Catherine Cornaro. Rumor has it she or her relatives might have hastened his death. Catherine was pregnant at the time, so she was made regent. Her son died in 1474 before he was a year old, again under suspicious circumstances, officially ending the Lusignan line.

Caterina Coronaro as St. Catherine of Alexandria by Titian, ca. 1542Although Catherine continued to reign as Queen by virtue of her marriage, she was a puppet; a highly cultured and beloved one, but nonetheless it was the power brokers of Venice who pulled the strings on Cyprus. They forced her to abdicate in 1489, leaving Cyprus as a colony of Venice until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1571.

Fun fact in the everything is linked to everything else category: Catherine Cornaro was the great-granddaughter of Marco Corner, Count of Zara and future Doge of Venezia, depicted in the painting recently reclaimed for the dining room of The Elms mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

Revolutionary War general gets a grave marker

Horatio Gates wearing the gold medal given him by Congress for the victory at Saratoga, portrait by Gilbert StuartGeneral Horatio Gates was the commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga, which took place in eastern New York in two phases on September 19th and October 7th, 1777. The conclusive victory resulted in the surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s army and was the immediate cause of France’s agreement to negotiate an alliance with the ragtag colonists, which would force Britain to fight on multiple fronts and would provision the Revolutionaries with much-needed arms and money. The Battle of Saratoga is widely considered America’s greatest victory in the War of Independence.

For some time after Saratoga, General Gates was held in the highest esteem. He and George Washington were treated as equally great heroes, appearing on the cover of almanacs and in contemporary histories as luminaries of the Continental Army. Then things went awry, which is why few people have heard of Gates today while we daily palpate George Washington’s visage on the dollar bill. The main problem was that General Gates had a gigantic ego which led him to take more credit than he may have deserved, and to attempt to secure more power than was wise.

"The Glorious Gates and Washington" on the cover of Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack, 1778Born in 1727 in Deptford, England, Horatio Gates was the son of a housekeeper with outstanding connections to the aristocracy and a civil servant. His mother’s service for the Duke of Bolton secured a military commission for her son, who ten years later would move to New York and serve under British General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War. An injury early on in the campaign kept him from doing much field duty, but by all accounts he was an excellent military administrator.

By 1769, he was over the British army with its strict class-based promotion system that had kept him stuck at the rank of major for years. He sold his commission and bought a small plantation outside Leetown in what was then Virginia and is now West Virginia. When hostilities broke out with Britain in 1775, Gates immediately presented himself to Washington, whom he had known when they both served under Braddock in the French and Indian War, as an experienced candidate for high rank in the nascent US army. Valuing his inside knowledge of British military tactics and his administrative abilities, Washington appointed him Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

Gates wanted a field command, though. In fact, he wanted the whole command, actively lobbying the Continental Congress in 1776 to appoint him Commander-in-Chief instead of Washington. He had many influential backers, especially among the New England delegates, but Washington’s victories at Trenton (after he famously crossed the icy Delaware River standing up in the front of a rowboat) on December 26th, 1776 and at Princeton on January 2nd, 1777 entrenched his position at the head of the army. General Gates was sent to New York State to help Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the army’s Northern Department.

When Schuyler lost Fort Ticonderoga to the British, Gates saw his chance (even though he was plenty involved in the failed campaigns). Congress appointed him commander of the Northern Department in August of 1777, a month before the initial encounters with General Burgoyne’s troops at Saratoga.

Benedict Arnold Boot Monument on the spot where he was shot in Saratoga National Historical Park; his name is not mentioned anywhere on itThere is much debate on the question of how much credit he deserves for the victory there. His field generals, most notably Benedict Arnold, did much of the on-the-ground fighting, and Arnold’s greatest success repelling a British attack on the left flank happened against Gates’ orders. Arnold was shot in the leg in that battle. The shot broke his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on top of him and broke his leg some more.

Gates liked his action defensive, always advocating for retreat and holding back. It’s not as glamorous as Arnold’s inspiring charge into the breach, but in this case Gates’ cautiousness served the troops well since it ensured they were well-established in a defensive position on Bemis’ Heights with solid supply lines all the way back to Albany. The British Army, on the other hand, had major supply issues and although they had won the first encounter in September, they did so at great human cost, particularly among their officers who had been successfully targeted by American shooters. The American army was able to cut off British resupply, and the German troops refused Burgoyne’s orders to attack again. On October 17th, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates.

"The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga" by John Trumbull, 1822Riding high on the Saratoga victory, Gates was appointed head of the Board of War, a civilian position which put him in the absurdly conflict-rife position of having political command over George Washington who was his commanding officer in the army. During this time, he and a cabal of officers, including General Thomas Conway, discussed having Washington fired and Gates appointed Commander-in-Chief in his place. It never went beyond an exchange of letters, and the Conway Cabal, as it became known, failed when Washington found out about it and confronted the grumblers. Gates apologized, resigned from the Board of War, and quietly took command of the Eastern Department.

In 1780, he was given command of the Southern Department after the British victory in the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. This would turn out to be his military nadir. At the Battle of Camden on August 16th, Gates’ army was beaten like a red-headed stepchild by General Charles Cornwallis. The British took 1,000 of Gates’ men prisoner and all of his artillery. Gates reputedly distinguished himself in one way: by running 170 miles in three days on horseback to get back to safety up north.

Congress called for an inquiry into Gates’ conduct in the aftermath of the disaster, but it went nowhere and his supporters had it repealed in 1782. With the end of hostilities in 1783, you’d think his chances to mess up would also end, but Gates was involved in one more embarrassment, the Newburgh conspiracy, in which officers unhappy about the prospect of their promised pensions remaining unpaid due to Congressional brokeness tried to stir up trouble. They proposed Washington be replaced by Gates, but Washington yet again headed them off at the pass by delivering a speech which, though unpersuasive in substance, swayed his officers back to his side with a reference to his now having to wear glasses because of the hardships he’d suffered along with them during this war.

Traveler's Rest in Leetown, West Virginia, picture from 1933 or laterGates went back to Traveler’s Rest, his estate in Virginia, for a few years. Then he sold the estate, manumitted his slaves, and moved to New York. He died in Manhattan in 1806 and was buried in the Trinity Church graveyard on Wall Street. Doubtless he had a gravestone at that point, but over time it was lost, as was the exact location of his burial.

DAR lay wreath at Trinity ChurchNow, thanks to the efforts of James S. Kaplan, a tax attorney/historian/tour guide who for the past 16 years has given a walking tour of Revolutionary War sites in Manhattan every July 4th from 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, General Horatio Gates has an official memorial marker at the Trinity Church cemetery. The marble marker was installed on the south side of the church and a wreath lain in a ceremony on Sunday, October 21st.

Read James Kaplan’s assessment of General Gates’ role in the Battle of Saratoga in this article. You can listen to James Kaplan’s Trinity Church tour here. Search for “Kaplan” on this page to access recordings of his many other tours of New York City, including his ten-stop Great Crash of 1929 tour of Wall Street in collaboration with real estate executive Richard M. Warshauer.

Germany using signs to stop Baltic shipwreck looters

Diver observes World War II U-boat off the coast of BoltenhagenThe low salinity and cold temperatures of the Baltic Sea provide ideal conditions for the preservation of shipwrecks and their contents. There are an estimated 100,000 shipwrecks resting on the floor of the Baltic Sea, with perhaps 6,000 of them deemed of particular archaeological and historical significance. Although Swedish Baltic archaeological finds have made much of the news lately, there are approximately 1,500 protected marine monuments (mostly shipwrecks, but also some downed aircraft and submerged archaeological remains that were once on dry land) in German Baltic waters.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these were mainly left alone. Much of the coastal Baltic was restricted territory. Except for a few select people, divers weren’t allowed to explore the vast historical wealth under water. Since reunification, areas that were once off limits are now open, and advances in diving technology have greatly increased the numbers of sports divers hoping to see the Baltic sights. They can also go further offshore to reach shipwrecks that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been accessible. Add to that a wider range of available tools for the sports diver, and now stealing objects of historical value from Baltic wrecks becomes a lucrative proposition.

Steel plate sealing gap in U-boat turret hatchOnly 350 of the marine monuments have been officially explored and mapped, which makes it hard to know exactly how bad the undersea looting situation has gotten. The evidence on the sites that have been documented, however, is extremely disturbing. For example, one World War II U-boat, a small two-man vessel discovered 60 feet under Baltic waters off the coast of Boltenhagen in 2000, was found with its turret hatch closed and undamaged. It was therefore designated a war grave, since its crew remained sealed within. In 2002, divers broke into the hatch. Regional government officials sealed the hole with a steel plate which is still in place today, but shows clear signs of having been tampered with in an attempt to break into the U-boat.

“It’s one of our big worries, over the years people keep trying to get into it and that is of course utterly disrespectful,” says Detlef Jantzen, an archaeologist at the regional agency for monument protection in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

It’s possible that these divers don’t realize the U-boat is a war grave, or at least aren’t consciously thinking about the fact that they’re desecrating a grave by messing with the hatch. Some of the other wreck sites that are regularly visited by hobby divers may be damaged because the tourists with good intentions don’t understand how their interactions with the artifacts can cause harm. In an attempt to appeal to better natures, and maybe to enlist conditioned reactions to museum signs, Germany’s Society of Maritime Archaeology has started a project to add underwater signs to historic shipwrecks.

The first sign, next to 100-year-old tugboatLast week the first sign was added to a 100-year-old tugboat thought to have been sunk during or just after World War II. At only 30 feet deep, it’s a popular site for sport divers to visit. The wreck was discovered three years ago and is already showing the ill-effects of diver interference. The sign informs divers that the wreck is a protected historical monument and provides additional information about the site’s layout and history.

The group will start by signposting nine monuments. One particularly valuable wreck is that of the “Darsser Kogge,” a 14th century ship that is a rare example of medieval shipbuilding. “It’s lying on its side and the remains provide valuable information on construction and manufacturing techniques of the time,” said [Society of Maritime Archaeology chairman Martin] Siegel. “These preserved vessels are often the only source of research into traditional shipbuilding.”

The Darsser Kogge has enough to worry about as it is without divers making things worse. The Baltic Sea is increasingly subject to the depredations of the dreaded Teredo navalis, naval shipworm, which used to stick to saltier waters leaving Baltic wooden wrecks free of its destructive devouring. As the waters of the Baltic have gotten warmer and their salinity has increased, particularly over the past decade, the wood boring creatures have spread from the coast of Denmark east into German Baltic territory and north into Swedish waters.

Spread of Teredo navalis surface larvae in Baltic, 1980-1989 (l), 1990-1999 (m), 2000-2008 (r)

The EU has funded a study of the presence of shipworm in the Baltic, the Wreck Protect Project, to determine how far Teredo navalis has spread, whether, as researchers suspect, climate change is the underlying cause of the Baltic’s environmental changes, and how best to preserve archaeological and historical sites in situ, since logistics and funding make it impossible to contemplate raising every wreck for conservation on dry land.

Darsser Kogge wreckThe EU’s MoSS (Monitoring Safeguarding and Visualizing North European Shipwreck Sites) Project worked to document and protect four wreck sites in the Baltic and elsewhere in Northern Europe, including the Darsser Kogge. There are some good pictures and information about the history of the ship and its conservation challenges on its website.