View Full Version : The Lapuri Find

Sunday, February 12th, 2006, 03:10 PM
The Lapuri wreck is, so far, the only Viking Age ship find to have been made in southern Finland. It is also the only one seemingly linked to a northern coastal sea-route in the Gulf of Finland. The experiences gained from the Skuldelev excavations has thus been crucial in determining the dating and the character of the find, which resembles the traditional Scandinavian clinker-built types.

About a dozen boat graves with iron-riveted planks have also been identified on the mainland of Finland, half of which can be dated to the Viking Age. There may be more. The main problem of source criticism in this connection would be the number of preserved rivets. This is not irrelevant to the Lapuri find, since the fastenings between the strakes in this wreck are both iron nails and treenails, of which the latter would not leave any traces at all, if the wood was burnt or had decayed completely.

Another ship-find, in this case probably of the purely Scandinavian clinker tradition, is the medieval 13th-century vessel found at the castle of Turku/Åbo.

Some earlier Finnish finds belong to other ship-building traditions of northern and central Finland. There is in fact also a Viking-Age boat which has been found in the north, the small 10th-century Laivajärvi boat from the neighbourhood of Tornio/Torneå. Its planks had been sewn together with a continuous seam and it displayed slender, bulkhead-like ribs. The huge find of single-stitch-lashed boats, Lapland sleighs and skis of Keuruu in central Finland is at least partly to be dated to the 13th century, and so is the sewn boat of Rääkylä.

Discovery & general info on the site and its excavation

The Lapuri wreck was discovered by a skin-diver, Manu Törönen, in 1976. It was situated at a depth of 6 m in the straits between Lapuri island and the Siikasaari islet. This locality was a natural harbour in medieval times according to the dating of underwater pottery-finds. Land upheaval in this region has been 0.25 m per century. The bottom consists of thin mud, easily movable, on top of clayey sand layers. Two broad ship planks were partly visible and there was a stone heap at a distance of 3 m from these. All other remains were covered by sediments.


In 1977 the wreck was partly (about 25%) excavated during a four-day campaign. Only a sample of the stone heap was lifted for geological analyses. Unfortunately no photos were taken until the next year, 1978, when a photo-mosaic was made of the re-silted wreck (by Fred Ohert). In 1985 the site was damaged by an amateur diver, who illegally removed a part of the stone heap. However, the author in 1989 could easily establish that no real damage had been done to the wreck itself. The following year the Teredo navalis diving-club (led by Leena Sammalahti) made the first video recording with relatively poor visibility in the water.

Two excavations have been arranged at the site since then, in the course of 1992 and 1993, led by Maria Hölttä, under the auspices of the National Maritime Museum of Finland. The stone heap and the sediment layers were removed from the hull. Visible parts were documented full-scale in situ on plastic sheets, photographed and videorecorded.

At the end of the 1993 excavations the wreck was covered with a thin cloth and on top of this an approximately 30 cm sand layer to protect it.

Sketches of the Lapuri wreck-site 1977 and 1993 (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap1.gif)


The caulking of animal hair was considered to be the most reliable specimen for dating. Its C14 age as of 1977 was 980 +/- 90 years. The first wood sample was unfortunately taken with disregard to annual rings. This gave a date 200 years too old.

The additional sample in 1993 was taken from a piece of cloth used as caulking in a strake scarf. The result (Hel-3379) was 570 years BP+/-110 years. There is at present no sufficiently clear explanation for this huge discrepancy in the datings. Is there any chance of a mix-up of samples having taken place or pollution by chemical agents? No reservation of this kind could, however, be directed towards the first two samples.

Geological conditions: currents, sedimentation, erosion

In the Lapuri straits currents change irregularly and very frequently. The wreck had been partly covered by sediments since 1977. The sediments of the aft part had been eroded during these few years. In order to estimate the process of sedimentation some samples were taken in the wreck and outside of it. So far no analysis of these specimens has been undertaken. It was observed, however, during field research that sand sucked up by the airlift was sometimes transported back by the current to produce a sand rain, which gave a layer of up to 5 cm on a bad day.

State of the wreck in 1977

The wreck had been flattened out on the sea-floor by the weight of the stones. The port side was more damaged than the starboard side, since the hull had been tilted to the latter. The stones had also apparently been rolled over to the starboard side before sinking. Most of the frames had been broken under the weight of the stones, but their original shape seemed to be possible to reconstruct.

Short description

The remains are c. 980 cm long and 330 cm broad. It has been surmised that the original height of the hull must have been at least 80 cm and the height from keel to the top of the stem c. 230 cm at the maximum.

After sinking, the hull has gradually been flattened out on the floor and was during the excavations c. 20-25 cm in profile (the stone heap excluded).

Position of the keel and the tilt

The measurements taken indicate that the keel of the wreck in now slightly bent in longitudinal direction c. 4º. The forward end lies 7º from the horizontal level, while the aft end ends up only 4º from the same level. The difference in angle between the stem and the stern, 3º, shows that the keel is bent. It is not clear whether the curve is original – which is quite possible judging from other Viking-Age ships – or if the stone heap bent is secondarily.

The stern points to the north, according to the direction of the plank scarfs. The keel in the stem is tilted 7º to starboard, while the stern displays 16º. Measurements have been taken from the flat upper side of the keel.

The keel is in fact quite low (below). It appears therefore that the earlier opinion that an assumed high keel had been instrumental in the tilt is false.

The stones

The tilt could have been caused by the stones. Inside the hull were 268 stones of different sizes with a combined weight of 1400-2000 kg. About 70% of them concentrated on the starboard side. Yet the heap was evenly distributed and shows no sign of a slide. Thus it seems that an asymmetrically loaded heap of stones has forced the hull to starboard at the moment of sinking.

The mineral content of the stones has been analyzed. They all appear to be granite of local origin. Before the removal in 1982 each stone was numbered, drawn and weighed individually underwater. They were placed in the "stone farm" c. 7 m from the port side of the wreck.

Already in 1977 two ends of planks were observed under the stones, but above strake no. 4 on the stone-heap side. These planks were accordingly thought to be parts of a ceiling, to protect the frames and the outer planking from the ballast stones. The problem was that we already knew that the stones were of local origin. It appeared therefore that they could not be ballast.

While dismantling the stones in 1982 it became obvious that there were no ceiling. Only fragments of two short planks were found under the stones (at frame 4), precisely those which had been observed in 1977.

Thus the obvious conclusion seems to be that the stones were not intended as ballast but rather as a heavy load to keep the ship on the sea floor.


The very thin but broad oaken planks are characteristic. At frame 4 the bottom planks 2-3 are not eroded, but still only 1.4 cm thick. Most of the preserved planks are of the same thickness or even thinner.

All of the salvaged and studied planks have been made by splitting a big trunk radially in the manner so familiar from the Skuldelev ships. The broadest plank is c. 55 cm wide, but only c. 1.5 cm thick. For the seams there has been used animal-hair caulcing, in the plank joints (at least two) a tarred woolen cloth.

However, the method of fastening the planks is unusual for this age. The ship is clinker-built but the strakes are fastened to each other alternately with iron rivets with square or rhombic roves on the inside and with wooden pegs (treenails) of a diameter of (10-)12 mm. The iron rivets have square shanks, 5x5 mm and are placed at a distance of 20-23 cm from the intervening treenails. At places there are irregularities in this pattern. There can, for example, be 2-5 rivets in an unbroken sequence followed by one treenail.

The fastening of the strakes to the frames is done in the usual way, with wooden pegs with a diameter of c. (20)-22 mm.

Near the stem one of the hull planks was found on the sea floor (strake no. 3, counting from the keel). This plank appears to have been bent in the direction of the keel. Accordingly, this shape gives interesting information about the build-up of the fore part of the ship.

Strake no. 1 in the aft part goes further than the keel. The plank end has eroded to such an extent that the hood end cannot be discerned. The same observation can be made for plank no. 2 on the starboard side and the corresponding plank on the port side is missing altogether.

Two broad planks were found under a sediment layer of c. 10-15 cm. Both are important because they still preserve very clearly the scarf end to the stern.

It is remarkable that the higher placed planks are not eroded and in fact in rather good condition while the next two lower planks are severely eroded. Together with the actual positioning of the planks on the sea floor this fact may be taken to indicate human activity at the site fairly soon after the sinking of the ship. An anchor or something else seems to have crushed the aftmost part of the ship from starboard to port and to have spread the planks over the sea floor. Whether by purpose or just accidentally cannot be established. The straits at Lapuri were, as mentioned, a medieval overnight haven.

Near the aft end was found a thin but broad plank with a somewhat unusually shaped end. It is cut diagonally instead of straight, which is the normal form in the wreck. No definite conclusion can be drawn as to its background, whether it is poor craftsmanship or the result of following the local tradition.

The sample of wool under a plank joint

A sample of the cloth for the caulking was taken under a joint at strake no. 3. The wool in the cloth has been identified as coming from an eastern race of sheep.

Repair of a strake

Obviously the ship was in fairly bad condition before the sinking. At least one repair has been found, on the port side, between frames nos 5 and 6. The repair patch has been fastened to the plank by rivets

Piece of a plank with impressions of rivet plates. (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap2.gif)


A wooden lath was found immediately outside of the starboard side, between frames nos 4 to 6 and alongside the outermost strake. It has been taken to be a section of the port side rail (gunwale). The lath is approximately square in cross-section and wooden pegs go through it both horizontally and vertically.

The stem post of the Lapuri wreck as found and in reconstruction. (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap3.gif)


The distances vary between the frames midships and in the ends of the boat. Starting from the stem the distance between frames 1-2 is about 110 cm, the next (2-3) c. 80 cm, 80 cm between frames 4-5, 50 cm between 6,7,8; 50 cm between 9-10, 55 cm between 10-11 and 70 cm or more between 11-12.

The frames mostly reach half way up strake no. 4. Only those frames which appear to be of lighter wood reach higher (even up to strake no. 5), e.g. 6 and 8. There are limber holes in the frames. Their form is usually oblong. At the seam of strakes 1 and 2 another draining hole has been observed, like a V turned upside-down.


About 40 m south of the wreck was found a curved piece of oak wood. It is probably the stem of the wreck, since it has two holes (for a rope?) in its lower part. No other wreck is known to exist in the Lapuri straits, so it is reasonable to assume that it belongs to "our" ship. The hood ends have been fitted to the stem in a very old-fashioned way. Thus, the lapstrake position of the strakes continues to the very end. But the same kind of "fully clinkered" construction has survived in Finland (with the Åland islands) and some places in Sweden into the 20th century in the clinker-built bondeseglare (farmer-sailor).

The keel, size and form

The length of the T-formed keel is 702 cm and the maximum width inside the hull is 22 cm. The height was measured to be 13-14 cm of the lower standing part takes 11 cm. The width of the underside of this standing part is 8-11 cm. These measurements were taken between frames 3 and 4 in the aft part. In 1977 the end of the keel was measured to be c. 16 cm high, which it is 50 cm up the ends. This obviously means that it is a little higher in its fore and aft part than midships.

Details of frames and knees from Lapuri. (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap6.gif)

Keelson with low arc

Only the aftmost part of the keelson is preserved under the stones. But the forward part must have been partly visible under the stones, if it had been in position when the ship was sunk. It appears that there are two alternative explanations: 1) the keelson was broken off and removed before the loading of the stones. 2) An anchor has, after the sinking, ripped away the forward part of the keelson.

The preserved part of the keelson covers frames 7 and 8, ending at frame no. 9, where it ap-pears to have been broken at the possible mast step. The remaining part has been placed c. 2 m forward from midships. It is fairly severely eroded but it can nevertheless be observed that it was originally quite light and small. Thus, the mast of the ship cannot have been big or heavy.

A part of the keelson, that between frames 8 and 9, is flat. The wood has accordingly been in contact with the keel for its full length. Between frames 8 and 7 there is a low arc (only 1-1.5 cm; from three directions).

Preliminary reconstruction drawings of the Lapuri find. (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap7a.gif)
#2 (http://www.abc.se/~m10354/mar/img/finland/lap7b.gif)

The stringers

Short pieces of stringers were found at two places along the plank seams. Their rabbets have also been observed on a few frames (e.g. frames 3,4 and 9). Otherwise it seems that stringers are totally missing (e.g. at frames 5,6,7 and 8). It is possible that repair work prior to the sinking included the dismantling and renewal of some of the frames. The stringers or rather parts of stringers may not have been replaced at these frames.

It could also be observed that some of the strakes are paler in colour than other parts of the ship, even though they ought to be oak. The analyses of the wood have not yet been finished.

A support for the rudder pivot?

A little beyond the aft end of the keel was located a wooden object, 92 cm long, 16.4 cm broad and 6.4 cm thick. On one side the object had several holes of different sizes. On the other side a groove ran along almost its full length.

The function of it is unknown. But a reasonable guess would be a support for the rudder. It would have been placed near the starboard ship's rail to protect it from wear.

Other parts of ship construction

About 12 m to the north of the wreck was found a thin, severely eroded beam. Its present length is as great as 297 cm, with a breadth of 8.1 cm and thickness of 6.3 cm. In its eroded end it has wooden pegs, possibly for the fastening of a knee. Of such knees there were found at least four in or near to the wreck. The cross-section of the beam is triangular in shape. If it served as a bite (cross-beam or thwart), it could indicate the original width of the hull. However, the totally eroded opposite end does not give any indication of its nature.

Loose objects

Only very few loose objects have been found: a net sinker, two unidentified wooden objects, three grinding stones and – from three different places – fragments of a bronze kettle. Probably these fragments belong to the same pot.

Sinking or accident?

Was the Lapuri ship sunk on purpose or by accident? The archaeological material appears to be ambiguous. If it was intentionally sunk, how are we to explain the three grinding stones or the fragments of the bronze kettle? Why were they left behind if the ship was stripped and sunk? Maybe that question is a little less serious than the next one.

On the other hand, if the ship was sunk in an accident: how do we explain the lack of items in the hull and the total lack of ceiling, the missing front part of the keelson and the local type of stones found inside the hull?

No definite answer can thus be given. The only reasonable hypothesis the present author can offer is that the ship was part of a convoy and that it sprang a leak (and/or lost a mast with part of its keelson) near the Lapuri strait. Its cargo was taken off and the ship itself pulled ashore for repair. Perhaps it was not possible to repair it anymore. It was decided to abandon it. The hull was pushed out into the water, stones from the beach were loaded into it without protecting the inside of the ship by putting back the ceiling. The ship was towed about 80 m from the shoreline and sunk in the straits at a depth of 8 m. The secondary damage seen in it must then have been unintentional and inflicted by crews of ships at the night anchorage in the Lapuri straits.