National Geographic News
Mars was the largest ship in the world in its day. It exploded and sank during a battle in 1564.

The Mars lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, where it sank during a naval battle in 1564. A diver at upper right provides scale.

COMPOSITE PHOTOGRAPH BY TOMASZ STACHURA, OCEAN DISCOVERY  

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published July 7, 2014

It was the largest and fiercest warship in the world, named the Mars for the Roman god of war, but it went up in a ball of flames in a brutal naval battle in 1564, consigning 800 to 900 Swedish and German sailors and a fortune in gold and silver coins to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Now, a few years after the ship's discovery, researchers have concluded that the one-of-a-kind ship is also the best preserved ship of its kind, representing the first generation of Europe's big, three-masted warships.

Naval historians know a lot about 17th-century ships, but very little about warships from the 16th century, said Johan Rönnby, a professor of maritime archaeology at Södertörn University in Sweden, who is studying the 197-foot-long (60 meter) wreck.

"It's a missing link," said Rönnby, whose work is funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Global Exploration Fund. The 1500s is an important period, he said, because it's when big three-masted warships started being built.

Researchers have found cargo from early warships called galleons—slightly later iterations of the type of vessel the Mars exemplifies. And they've recovered pieces of actual ships, including the English flagship Mary Rose, which sank during a battle in 1545. But never have they found something as well preserved as the Mars.

Rönnby and his team want to leave the Mars on the seafloor and instead use three-dimensional scans and photographs to share the wreck with the world.

Rönnby, with help from Richard Lundgren—part owner of Ocean Discovery, a company of professional divers that assists in maritime archaeology work—and others, has been piecing together photomosaics and scanning the wreck to produce 3-D reconstructions. With funding from the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, they are working this summer to complete their scans of the entire ship.

Bringing a ship out of the ocean is expensive, and it can cause significant harm to artifacts. The laser scans Lundgren and colleagues have taken are accurate to within 0.08 inches (2 millimeters)—more than enough to satisfy most researchers.

Using some relatively new tools and methods, archeologists now have a chance to reconstruct the last minutes of the ship and the souls onboard, Lundgren said, and gain some insight into how people behaved on a battlefield.

Finding the Mars

Treasure hunters, archaeologists, and history aficionados have sought the Mars over the years. But they were unsuccessful until the late spring of 2011, when a group of divers located one of maritime archaeology's greatest finds in 246 feet (75 meters) of water. (See "5 Shipwrecks Lost to Time That Archaeologists Would Love to Get Their Hands On.")

Legend has it that a specter rose from the inferno to guard the Mars, the pride of the Swedish navy, against ever being discovered.

The discovery was the culmination of a 20-year search by Lundgren, along with his brother Ingemar and their colleague Fredrik Skogh. The men had dreamed of finding the mighty Mars since making a childhood visit to a Stockholm museum housing another iconic Swedish warship, named the Vasa. Richard and Ingemar Lundgren became professional divers in part because of that dream.

Graphic of the Mars shipwreck location.
NG STAFF, JAMIE HAWK. SOURCE: RICHARD LUNDGREN, OCEAN DISCOVERY

War Machine

The Mars sank on May 31, 1564, off the coast of a Swedish island called Öland. She came to rest on the seafloor tilted to her starboard, or right, side. Low levels of sediment, slow currents, brackish water, and the absence of a mollusk called a shipworm—responsible for breaking down wooden wrecks in other oceans in as little as five years—combined to keep the warship in remarkable condition.

What makes this find even more exciting, said Lundgren, is that the Mars didn't sink because of a design flaw or poor seamanship.

"Mars was a functioning war machine that performed extremely well in battle," he explained. She sank loaded to the gills with cannons—even her crow's nests had guns—sailors, and all the accoutrements needed to run a ship built for war (including eight different kinds of beer).

This warship had "totally unheard of firepower" for her time, said Lundgren. And it's those cannons that played a role in her demise.

Watch video of the underwater Mars wreck.

A Fiery End

The Mars went down while engaged with a Danish force allied with soldiers from a German city called Lübeck. The Swedes routed the Danes on the first day of battle, said Rönnby. So on the second day, the Germans decided to press their luck.

German forces began lobbing fireballs at the Mars and eventually succeeded in pulling alongside the burning ship so soldiers could board her. As gunpowder on the warship fueled the inferno, the heat became so intense that cannons began to explode, said Rönnby.

Those explosions eventually sank the warship. Legend, however, tells a slightly different story.

The Swedish kings at the time were busy trying to consolidate their position, Rönnby explained. "[But] the Catholic Church was a problem for the new kings because it was so powerful," he said. So in trying to diminish the church's power, monarchs like Erik XIV—who commissioned the Mars—would confiscate church bells, melt them down, and use the metal to make cannons for their new warships.

Legend has it that carrying those repurposed church bells doomed the Mars to a watery grave. The warship carried either 107 or 173 cannons of many different sizes.

A Time Machine

"It's not just a ship, it's a battlefield," said Rönnby. Diving on the wreck, "you're very close to this dramatic fire on board, people killing each other, everything was burning and exploding," he said.

In fact, when Lundgren and colleagues brought a piece of the ship's hull to the surface, they noticed a charred scent wafting from the burnt wood.

"In the end, I think, that's the aim of archaeology—to discuss ourselves and the human aspects of a site," Rönnby said.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

113 comments
Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

This is wonderful. 

A few years ago I visited the Mary Rose in Portsmouth and I was lucky enough to be there in the 30 minutes that the preservative sprays had been turned off for some reason. The displays of all her weaponry and the artefacts found aboard her are superb but the remains of the Mary Rose herself aren't that impressive as much is missing. However, she is important as she was the first ship to be used as an actual weapon herself rather than just as a gun or troop platform. 

The preserved Vasa is quite fabulous, although she sank in the 17th Century. To discover a 16th Century warship - the same age as Mary Rose - in such as state of preservation is special indeed. Let's hope she is raised and preserved too.     

larry rubin
larry rubin

first you have to point out what looks to be the exact location and depth of this ship, then you insinuated treasure was on board, but you really went over the top when you said 8 kinds of about 500 year old beer was on board. Do you really think he ship will last unpillaged now?

Rick Gryder
Rick Gryder

Imagine all we would find if we could ever drain the seas just one at a time?

vern eilers
vern eilers

It makes U think of the past and how time passes.Great job!

John Taylor
John Taylor

Can't quite believe the state of preservation. It's amazing what a find!

John Turrentine
John Turrentine

I'm assuming that some of that loose timber was loose at the time of the sinking. Why didn't it float away?

Great find!

chrysogeno de oliveira
chrysogeno de oliveira

Excellent!

But it's hard to believe that a 16th century ship could hold more then hundred cannons.

Sandi Snyder
Sandi Snyder

NG, what a wonderful, exciting and educational piece of history. These are the articles that teach a present and future generations.

Thanks for a great article and video.

regina noronha
regina noronha

Quando criança morei numa cidade chamada Penedo, divisa entre os Estados de Alagoas e Sergipe, Brazil. Curiosamente ninguém nunca filmou o velho navio. Seria uma aventura se vocês visitarem esta cidade! A propósito, o Imperador Dom Pedro II também visitou esta cidade histórica. Lá tem restaurantes que servem carne de jacaré. Visitar o Rio São Francisco é uma aventura e tanto, vocês também podem conhecer Canindé de São Francisco, que tem os canios. Se quiser hospedagem, meus parentes podem recebe-lo em Aracaju, Sergipe. O link abaixo é sobre o velho navio que ninguém  nunca mergulhou para fotografar no Rio São Francisco.

http://www.correiodopovo-al.com.br/index.php/noticia/2011/12/20/perolas-do-penedo-iii-historia-fluvial-de-penedo-encontra-se-em-baixo-das-aguas-o-comendador-Peixoto

O rio São Francisco termina quando encontra o Mar! Veja Reportagem do Jornalista brasileiro Ernesto Paglia.

http://g1.globo.com/platb/globomar/2012/05/30/paglia-convida-internautas-a-assistirem-ao-programa-sobre-velho-chico/

Erik WP
Erik WP

The new virtual reality devices that are currently coming onto the market will be great to let everybody explore a virtual version of the wreck. By the way, my son would like to know if Elsa and Anna's parents were on that ship ;-)

Anne Wylie
Anne Wylie

I am impressed.  It is amazing.  thank you National Geographic

Alfred Palliser
Alfred Palliser

Thank you very much National Geogaphic ! This is  gift on such a turbulent time it was the Hanseatic League, the Baltic League and its dsputes.

Paul Maloy
Paul Maloy

Excellent!  I hope to see a NG story in print and hopefully a full documentary soon!

Roger OHara
Roger OHara

Thank you for the opportunity to read about this discovery. I am pleased that National Geographic is involved.

Roger

Darlene Sanborn
Darlene Sanborn

Awesome! Our grandson will be here soon and can not wait to show him and sign him up for this site....

Joseph Bradley
Joseph Bradley

Beautiful presentation and document and videos...

Emmanuel Axiak
Emmanuel Axiak

I enjoy reading about these documents, and discoveries.    

D. Merrill
D. Merrill

Once the accursed Spanish gold was free of govt seizure, the collector value plummeted  because the market was now flooded with x-fine coin of the period.

D. Merrill
D. Merrill

mmm hmm, things don't change.  Same thing happened to almost all the big bells in Notre Dame.  Parisians have been cursing out the out of tune replacements since 1850.  I believe they finally got laser cut replacements last year.

.

Leaving a known wreck site untouched is just asking for scavengers to move in.  Leaving one with this quantity of bullion scattered about is asking for scavengers with machine guns.  

.

the Nuestra Atocha salvage had to fight off the govts of FL and USA in court, and the machine gun armed scavengers that learned the location from the court cases.

George Pallas
George Pallas

Like Pamela, I saw the Mary Rose some years ago when it had just been taken out of water and was being "cured" for a few years in a very controlled environment. To raise the Mars will be expensive, time consuming, and require extensive planning and engineering. But it would be worth it. The Swede's are experienced at this with their success raising and preserving the Vasa.

Pamela Allen
Pamela Allen

Very interesting, we saw the Mary Rose in England a few years ago, and the cost of keeping the ship intact is great. So glad Nat Geographic is helping to bring  this information for all who are interested in history.

Lector Broderick
Lector Broderick

This is a great story, neat stuff. Awesome looking ship. Neat look back 500 years or so.....

Gladys Porter
Gladys Porter

We found this fascinating & hope to see a full length program  on Nat Geo

Hye Jung  Lee
Hye Jung Lee

I'm curious where the gold and silver coins go.


Dee Phillips
Dee Phillips

What an amazing find after such a long period of history. To discover this ship in such a preserved state must have been gratifying to all involved in this research.  Over a hundred cannons on board (those that did not explode?) and as you state, eight kinds of beer (preserved?)??

I am sure this discovery holds even more surprises and further explanations.

Another great NG article.

Elizabeth Darby
Elizabeth Darby

Wonderful state of preservation and so right to leave it there

Carolyn Warkmeister
Carolyn Warkmeister

History becoming a part of our present world by way of information presented in this video.

russell norris
russell norris

I am sure the Valkyrja have taken Mars' souls off to Valhalla were they feast with Odin. Any of us that have spent time on the waters of this planet know in our hearts that this is their gravesite, and have a strong oppinion on the handing of it. Strong winds and following seas, my brothers.

Arlys Weaver
Arlys Weaver

Wonderful and interesting document from the archives of very ancient times. 

ann nesluna
ann nesluna

Amazing find as it is, this is a testament to the quality and beauty in the workmenship

of its creation and it was the same human passion that destroyed it.  Human nature

has never changed.  Thank you for perseverance in discovering it and showing it for all 

to see again.

DANNIE PEOPLES
DANNIE PEOPLES

Simply astonishing how well preserved the ship is; and in considering its legend, gives credence to Yahuah's hand in letting it stand as a testament that the King was wrong to usurp the church bells to make cannons.

Mike Yorke
Mike Yorke

My first thought was extremely cold water helped preserve the Mars. And it probably did but some cursory research shows temperature variation is wide. Winters are longer with sea temps down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit . Contrast to short summer temps up to 63 degrees F.  As far as worms went  think the long winter extremes won the battle.

Sam Frisco
Sam Frisco

@larry rubin I hope your realize your average diver never goes past 130 feet. If a diver wanted to even reach the wreck safely they would have to use mixed gases, not anyone can use mixed gases. You need to take specialized courses for it and most dive shops don't carry it. Plus, the amount of danger involved for so little bottom time would deter most pillagers.

Brian Joyce
Brian Joyce

@John Turrentine I've had the same question in mind. My guess is that the timber still there was pinned down or trapped in some way whilst the rest actually did float away to be retrieved later.   That happened only too frequently in the past around my own Lynn peninsula (North-west Wales) where local people used what they found washed ashore, from many other shipwrecks, as good building material.

Jeff Evenson
Jeff Evenson

@DANNIE PEOPLES Not So- Those melted church belts helped that ship Defend MAY who would have came raping and killing and pillaging the small and large towns and cities- When at conflict the churches GAVE not only the Bells but all the silvers and Clothing Needed.

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »