Underwater archaeology in German Rivers


A collection of several logboats stored in the basement of a local museum in southern Germany   (Picture by Lars Kröger 2014)

Finds are causing trouble for regional museums

The usage of rivers as waterways has a long tradition in Germany. Currently we are aware of over 800 logboats and circa 120 planked vessels found in German rivers and lakes.

The oldest date from the 7th millennium BC, but most of the finds are from the post Roman era. Like many other archaeological objects, a great number of vessels have not been found during regular underwater or land excavations, but by sport divers or on construction sites. Taking the river Main in central Germany as an example, 118 logboats have been discovered in the last 100 years, but only one has been documented in situ under water. The rest have mostly been brought to the surface by sand digging companies. In the expectation of a prehistorical age (almost all of them are in fact mediaeval), the finds have been set aside and given to local museums, which are often run by groups of volunteers. Due to a lack of awareness of modern conservation methods and the lack of proper presentation space, some museums contain collections of up to a dozen vessels in their basement, in some cases having even forgotten their existence (see photo). Early attempts to save finds by reburial in the water were carried out in the 1970s, but due to flooding, these finds did not always survive, or their current status is unknown.

Helping local museums

Thanks to two research projects at the University of Bamberg and the German Maritime Museum, undocumented finds at the river Main have been sampled for dendrochronological analyses, documented and studied. A GIS based data base for all archaeological inland vessels in central Europe is in preparation and several regional museums have been supported in the attempt to present their objects in a modern way and within a new historical context. A best practise system in cooperation between local volunteers surveying inland waters, the department for heritage management and the experts for inland shipping has been installed to preserve as many objects as possible for the public and for research. It is also conjecturable that other regions have the same situation and many finds from rivers and lakes are stored unknown and in a bad state of preservation in the basements of local museums waiting to be brought back to the light. 

Lars Kröger M.A. Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum (German Martitime Museum)