In the murky dark of the Baltic Sea to the east of Sweden, marine archeologists rescued something remarkable from the icy waters one day in 2016. It was a pot which had been buried in the silt of the seabed for some 340 years – a relic from one of the greatest shipwrecks of the 17th century. And now that it had risen from the depths, what the divers found inside certainly isn’t for the weak of stomach.
Although the discovery was made at the same site where many other artifacts – including a diamond ring and a horde of gold coins – had been found, the contents of the pot were what really got the scientists excited. The relic was found during a two-week annual dive off the coast of the island of Öland. And while the wreck it was found near was first explored in 1980, even now it’s still revealing many secrets.
So why the excitement? Well, because there’s food in the pot – and not just any food. Scientists think that they’ve found a container full of cheese. That’s right: deep under the sea, divers have managed to recover a pot of dairy product from the depths with a use-by date of more than 300 years ago.
When it sank, the Kronan was among the largest battleships in the world. It was built by famous 17th-century English shipbuilder Francis Sheldon, and construction on the enormous fighting vessel began in 1668. When it was completed in 1672, the Kronan was some 170 feet long and almost 50 feet wide. It then became the flagship of King Karl XI’s Swedish navy.
The Kronan carried 126 guns and had a crew of 500 men, as well as 350 soldiers, on board. And for four years it served its country – until a fateful day in 1676. A Danish-Dutch naval force was menacing Sweden’s territory, and the Kronan was sent at the head of a Swedish attack. So, on June 1, in a heavy gale, the two fleets faced off against each other.
The strong winds combined with poor communication between the Swedish ships then led to the Kronan making a fatal error. It turned sharply to port with its sails too full. This manoeuvre subsequently pushed the ship onto its side and allowed water to enter through the open cannon ports. What happened next, though, is something of a mystery.
The crew couldn’t right the Kronan, and soon it was laid over, with its masts now parallel with the waves. It was then that something strange and tragic happened. For some reason, the gunpowder in the front store of the Kronan exploded, ripping a huge hole in the ship’s hull. Rapidly taking on water, then, the vessel swiftly disappeared beneath the waves.
Of the 850 men on board the Kronan that day, just 42 survived to tell the tale. And such was the shock of the loss of their flagship that the rest of the Swedish navy fell into disarray. A second large ship, the Svärdet, was set ablaze, losing all but 50 of its 650-strong crew. The remainder of the Swedish fleet, meanwhile, turned and scattered.
In the 1680s, about 60 of the Kronan’s guns were raised from the seabed. The salvagers of the time used primitive diving bells to lift the valuable bronze weapons back on to dry land. But after that, the wreck of the Kronan was all but forgotten. That is, until it was rediscovered in 1980 by archaeologist and engineer Anders Franzén and his colleagues Sten Ahlberg and Bengt Grisell.
So in 1981 the excavation of the Kronan began, and over the years a number of fascinating items have been recovered. In just the second season of the search, for example, a cask containing 260 gold coins was pulled from the wreck. This was the biggest haul of coins ever discovered in Sweden.
And over more than three decades, the archeological research has continued. This is the biggest undersea project of its kind in Sweden, and every year more important information is discovered about the Kronan and its crew. Pharmacy chests, cross-staff navigational tools and tin bottles have all been rescued from the wreckage and taken back to the surface for analysis.
All in all, in fact, some 30,000 artifacts have been reclaimed from the Kronan. Perhaps most hauntingly of all, though, almost 900 pounds of bones have been recovered from the seabed. From June to August every year since 1981, archaeologists have been diving to the wreck – which is 85 feet beneath the waves and nearly four miles off shore – and returning with astounding items.
Which brings us back to the cheesy discovery of 2016. Divers found the black tin pot embedded in clay near to the wreck site. It wasn’t until they took the object back to the surface, though, that they realized something was inside it. Something that smelled decidedly pungent – and was now oozing out of the pot’s lid.
Thanks to the change in pressure from the seabed to the surface, a portion of the substance within the tin had begun to burst its way out – and the smell it gave off was very, er, individual. “It’s like a mixture of yeast and Roquefort, a sort of really ripe, unpasteurised cheese,” marine archaeologist Lars Einarsson, of the nearby Kalmar County Museum, told Swedish English-language online news network The Local. And while he claims to enjoy the kind of cheeses “whose character lives on in their smell,” Einarsson readily admits that this example is “probably not for everyone.”
Einarsson is in charge of the dive to recover items from the Kronan. But although he’s pretty sure that the contents of the tin pot are cheese, he can’t be absolutely sure. “It’s a pretty good guess that it’s some kind of dairy product, and we think it is cheese,” he maintained.
Yet while the cheese has been well preserved, it had still been stuck in the bed of the ocean for almost three and a half centuries. As Einarsson explained to The Local, “It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years.”
Interestingly enough, Einarsson doesn’t actually mind the smell of the deep-sea dairy find. “I think it smells quite nice, because I like exotic food,” he said. But that leaves a pretty important question hanging in the air. Is anyone going to try and sample the centuries-old cheese?
The scientific consensus seems to be that that would be an extremely bad idea. “I certainly don’t recommend tasting it,” Einarsson told Swedish newspaper Kvällsposten. “It’s a mass of bacteria.” Maybe the bottom of the sea isn’t the best place to preserve a chunk of cheese, then – even if it does smell like Roquefort.
In any case, since being pulled from the wreck of the Kronan, the old cheese, along with the tin pot it was housed in, have been sent to a lab for analysis. Hopefully the scientists there will be able to put the butter-or-cheese argument to rest once and for all. But what of the rest of the Kronan?
Well, it is possible that the ship, or what remains of it, will be brought back to the surface. In the meantime, though, the yearly dives will continue. Who knows: maybe the next time the archaeologists return from the wreck, they’ll bring back some 340-year-old crackers with them – and perhaps then someone will have a go at tasting that extra-extra-mature cheese.