About 18 km off the coast the Swedish island of Öland, in the Baltic Sea, at a depth of about 75 meters, lies one of the most beautiful shipwrecks. The low level of sediments, slow currents, brackish water, and the absence of a wood-eating worms have kept the wreck of the 16th century warship “Mars” in a remarkable condition.
Named after the Roman god of war, Mars was one of the largest battleships in the world when it was built, even larger than the famous Swedish ship Vasa. The ship was commissioned by the King of Sweden, Erik XIV, in 1563. With a length of 48 meters, and 107 guns on board, it was the leading ship of Sweden's fleet, until it was sunk during its very first naval engagement.
Photo credit: National Geographic
The same year construction on Mars began, the Kingdom of Sweden became embroiled in a conflict with a coalition of forces consisting of Denmark, Norway, Lübeck and Poland—the Northern Seven Years' War. King Frederick II of Denmark was dissatisfied with the dissolution of the Kalmar Union, while King Eric XIV of Sweden was determined to break Denmark's dominating position.
On 30 May, 1564, Mars became engaged in a naval battle with a Danish-Lübeck fleet off the northern tip of Öland. The first day of the battle, the Swedes emerged victorious over the Danes, but on the second day, German forces retaliated by lobbing fireballs at the Mars setting the ship ablaze. Mars, being a battleship, had carried large quantities of gunpowder which spontaneously exploded causing the ship’s destruction. Mars sank to the depth carrying with it more than 700 crewmen and several hundred Danes who had successfully boarded the burning ship.
For years, treasure hunters and archaeologists have sought the Mars without success. Then in 2011, a group of divers located the ship. Although the ship’s bow was destroyed in battle, the rest of ship is remarkably intact after more than 450 years underwater.
Mars belonged to the first generation of Europe's big, three-masted warships that naval historians know very little about like how the crew, officers and senior management of the ship lived on board, and what tools, equipment and personal effects they used. The 1500s were also the time when guns and other weapons were being developed using iron and bronze—a very precious metal at that time. The wreck of Mars represents the largest source of knowledge of 16th century weapons technology and that of life onboard and the crew.
"It's a missing link," says Johan Rönnby, a professor of maritime archaeology at Södertörn University in Sweden, who is studying the wreck.