Sea War Museum takes part in a new research project

David Gregory with Gert Normann in front of JD-Contractor’s

A two-year project with support from the Danish Ministry of Culture will search to determine how fast shipwrecks deteriorate in the North Sea

Text and photo by Knud Jakobsen

Senior researcher David Gregory of the Danish National Museum's Conservation and Science Department has in collaboration with Sea War Museum Jutland in Thyborøn launched an extensive research project, which might have a decisive influence on the future conservation of the cultural heritage in the North Sea and other vulnerable waters. In cooperation with the museum in Thyborøn and Dr. Rory Quinn of Ulster University he is going to investigate how fast shipwrecks deteriorate in the North Sea.

For decades, it has been regarded as a sound policy to protect historically valuable shipwrecks in situ, i. e. on the seabed, and prohibit all intervention from the view that they thus will be available to future generations. Experience from the Baltic Sea and other protected areas have supported this position, but in the North Sea, the situation is quite different.

"Our latest studies show that a wreck in the North Sea in a worst cases scenario can deteriorate and disappear in just 30 years. Everything indicates that there is an urgent need for a more nuanced view than hitherto. In the future it will be necessary to take the conditions on the spot in consideration," David Gregory says.

He has received DKK 763,000 (102.500 €) from the Research Committee of the Ministry of Culture for his new project, and through affiliation to Sea War Museum Jutland, he has gained access to the largest database over wrecks in the North Sea. It has been created by the founder and director of the Sea War Museum, Gert Normann Andersen, who himself has dived on many of the wrecks.

With the assistance of the subsea firm JD-Contractor he has, since 2015, carried out a number of expeditions in the North Sea in order to survey about 400 wrecks. Only in a very few cases the wrecks have been investigated by divers and underwater robots. The vast majority of the wrecks have been scanned from the surface by means of an advanced multibeam echo sounder.

"It is very precise tool that can show details of only a few centimetres in size, and it’s just because of the price that researchers seldom use multibeam for archaeological studies at sea. For offshore assignments, it may cost up to 250,000 DKK a day to rent a ship with crew and equipment," David Gregory says.

David Gregory, on the far left, follows the result on the screen, while surveyor Mogens Dam is investigating a wreck in Scapa Flow.

In January 2017 he attended the Sea War Museum’s expedition to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. In this large protected natural harbour, the German Highs Fleet was scuttled after World War I, and a number of wrecks still lying on the bottom provide an excellent scientific basis for comparison with wrecks in the North Sea. Another comparison basis is provided by Dr. Rory Quinn, who examines the deterioration of wrecks from World War I in the Irish Sea.

"The North Sea holds many wrecks from World War I, including the wrecks of the 25 ships that were sunk in the Battle of Jutland, and generally there is a very big difference in the state of these wrecks. Some are relatively well-preserved, while others only can be identified on large objects such as boilers and condensers. Often the hull is only visible as an indication in the seabed. On smaller wrecks of coasters and fishing boats, the stem and stern are often the only thing left,” David Gregory explains.

A multibeam echo sounder can create very accurate images of all objects on the seabed. Here it is the battleship "Royal Oak", which was sunk during World War II and still lies at the bottom of Scapa Flow. (Multibeam: JD-Contractor)

"It is first and foremost the very long North Sea swell, which breaks down the wrecks. The circular motion of the waves creates a downward pressure, resulting in a vertical pump movement on the seabed. This movement tears the wrecks apart, and when the interior is exposed, the wreck is quickly destroyed by waves and currents," he says.

David Gregory's project will run over two years, and during this period he will be associated with Sea War Museum Jutland as a guest researcher.

He was born in Great Britain but has lived in Denmark since 1996. He first qualified as a chemist, after which he studied underwater archaeology and finished with a PhD in chemical and biological degradation of archaeological material in the water. He is Denmark's leading expert in this field and is affiliated with the University of Southern Jutland as an Honorary Professor.

for more info about the Scapa Flow look HERE