Making Way for the Pipeline: A Treasure Trove in the Baltic Sea

By Frank Thadeusz

While environmentalists are sharply opposed to the construction of the new Baltic Sea pipeline, archaeologists are delighted. The massive Nord Stream project to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany has uncovered dozens of shipwrecks and other historic artifacts.

Photo Gallery: Up from the Depths Photos
DPA

In the early 1940s, engineers of the Third Reich conducted a series of tests that involving firing Henschel HS 293 glider bombs into the Baltic Sea. They were disheartened when the tests failed, because the steering systems of the massive projectile didn't work properly.

Now, almost 70 years later, one of the bombs -- weighing in at about 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs) -- has been found in the path of the 1,220-kilometer (763-mile) pipeline that will link Germany to Russia's natural gas network. Early last week, specialists used a crane to hoist the obstacle out of the Baltic Sea near Lubmin, a coastal town in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Officials at Nord Stream, the company that will operate the pipeline, seemed relieved when the Nazi bomb had been removed. In recent weeks and months they had learned about the unpredictable side of the Baltic, as pipeline construction crews stumbled across debris from centuries gone by.

The remains of a thousand years of maritime trade, as well as the products of dozens of wars, are crumbling in the mud and silt at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. In addition to items with great cultural and historical value, the depths conceal the rusting remains of poison gas grenades, high explosive shells and aircraft bombs, all of which represent obstacles to pipeline construction. "It was not an easy situation," says Nord Stream spokesman Steffen Ebert. "We were under considerable time pressure."

Deadly Hazards

For experts, salvaging war material at sea is a delicate operation, and one that is far more difficult than recovering similar objects on land. Divers use handheld probes to pinpoint suspicious objects in the water, which they then carefully expose. Only then do they face the anxious question of whether the objects are dangerous.

That question isn't always easy to answer, because the lumps have often been corroded into a hard-to-identify mass. "It looks like a placenta," says one of the divers.

The salvage teams are most fearful of gas grenades from World War II. A filled grenade shell, its structural integrity compromised by rust, can be a deadly hazard for a diver. In these cases, Eckhard Zschiesche and his team from the ordnance disposal service of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania use special containers to retrieve the hazardous waste.

The team usually detonates unexploded high-explosive shells and depth charges underwater. Other munitions remains are disassembled on the island of Usedom.

To rule out all hazards, Ebert says reassuringly, his team has employed far more complex procedures than usual. To avoid complications, the pipeline consortium has collected everything that could be found in the sediments, including rusty anchor chains.

Accidental Archaeologists

The firm is evidently doing its best to avoid embarrassing incidents during pipeline construction. The effort already makes a number of people uneasy. The majority shareholder in Nord Stream is Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, which is as powerful as it is inscrutable. Many Germans are concerned about becoming too dependent on Russia's gas monopoly.

The construction of the pipeline also raises concerns among environmentalists, who fear that the massive project will disrupt the ecosystem in the Baltic Sea. Such fears have prompted Nord Stream to assiduously portray itself as a gentle giant.

The company's PR offensive includes projects like building artificial banks for seals in the Baltic and salvaging crumbling ship fossils, as if it were adhering to the old Boy Scout motto: "Every day a good deed." This has unexpectedly turned Nord Stream into a major archaeological enterprise.

However, the company's deeds at sea are not entirely voluntary. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that archaeological and historical finds in international waters must be protected and preserved.

For maritime archaeologists, the Baltic is a treasure trove with many precious objects that have yet to be salvaged. A number of spectacular finds have caused a sensation over the last decade.

For example: In the summer of 2003, divers off the Swedish island of Gotska Sandön discovered, at a depth of 125 meters, the wreck of a DC-3 that went missing on June 13, 1952. A Soviet fighter jet had shot down the Swedish spy plane, with its crew of eight people, over the Baltic. Using DNA analysis, experts have identified the remains of the pilot.

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