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Take a Virtual Tour of a 17th-Century Shipwreck

A new VR experience lets users explore the “Melckmeyt” without diving into Iceland’s freezing waters

smithsonian.com

In October 1659, the Dutch merchant vessel Melckmeyt was preparing to sail from Iceland to Amsterdam when a violent storm hit. Crew members, one of whom died in the process, spent two days trying to stop the ship from sinking, but their efforts were in vain. The Melckmeyt, still loaded with cargo, plunged to the bottom of the frigid waters off Iceland’s Flatey Island, where the surviving crewmen were stranded for the winter.

Local divers first discovered the remnants of the wreck in 1992, Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science. Though much of the ship had decayed over the centuries, its 108-foot lower hull was incredibly well preserved. Now, to mark the 360th anniversary of the Melckmeyt’s demise, archaeologists have launched a virtual reality experience that lets users explore the wreckage as it appears today—and see how the ship might have looked in the days after it sank.

Those in Iceland can stop by the Reykjavik Maritime Museum to tour the Melckmeyt (Dutch for “milkmaid”) with a VR headset. Individuals further afield can use a VR headset, computer or smartphone to experience the wreckage via an interactive YouTube video.

Users explore the ship as a diver, clicking and dragging to move around the archaeological site. The three-minute video begins by panning over the Melckmeyt’s ruins as seen today; labels offer identifying details on various parts of the ship. Then, the scene pivots to a reconstruction of what the Melckmeyt, a type of Dutch vessel known as a flute, might have looked like when it landed on the sea floor in 1659. Keep an eye out for a reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” which appears on the similarly named ship’s stern at minute 1:58.

Maritime archaeologists from the National Museum of Iceland first investigated the site of the disaster in 1993. Kevin Martin, a researcher at the University of Iceland, and colleagues from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands conducted a more detailed survey of the wreckage in 2016, making high-resolution scans later used to create the VR experience.

According to the YouTube video’s description, the team based its simulated view of the Melckmeyt circa 1659 on a scale model of a separate ship. Likely a flute, the vessel was built around the turn of the 18th century and is now housed in the Netherlands’ Maritime Museum Rotterdam.

Vermeer's "Milkmaid" is visible on the ship's stern at 1:58 in the video (Courtesy of John McCarthy)

John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Australia’s Flinders University who created the digital model, tells Atlas Obscura’s Isaac Schultz that the VR experience is best described as “2.5-D.” Showcasing the ship in 3D would have required a more powerful computer, thus making the project accessible to fewer people.

“We wanted it to go out into the public, and show it to people,” McCarthy says.

Experts are particularly interested in the Melckmeyt for multiple reasons: It is the oldest known and identified shipwreck in Icelandic waters, and it offers a rare example of a flute ship—vessels that once filled the Baltic Sea and were “the backbone of the wealth of the Netherlands,” McCarthy tells Schultz. “You see them in a lot of paintings, but actually finding intact shipwrecks of the type is quite rare.”

It’s also worth noting that the ship is a relic of an important period in Iceland’s economic history. As the Reykjavik Grapevine’s Paul Fontaine writes, the Kingdom of Denmark imposed a trade monopoly on the country on April 20, 1602. The measure prohibited all other European nations from trading with Iceland, funneling the country’s wealth to a select group of Danes.

According to a 2013 study led by archaeologist Nina Linde Jaspers, a Danish merchant hired the Melckmeyt to ferry goods between his home country and Iceland. The ship had strong ties to the Netherlands: It was likely built in the country and was captained by a Dutchman who operated with financial support from a Dutch merchant family. This should have barred the Melckmeyt from Icelandic waters, but as Jaspers explains, Danish oversight of the trade monopoly was not particularly rigid. Trellund is said to have sailed the ship into Iceland under a Danish flag, presumably to avoid any unwanted attention.

For years, the remains of this significant maritime wreck were inaccessible to all but a few skilled divers. But thanks to the new VR experience, anyone can discover the Melckmeyt—thankfully, McCarthy notes, “without submerging into the freezing North Atlantic sea.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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