The treasure of the Gottfried

Since its tragic sinking on the night of March 12, 1822, the wreck of Gottfried has continued to fascinate and captivate the imagination. The presence of a stone sarcophagus, dating back to over 4,000 years, as well as mummies and steles aboard the ship stimulate the imagination.

The story begins, when in 1822, King Frederick William III of Prussia (1770-1840) wished to acquire some of the priceless treasures of Egypt in order to establish the basis for the future Egyptian Museum of Berlin. The export of scientifically most important artefacts from their countries of origin was unfortunately at those times a habit that was fostered by the government of Egypt. After a major expedition of the nobleman Minutoli in the years 1821 and 1822 there were good hopes that the wonderful collection would grow. Unfortunately, and as was much too often the case, only some pieces arrived intact in Berlin. The rest disappeared into the Elbe in Germany in sinking with the ship Gottfried.

Most of the collection of Minutoli (97 crates) had been loaded on the Gottfried in the port of Trieste in northern Italy, and should have been unloaded in Hamburg. Only a small part of the collection, some 20 boxes, was sent to Prussia by land. The Gottfried however sank.

Indeed, in the night of March 12 to 13 in 1822, the ship sank during a severe storm, somewhere off the Elbe River between the towns of Cuxhaven and Neuhausen. The 5 days furious hurricane prevented the rescue of the crew. Almost all crew members and one passenger were killed. Eight people drowned and only one sailor survived. Contemporaries described the hurricane as ‘the strongest in living memory’. The ship is now believed to be laying south of the Gelbersand sandbank near the Klotzenloch.

There have been many attempts to find the wreck but the expeditions all ended in failure.

One hundred ninety years after the tragedy and several unsuccessful expeditions, there was finally new information on the sinking of Gottfried. It so happened that four days after the sinking, six mummies placed inside coffins, richly decorated with hieroglyphs washed ashore. They were sold at an auction on 1822 in Hamburg by the insurance company that had reimbursed Minutoli’s loss. The mystery of the mummy’s whereabouts after the auction remained unsolved, even though everything possible was done to try to obtain information.

During a search in the museum for Art and Trade in Hamburg in July 1991, a male mummy skull with a gold coating was however found. It was assumed to have been taken by Minutoli from the step pyramid of Sakkara, together with two gold-plated soles of feet and the head of a small vulture. These pieces were demonstrably part of the original cargo of the Gottfried. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the remaining auctioned pieces.

Hair belonging to one of the female mummies was however re-discovered at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg in December 2003 after the discovery of a historic letter. It showed that the location of the wreck was known to the then Cuxhaven pilot commander Christopher Jansen. The search could therefore be supported by his correspondence.

The curator of the Hamburg Museum established contact with the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, for which the Gottfried’s charge had originally been intended. Its experts had already searched for the wreck on the ship Atair with sediment echographs in 1992.

The search for the wreck of the Gottfried was taken up again. Experts believed they could locate the site in the middle of the wide Elbe estuary near the “Northern Grounds”. The probable wreckage area lies near the busy shipping channel feared for its shallows. There are also numerous other wrecks present in the area. Since the Elbe is to be deepened and extended in the coming years, time was pressing. In the summer of 2010, underwater archaeologists led by Martin Segschneider searched for a site delimited by lateral view sonar. However, neither the wreck nor the objects from the cargo were found.

What was in particular searched for was a heavy red stone sarcophagus decorated inside and outside with portraits and hieroglyphs. Minutoli had employed 200 workers for three months to recover the sarcophagus from a 90 foot deep shaft. This unusually large amount of work indicates that this can hardly be a normal-sized stone sarcophagus and it must have been the burial of someone important.

While the archaeological research did not find the wreck of the Gottfried in 2010 the large dredging project in Hamburg Port is under way. it might hence bring about some surprises.

Image: Elbe off Cuxhaven (c) R. Roletschek

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