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The Metta Catharina

Die Frau Metta Catharina von Flensburg was a two-mast brigantine ship built in 1782, Rønshoved on the north bank of the Flensburg Fjord (now Denmark). The ship was a jointly owned by Hinrick Lock and Knut Anderson and taking the name Catharina from the Captain’s wife Catherine. She sunk in December 1786 carrying a cargo of 106 tons of mainly hemp and Russian Leather. The Russian Leather referred to by foreigners as “Leather of Russia” was luxury in Europe, the leathers high durability and famous for its birch oil aroma . Birch oil proves to be very effective making the leather durable especially against water and insects as well giving the leather it’s trademark aroma. The ship was on her journey from St Petersburg to the port of Geneva when worsening weather forced her to seek shelter in a bay south of Plymouth, England. At 10pm in the evening the storm worsened blowing from the southwest blowing directly into her anchorage. The Catharina was pulled from her anchor pushing her to Drake Island and with the high tide she was thrown over the rocks that lie between the Drake Island and Cornwall. The entire crew was able to escape surviving the sinking.


Image: The bronze bell from The Metta Catharina


In October 1973, divers from the Plymouth Sub Aqua Club Archaeological Section unintentionally discovered the bronze bell from The Metta Catharina.
The divers had been searching for the remains of the Harwich, a naval warship lost in the Barn pool. The bell contained the markings of the name of the ship, the type and the date she was built. Along with the bell divers found an iron ring and rolls of leather protruding from the seabed hinting more could lay below. The wreck was submerged by sludge that formed over time providing a protective layer on the leather. As well as the tanning technique the leather located inside the shelf, remained amazingly intact. The lower part of the ship also survived in very good condition but the upperworks had eroded away. With this information the team could record the construction of the ship. The wreck was found in the territory of the Duchy of Cornwall. Prince Charles waived his rights allowed the selling of The Russian Leather to fund further investigation of the wreck and the recovery of artifacts.



Image: The Russian Leather neatly tied at the bottom of the sea floor.

The Nautical Archaeology Section of Plymouth Sound under the leadership of Ian Skelton, excavated the wreck between October 1973 until 2006. The leather that was recovered was able to be sold and made into shoes, cases, wallets and other items. Brands such as George Cleverley in England have made items using this leather. The team used a number of mapping and excavating methods in difficult conditions. Keith Muckelroy a archaeologist stated that The Metta Catharina was the “Most difficult underwater archaeological project in the UK”. Three quarters of the ship was preserved in the muddy seabed. The sediments in the areas allowed for the ideal preservation for many delicate objects. This included hundreds of rolls of preserved Russian Leather as well as ceramic plates, clay pipes, flagons, glass bottoms, a wine glass and navigational equipment. The excavation stopped after 33 years with the team leader wishing to retire and no successor continuing the search.

 
Image: Diving team recovering Russian leather from The Metta Catharina


The Die Frau Metta Catharina von Flensburg still lies in the Barn Pool, 230 metres north of the Bridges at the bottom of the northern slope at 30m depth. The seabed is said to be very silty and usually quite dark with visibility varying from less than a metre to a few metres. The trenches have naturally filled with sediment and the ship now lies completely buried in the seabed since the team has stopped working on the site.