On January 14th, the Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society celebrates its first anniversary - the organization turns five years old. On the Center’s birthday, we’ll tell you what underwater researchers do. This is not only exploration work: the Center plans to create a museum of underwater archeology in Kronstadt, design a Russian-made manned underwater vehicle, and has other large-scale projects.
The autonomous non-profit organization, the Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society (URC RGS), was established by the Russian Geographical Society and the National Underwater Research Center in 2014. URC RGS unites representatives of various professions and industries: historians, archaeologists, divers, oceanologists, and many others. The purpose of the Center is to lift the veil of secrecy enveloping the events of maritime history, as well as try to solve numerous mysteries of nature.
1. Twenty thousand miles under water, or what the waters of the Gulf of Finland hide
The main site of archaeological research of the Center is the Gulf of Finland. Its cold, opaque waters with a low salt content and weak currents have carefully preserved amazing monuments of material culture. This relatively small water area has always been of great international importance: numerous trade routes ran through the gulf.
According to archival data, thousands of ships were wrecked here. One of them is the sail-screw frigate "Oleg". The ship sank between the islands of Gogland and Sommers in 1869 in a collision with another ship during complex maneuvers. The expedition to examine “Oleg” began in the summer of 2013, before the official establishment of the URC. According to experts, the frigate, which sank more than 150 years ago, is perfectly preserved. Baltic water conserved everything: from dishes and furniture to the ship's bell and cannons.
Another “field of activity” of the Center is the German ship “Archangel Raphael”. Specialists of the URC have been studying it since 2014. An 18th-century Lübeck ship carrying smuggled goods sank in 1724 near the Berezovye Islands of the Gulf of Finland.
One of the latest finds was the English ketch, which sank in the waters of the island of Gogland in the second half of the 19th century. The submariners of the URC RGS discovered it in 2018 at a depth of 60 meters. Among the researchers, the object received the name "Posudnik", because of the crates with elegant English-made dishes found on the deck of the vessel: dinner sets, gravy boats, decanters, vases and other unique samples of factory faience.
These and other interesting finds of the URC RGS of the recent years can be found in the special project of the Russian Geographical Society - Faience diplomacy: what links British ceramics, the Crimean War and the demise of a sailing ship in the Baltic.
2. Underwater archeology 13+
However, studying the ships lying at the ocean bottom is far from the only thing the Center does. One of the directions of its work is the training of future underwater researchers. Together with the Russian Children's Center "Orlyonok", an educational program "Oceanautica" was developed for children of 13 to 16 years. During the educational camp shift, submariners tell young men and women about methods and techniques for conducting deep-sea research, the basics of diving medicine, and other professional skills. Under the supervision of mentors, camp shift participants make real scuba dives, help conserve and restore real historical artifacts that were brought up from the deep sea during the expeditions of the URC RGS, and also take part in the Center’s research.
“The program is aimed at broadening the horizons of participants. We tell the kids about underwater research: about the goals, objectives, technologies and difficulties that specialists face in the depths. How artifacts raised from the depths go from discovery to exhibit. Together with them we create and use underwater research equipment. Our task is not only to captivate adolescents with the topic of exploring the depths, but also to convey to them the seriousness of this work", said Sergey Fokin, Executive Director of the Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society.
On January 12th, a competition began for participation in the “Oceanautica” program at the “Orlyonok” children's center on the Black Sea. To participate in the selection, parents or legal guardians must create an account on the oceanautica.ru portal and fill out the applicant's form by February 12th, inclusive. The details about participation in the program can be found here.
3. A breakthrough in the development of the deep sea
The employees of the Center are also actively engaged in improving the technical means used in underwater operations. So, as a practicing expert, the URC RGS participates in a project to create a modern Russian-made manned underwater vehicle (MUV). The device is unique in its characteristics: the submersion depth exceeds two kilometers, but the main thing is a spherical transparent hull with a viewing angle of at least 270 degrees. Previously, in devices capable of going to such depths, only small portholes were made. What tasks the device will perform - research or, for example, fixing a gas pipeline - depends on attachments, which will also be developed in Russia. According to the plan, tests of the Russian-made MUV will begin in 2022.
4. Where to go to see
Objects lifted by the URC RGS specialists from the depths of the sea can be seen in the exhibition halls of the best museums. In the Hermitage, a unique find of divers of the Underwater Research Center of the RGS is stored - the caftan, which had been lying in the sea depths for three hundred years. It was brought up to land from the merchant ship “Archangel Raphael”, which sank in 1724. The outfit was well preserved in water, because it was completely saturated with tar spilled from barrels. Specialists at the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Textiles and Water-Soluble Paintings were able to restore the caftan to its original form. Now it, and other items of clothing from the ship, are presented at the Hermitage Textile Collection exhibition in the Restoration section.
In the summer of 2019, from the board of the "Archangel Raphael", archaeologist-divers of the URC RGS recovered another unique find. This is a Lutheran Psalter in leather binding. The artifact had lain under water for 295 years. According to experts, there have not yet been cases in the world that a book that has been in salt water for so many years requires minimal restoration. Only metal fasteners, which were used to lock the book for careful storage, were lost. The book, like the entire contents of the vessel, was tightly wrapped in fine silt, protecting it from exposure to light, currents, and other destructive factors. Now, like other valuable exhibits, the book is under restoration.
“As soon as we pick up some objects from the bottom, they immediately go to the field conservation laboratory - it can even be a box of water in some cases,” says Sergey Fokin. “Then they go to our conservation restoration workshop, where we bring them to the state of a museum exhibit, and then, in accordance with the law, we transfer them to one of the state museums of the Russian Federation. In which museum specifically, we decide ourselves, in agreement with the museum management. We try to stick to the rule, that items recovered from the same object should be in the same museum. It is logical to create a collection."
5. Museum of Underwater Archeology
The Center plans to create the “Petrovsky Dock” science complex in Kronstadt. According to the project plan, a cultural and educational center with a museum and a lecture hall will be set up on its territory. There will also be a science center where you can develop new techniques, test equipment and train future underwater archaeologists. Museum visitors will learn about the history hidden from view by the waters of the Baltic. The potential objects for exhibition will be selected by the specialists of the URC of the Russian Geographical Society. According to plans, the process of filling the museum complex "Petrovsky Dock" with exhibits will begin in 2022.