Friday, 9 January 2015

A Rocker To Reichenau: Skaters, Monks And Shipwrecks


The figure skating world is usually more known for its train wrecks than shipwrecks. Oops... sorry! Inside voice. Let's leave certain skaters who shall remain unnamed out of this. The fact of the matter is a shipwreck is exactly the LAST thing you'd ever think would have even a remote connection to skating aside from the odd nod to the film "Titanic" and PJ Kwong's apt comparison of Liz Manley to The Unsinkable Molly Brown... but all of that changed in the winter of 2006!

Lake Constance is a lake on the Rhine River near The Alps that intersects three countries: Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It is Europe's third largest freshwater lake and plays home to thirteen islands, six of them populated. One of the six populated islands is The Monastic Island Of Reichenau, which was first populated in 724 AD and has a population of roughly six thousand. Ice skating has long been a popular pastime of the residents of Reichenau, so much so that the Gnadensee near Reichenau is considered the most popular skating spot on the lake.

In 2006, one man made the discovery of a lifetime when he literally SKATED upon the shallow wreck of a fourteenth century boat. It was shockingly close to shore: approximately fifty meters from the banks of the island and in a depth of roughly 1.8 meters of water. I was fortunate enough to speak with Dr. Martin Mainberger, a German underwater archaeologist who was directly involved in the underwater study and preservation of this wreck. He explained how a skater would have been able to see this wreck under the ice: "Lake Constance, at least in the Untersee area, regularly freezes with ice sheets that are described as Spiegeleis (mirror ice) as long as it is only some cold nights old and before snow has fallen. You then would be able to observe the lake bottom like through a looking glass."

A 2006 Kristen Allen article from The Local explained that "archaeologists were worried that decreasing winter water levels and ice flow on Lake Constance, called the Bodensee in German, could destroy the nine-metre wooden boat." Dr. Mainberger explained that in November 2009 samples "were recovered protruding from the lake and from bottom parts of the ship. The parts were in some loose sediment, some of them were released from the constructive association. Essentially it is frames and floor planks."

The 2006 Allen article pronounced that "experts know that Lake Constance has been used for trade and transport since the Stone Age. Monks at the Reichenau Abbey on the island are known to have had an interest in water traffic on the lake, using it for fishing and trade. 'This find is a sensation, particularly because it’s so close to the shore that lines the island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the abbey,' (Dr. Peter) Zaar said." Samuel James Capper's book "The Shores And Cities Of The Boden See: Rambles In 1879 and 1880" provides hints to the monks using boats that served as ferries across and around the lake. Dr. Mainberger was able to clarify this a bit for me.
He said "ships and  boats were the main transport means for at least a thousand years of Reichenau history and (were) used for everything concerning administration, fishery, transport of goods and persons, warfare." He also explained that there is no final publication about this wreck, but that is something he hopes to work on in the coming year.


The Benedictine Abbey on the island believed to be connected to the shipwreck was considered, according to UNESCO, a famous centre for teaching and creativity in the arts, literature and science. Dr. Mainberger corroborated this by telling me that "in early medieval times, The Reichenau Monastery was one of the most important cultural centers in Southern Germany." I find it so very fitting that it was a SKATER who discovered the shipwreck of monks who devoted their lives to fostering creativity, don't you?

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