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Open Sea | Closed Sea. Local and Inter-Regional Traditions in Shipbuilding

The shipwreck of the Jeanne-Elisabeth, a Swedish merchant ship lost off the French Mediterranean coast in 1755. Hull assembly: three different architectural traditions

Marine Jaouen et Andrea Poletto
p. 47-52


Les fouilles sur l’épave de la Jeanne-Elisabeth ont débuté en 2008 et ont été menées par des archéologues du ministère français de la Culture. Ce brick suédois de 200 tonnes coula en novembre 1755 alors qu’il naviguait de Cadix à Marseille. Le flanc tribord est conservé sur une longueur de 23 m, de l’étrave à l’étambot, et de la quille jusqu’au deuxième pont. L’assemblage de la coque est une synthèse des trois traditions de construction navale en usage à Wolgast, en Allemagne, au milieu du xviiie siècle : tradition néerlandaise, tradition anglaise et tradition française. La Jeanne-Elisabeth est un excellent laboratoire pour étudier la construction de navires marchands telle qu’elle a été conçue par un chantier naval privé au milieu du xviiie siècle.

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1The wreck of the Jeanne-Elisabeth is situated 300 yards from Maguelone, a beach in the Gulf of Lion, and at a depth of 3 to 5 m. This part of the French Mediterranean is characterised by a low coast displaying few landmarks and mobile sandbanks forming underwater dunes, which are difficult to map. Combined, these two phenomena constitute a veritable danger for shipping.

2Data relating to the Jeanne-Elisabeth is abundant, varied in type and mostly of very good quality. Swedish, Danish and French archives provide information on her construction, route, cargo and foundering. Contemporary observers produced manu­scripts relating to naval architecture of very good quality. In the present day, ten years of excavations have complemented the archival data from the standpoint of material culture and ship design. Serious looting of the site was discovered by an investigation of the French Customs in 2007 (Jaouen et al. 2017). It had an irremediable impact on the vessel’s structure, cargo and other shipboard objects. The Département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines (DRASSM) has been working on the wreck in situ since 2008. Legal action against the looters is ongoing.

3The Jeanne-Elisabeth, or Johanna-Elisabet in Swedish, was a merchant ship built in 1754 in Wolgast, which was then a Swedish enclave on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Built in a commercial shipyard, her hull timbers were exclusively made of oak from Polish forests, except for the decks, which were built in pine. Her tonnage certificate describes her as an “oak carvel bregantin”, rigged as a “snow” (or snaubrig in Swedish) and carvel-planked. It gives the following dimensions: length, 79 Swedish feet or roughly 23.46 m; beam inside the hull, 22 feet 4 inches or 6.62 m; depth of the hold, 9 feet 9 inches or 2.90 m; and height between decks, 4 feet 6 inches or 1.34 m (fig. 1). Note that one Swedish foot measured 29.7 cm. Her rigging comprised two masts proper with a supplementary mast close behind the mainmast. Like the shipyard where she was built, the vessel was privately owned. Her owners were three, all Swedish, and lived in Stockholm and Uddevalla. One of her owners was also the ship’s captain. She was named after the principal owner’s wife.

Fig. 1: Planimetry of the starboard side as found on the seabed, and three cross-sections of the Jeanne-Elisabeth

Fig. 1: Planimetry of the starboard side as found on the seabed, and three cross-sections of the Jeanne-Elisabeth

(Drawing A. Poletto, M. Jaouen)

4The ship was launched in September 1754 and sailed immediately for Stockholm, her home port. In July 1755 she sailed out of the Baltic, bound for Lisbon. Nothing is known of her cargo but Sweden was renowned at that time for exporting pitch, in particular to the west of Europe.

5We lose track of her temporarily until she turns up in Cadiz in October of the same year. From there the vessel was chartered by a Marseilles businessman, Pierre-Honoré Roux, notably on behalf of Swiss bankers. At the close of 1755 relations between England and France were strained and would develop, six months later, into the Seven Years’ War. English privateers based in Minorca were harassing merchant ships heading for France. To ensure trade could continue with the French kingdom, charterers looked for ships sailing under neutral flags, such as Sweden, which is where the Jeanne-Elisabeth comes in. Loaded with 24,600 piastres, placed in bags and camou­flaged under a layer of 200 tons of wheat, she set sail for Marseilles.

6It was late in the season. A storm forced the captain to sail along the coast of the Languedoc, the easternmost part of the Gulf of Lion, in the hope of ascertaining his position. On 14 November 1755 the ship hit a sandbank lying a few dozen yards from the beach. The hull was breached at the stern and waves submerged the deck. All 11 sailors and eight of the ten passengers sought refuge in the masts until morning, when they were rescued.

7The cargo was one of the biggest registered with Marseilles’ chamber of commerce in the year 1755. Unsurprisingly, attempts to recover the cargo were sustained and continued for over a year. Despite the efforts of the salvors, the piastres remained in the hull. All the items salvaged from the vessel were sequestered in Sète and subsequently auctioned off.

8Currently the site is situated 300 yards from the beach. It is entirely covered with sand. In 2006, however, the sands parted to reveal the ship’s hull. The site was looted and 18,000 piastres were sold off through unofficial channels. Archaeological excavations began in 2008. Surveys indicated that the architectural remains were exceptionally well preserved (Jaouen, Poletto 2014).

9In accordance with the archive accounts, only the starboard side is extant, from the apron to the remains of the stern, and from the lower deck to the upper deck. This half of the hull rolled onto its side and sank into the sand without suffering any notable distortion. Unfortunately the stem is missing.

1. Historical influences: the Dutch tradition

10Only the feet of the frames were directly accessible to archaeologists diving on the wreck. Spaces between the frames were equal in width to the width of the frames. In 2011, 2016 and 2018 some of the ceiling was cut away to expose the reason for such spacing. It also enabled us to see how the frame timbers were joined together.

11With the ceiling removed, it became apparent that, starting at a distance of 80 cm from the keel, filling timbers occupied the spaces between the frames that were fastened to the keel, the purpose being undoubtedly to strengthen the ship’s sides.

12Blaise Ollivier, master shipwright to King Louis XV, was sent by Minister of the Navy Maurepas to England and Holland to observe how ships were built in those countries. His mission lasted five months. Upon his return, Ollivier drafted a 360-page manuscript, which detailed and compared the building practices he had observed. He called it, Remarks on the Navies of the English and the Dutch (Roberts 1992).

13In the chapter devoted to frames, Blaise Ollivier notes that the Dutch spaced their floors along the keel in this fashion, each space being equal in width to a floor timber. Pieces that he calls genou, ‘knee’ in English, occupied the spaces. He adds that the English and the French opted for a different, and in his eyes preferable, solution. In the three areas where the ceiling was removed we were able to ascertain the presence of this cons­truction technique. This part, which we will call ‘filling timber’ (or half-frame), is not joined to the structural frames that surround it. In comparison, French shipwrights would join the floor timber and its futtock from the side using an iron spike. This gave additional strength to the transverse structure. Here, the filling timber might be a single piece, for example M100, or composed of two pieces placed one on top of the other, as in M99, 97 and 49, to ensure a sufficient thickness upon which the ceiling could be fastened (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Midship beam axonometry

Fig. 2: Midship beam axonometry

(Drawing A. Poletto)

2. English influence

14It must be noted, however, that this technique of alternating frames and filling pieces appeared later in English shipbuilding. For instance, it was used on the English sloop Boscawen, which was built in 1760 on the shores of Lake Champlain in the United States of America. Another similarity with the Boscawen involves the futtocks, which were placed in line with the floors and were not joined together in any way. On the Jeanne-Elisabeth this type of assembly was observed in several places, on the structural frames M45, 44, 30 and 29. The filling timbers, floors and futtocks, are placed in line but are not touching. The floors and futtocks of the Jeanne-Elisabeth do not overlap side by side. Instead they are placed in line. Also, they are fastened together using chocks. Frames M43, 44, 30 and 29 possess such chocks, which might be bevelled at both ends or have one straight end and one bevelled end.

15According to Jonathan Adams (2013), frame chocks appeared in English shipbuilding at the end of the 17th century. Their use in the construction of merchant ships was first attested in 1714 and became commonplace during the 18th century. By the middle of the 19th century they tend to disappear.

16The influence of English shipbuilders can also be seen, to a lesser extent, in the knees that support the deck beams. Referring once again to Blaise Ollivier, the English fitted four knees to each beam using iron nails. As for the French, they fitted only two. The English method was, according to Blaise Ollivier, to be avoided because it required more wood and more iron. Thus the knees that supported the upper-deck beams were placed in line and at right angles to the hull. The lower deck beams were reinforced with knees fitted alternately between two beams, in parallel to the centreline of the ship and slanting.

3. French influence

17In 2008 the remains of the ship were visible from the keel to the second deck. The remains of the keel, which at that time measured 7 m long, terminated in a forefoot, against which the lower end of the stem would have rested. The following year a storm washed the keel and forefoot away from the site.

18Blaise Ollivier also described a forefoot, “The length of the forefoot is never given, it is always made as long as is possible.” The forefoot is the same width and depth as the keel. Each side of the forefoot displays a rabbet similar to the one found on the keel. It is made of oak. This piece is typically attributed to the French tradition of naval construction. Ollivier, who had toured Dutch and English shipyards, remarks that the forefoot was omitted from the ships built by these nations. He insists on the forefoot’s important role in strengthening a ship at a point subjected to great strain, while understanding that the English would want to avoid fitting it because obtaining timber large enough to make it was difficult and particularly expensive. The forefoot of the Jeanne-Elisabeth was 3 m long, and the scarf which fastened it to the keel occupied its after third. Also, it featured a rectangular graving piece fastened with four treenails to compensate for a weakness at that point.

4. A unique feature: the heel piece

19The feet of the best-preserved frames, designated M12, 26 and 29, were shaped so as to bear upon the upper side of the keel and upon the side of the keel down to the garboard. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the feet of the frames, resulting from when the ship’s port side was ripped off, as well as damage caused by shipworm, prevented us from identifying how they were fastened to the keel.

20Nevertheless, an unusual feature is worth noting. At the feet of frames M10, 25, 27 and 28 we observed triangular pieces, identical in size to the frames adjoined (fig. 3). This ‘heel piece’ was inserted between the foot of the frame and the keel. It was shaped to bear on the upper face and side of the keel, just like the feet of the frames mentioned earlier. It seems that the frame and the heel piece were not fastened together, suggesting they were in some way loose. Perhaps a spike entering through the upper side of the frame (or keelson) and penetrating the keel held the frame and heel piece assembly to the keel. Randomly inserted heel pieces such as these have yet to be observed on other wrecks.

Fig. 3: Heel piece

Fig. 3: Heel piece

(Drawing A. Poletto)

5. Current situation

21This year, by cutting away the ceiling at the bow, we were able to partially resolve one of our study objectives: identifying where the masts were stepped. With the keel missing, only the floor timbers could provide clues as to the position of the masts. The foremast appears to have been placed between frames M10 and M11 (fig. 4). After cutting away some ceiling planks, we exposed five frames. Our first observation was that they were slightly narrower than the others. The lower part of each of these five frames was situated at the second plank up from the keel. The floor timbers situated on either side of this group were fastened to the keel with spikes, which are no longer extant. They were assembled from the side to the filling timbers and thus form a doubly thick frame. This type of assembly has not been observed elsewhere. So, we have a 2.5-metre section of the hull that is built differently from the rest and long enough to receive the foot of the foremast. The windlass is situated in line with this zone.

Fig. 4: Stempost axonometry

Fig. 4: Stempost axonometry

(Drawing A. Poletto, M. Jaouen)

6. Conclusion

22In his book Swedish Naval Administration 1521-1721, Resource Flows and Organizational Capabilities, the author Jan Glete (2010) lays out in chronological order the arrival of foreign shipbuilders and influences in Swedish shipyards. Initially deployed on military vessels, these new techniques eventually found their way into commercial shipyards. It is for this reason that Dutch techniques dominated the Swedish shipbuilding of the 16th century. In 1660 the first British master shipwrights began to arrive in the dockyards. Of particular note is the Sheldon dynasty whose plans remained in use until the 1760s. By the middle of the 18th century French hull design was much imitated because its finer lines were perceived as leading to greater vessel speed. While none of the French shipbuilding dynasties seems to have been active in Sweden, French design did nevertheless exert a notable influence. Of the 70 ship plans displayed in Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, published by Chapman (1768), chief shipbuilder of the Swedish Royal Navy, four were French. Clearly such designs were representative of the period. In his brief description, the author considers them to be good, even very good sailers. It was at this time that Chapman, championed by another Swedish shipbuilder called Sohlberg, began to apply mathematics to ship design and cons­truction. A new era was thus begun under the reign of Gustav III of Sweden, a monarch of the Enlightenment with a keen interest in the arts and science.

23The Jeanne-Elisabeth is a remarkable example of three centuries’ worth of development in naval architecture. She attests to Swedish shipbuilders’ ability to take known designs and adapt them, choosing whether to adopt or not new technical solutions from other countries in accordance with their own intrinsic ­criteria. What we see here is the gradual disappearance of Dutch ‘markers’ and the rise of British design solutions throughout the transverse structure of the ship. Arriving much later in Sweden, French influence is predictably less extensive but nonetheless ­significant, as can be seen, for example, in the presence of the forefoot.

24Fitted out for international trade, the Jeanne-Elisabeth sailed the Baltic, the North Sea, the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In other words, along the coasts of the ­countries whose shipbuilding techniques influenced her own construction.

25The absence of the port side, including the keel, and the poor condition of the feet of the floor timbers constitute a veritable obstacle to a more profound study of the hull’s essential structures. Fortunately, the gaps in the data obtained on the seabed are compensated by archive documents and contemporary accounts of the utmost reliability.

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Adams J.
2013 A Maritime Archaeology of Ships: Innovation and Social Change in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Chapman F.-H.
1768 Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, Reprint Douarnenez, Reink Books, 2016.

Glete J.
2010 Swedish Naval Administration 1521-1721, Resource Flows and Organizational Capabilities, Leiden / Boston, Brill.

Jaouen M., Rieth E., Berthaut-Clarac S., Dieulefet G., Jambu J., Poletto A., Sadania M., Serra L.
2017 “L’épave de la Jeanne-Elisabeth, 1755 (Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, Hérault). 2008-2016, Bilan de huit campagnes de fouilles”, Archaeonautica 19, p. 41-86.

Jaouen M., Poletto A.
2014 “The Shipwreck of the Jeanne-Elisabeth, 1755”, in Ch. Dagneau, K. Gauvin (eds), ACUA Underwater Archaeology Proceedings 2014, Québec, Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, p. 93-97.

Roberts D. (ed.)
1992 Blaise Ollivier, 18th Century Shipbuilding: Remarks on the Navies of the English and the Dutch from observations made at their dockyards in 1737, Rothersfield, Jean Boudriot Publications.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Planimetry of the starboard side as found on the seabed, and three cross-sections of the Jeanne-Elisabeth
Crédits (Drawing A. Poletto, M. Jaouen)
Fichier image/jpeg, 783k
Titre Fig. 2: Midship beam axonometry
Crédits (Drawing A. Poletto)
Fichier image/jpeg, 646k
Titre Fig. 3: Heel piece
Crédits (Drawing A. Poletto)
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k
Titre Fig. 4: Stempost axonometry
Crédits (Drawing A. Poletto, M. Jaouen)
Fichier image/jpeg, 615k
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Marine Jaouen et Andrea Poletto, « The shipwreck of the Jeanne-Elisabeth, a Swedish merchant ship lost off the French Mediterranean coast in 1755. Hull assembly: three different architectural traditions »Archaeonautica, 21 | 2021, 47-52.

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Marine Jaouen et Andrea Poletto, « The shipwreck of the Jeanne-Elisabeth, a Swedish merchant ship lost off the French Mediterranean coast in 1755. Hull assembly: three different architectural traditions »Archaeonautica [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 05 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marine Jaouen

Département des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines

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Andrea Poletto

Independent researcher

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