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Watch: Irish archaeologists abroad transform 360-year-old Iceland shipwreck into virtual reality

Two Irish maritime archaeologists living in Iceland and Australia have created a virtual reality video of an old shipwreck.

A virtual reconstruction of the Melckmeyt ship.
A virtual reconstruction of the Melckmeyt ship.
Image: John McCarthy

TWO IRISH MARITIME archaeologists living on opposite sides of the world have created a virtual reality version of a shipwreck that has been at the bottom of the ocean for 360 years.

Iceland’s oldest known shipwreck, the Melckmeyt (milkmaid), is a Dutch merchant ship that has been sunken off the west coast of Iceland near a tiny island since 1659. 

Two divers discovered the 33-metre-long ship in 1992 and an underwater archaeological survey was carried out the next year. In 2016, Irish maritime archaeologist Kevin Martin and his team returned to the shipwreck to expand on this survey using modern technology. 

Now, a digital reconstruction of how the ship would have looked after it sank has been created by Martin and fellow Irishman and maritime archaeologist John McCarthy, who lives on the opposite site of the world in Australia. 

It is best watched directly on the Youtube website for a full 360-degree experience of diving down to the ancient wreck. 

Source: John McCarthy/YouTube

Originally from Co Cork, Martin has been living in Iceland for over a decade. He worked on this project as part of his PhD in the University of Iceland. 

“I started researching into this wreck in around 2016… I had always been interested in the shipwreck and wanted to do something on it,” Martin told  

Martin and McCarthy met for the first time last October and despite living on opposite sides of the world, their archaeological work focuses on well-preserved shipwrecks. 

“We never knew each other before. We knew the same people but our paths never crossed,” said Martin. 

Melkmeid_virtualdive_wreck_ImagebyJohnMcCarthy Virtual dive of the shipwreck. Source: John McCarthy

360 years, 360 degrees

Martin approached the Maritime Museum in Reykjavik about doing an exhibition on the Melckmeyt ship in 2016 and two years later, it became a reality. The exhibition will be in the museum until at least next year and Martin hopes it will become a permanent feature. 

“It worked out well because it’s the 360th anniversary of the shipwreck this year. So 360 degrees, 360 years,” he said. 

In December 2018, the Reykjavik museum wanted more virtual reality included in the section and this is where McCarthy got involved. He worked with Martin to create a 360-degree virtual reality experience reconstructing what the ship would have looked like all those years ago.

“But nobody really made a big fuss when it came out [in December], so we took the decision a couple of days ago to put the video on YouTube,” said Martin.  

16 October 2019 was the 360th anniversary of the shipwreck.  

Irish abroad

McCarthy works on projects surrounding well-preserved shipwrecks as part of his PhD research at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. 

“There were a few projects around the world in this area but there was one that really stood out to me,” said McCarthy. 

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“I was interested in finding a shipwreck that was well-preserved so I could offer my digital techniques to do something with it.”

Melkmeid_Rotterdam_reconstruction_ImagebyJohnMcCarthy Reconstruction of the ship. Source: John McCarthy

He connected with Martin through Facebook after discovering his Melckmeyt project and was surprised to discover another Irishman living abroad. 

“Even though he’s from Kildare, we got over that,” said Martin. 

McCarthy flew out to Iceland last year to collaborate on the virtual reality reconstruction of the shipwreck. He said this experience allows people to be directly connected to the archaeology.

They placed a famous painting – Milkmaid by Vermeer – on the stern of the ship in the reconstruction. It is believed to have been originally painted a year before the ship sank in the 17th century. 

“We were able to combine a real shipwreck with a real model and a real painting from the time. So everything you are seeing in the video is really from the 17th century,” said McCarthy. 

The virtual reality video is part of the Melckmeyt 1659 exhibition on display in the Reykjavik Maritime Museum in Iceland. 

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