updated 8/29/2008 12:25:54 PM ET 2008-08-29T16:25:54

The largest collection of antique shipwrecks ever found in Norway has been discovered under mud at the building site for a new highway tunnel in Oslo, the project's lead archaeologist said Friday.

Jostein Gundersen said at least nine wooden boats, the largest being 17 meters (56 feet) long, were found well preserved nearly 400 years after they sank at Bjoervika, an Oslo inlet near the new national opera house.

"For us, this is a sensation," he told The Associated Press. "There has never been a find of so many boats and in such good condition at one site in Norway."

The wrecks were remarkably well preserved because they had been covered in mud and fresh water, where river waters run into the sea, he said.

"We have a fantastic opportunity to learn more about old shipbuilding techniques and the old harbors," said Gundersen of the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo.

He said the wrecks are believed to have sunk sometime after a massive fire swept the wooden buildings of old Oslo in 1624. After that disaster, Danish-Norwegian King Kristian IV ordered the city center moved before reconstruction started.

The discovered boats were moored at the old port, which became a remote area after the city was moved. He said the boats may have been 30 or 40 years old when they sank.

"There is nothing to indicate that the ships were deliberately scuttled," said Gundersen. "They could have sunk one by one, because of sloppy mooring or poor maintenance, or maybe sank in a storm."

He said the wreckage will be charted and removed as quickly as possible, so construction of the undersea tunnel can continue. It will then take years, he said, to examine all the ship's remnants back at the museum.

Gundersen said the find will help fill gaps in knowledge between Norwegian Viking ships of roughly 1,000 years ago and more modern vessels.

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