Around midsummar in 1495, one of the largest and most technologically advanced warships in northern Europe caught fire, exploded, and sank. The disaster occurred off Stora Ekön, near Ronneby in Blekinge region. The ship was Gribshunden (griffin-dog), flagship of the Danish King Hans (figure 1). Built in 1485 along the River Meuse in northern France/Belgium or the Netherlands, the ship had a long career in Hans’ service. The king sent her as far abroad as England and perhaps Greenland. He sailed on the vessel regularly, and he was aboard the ship for its final voyage. When lost, Gribshunden and an accompanying squadron were en route to Kalmar, carrying Hans and his court to a political summit. The goal of the meeting was to re-establish the Kalmar Union, uniting the entire Nordic region under a single ruler in a novel political entity, the nation-state.
The king amassed on his flagship everything and everyone to impress the Swedish noblemen waiting in Kalmar. Contemporary accounts report that the king ordered the ship’s deep hold to be loaded with extravagant food and drink for days of lavish feasting. His soldiers prepared for a show of arms, equipped with the latest gunpowder weapons. On the ship’s decks, members of the royal court peacocked in their finest clothing. Among the entourage was the royal astronomer, also known as “star-watcher” or “matematico”. If the chronicles can be believed, his foreboding prophecy convinced the king to leave the doomed ship before the conflagration, thus saving his life. The accidental fire that sank the ship was a calamity for Hans. It killed some number of influential people, consumed valuable goods, and diminished the king’s prestige. The disaster contributed to a two-year delay in recreating a precarious Kalmar Union.
Gribshunden was one of the earliest European naval vessels armed with guns. The vessel style was cutting-edge for the time, and big at about 32 m length. She was a new amalgamation of northern European and Mediterranean architecture, a fusion of disparate styles and building techniques. Ships like this were the enabling technology for global voyages of exploration and conquest.
The great explorers Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus sailed in vessels similar to Gribshunden, known today as Ships of Discovery. The vessels of the great explorers ultimately sank in the ocean, where their hulls were eaten by shipworm. Because shipworm doesn’t survive in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea, the wreck off Stora Ekön is the best-preserved example of this ship type that literally changed the world.
The Shipwreck Rediscovered
Parts of Gribshunden standing above the waves or visible in the shallow water undoubtedly were salvaged in 1495 and soon after. Then portions of the upper structure disintegrated and fell to the sea floor. The ship settled into the soft sediments of the Baltic, and slowly silt infilled and buried much of what was left. Out of sight, the ship and her history were soon out of mind. She lay forgotten until the 1970s, when Swedish sport scuba divers found the wreck. They scavenged small finds that hinted at its identity: golfball-sized lead cannon balls, bits of wooden crossbow bolts, fragments of ceramic and metal objects. The old wreck in the shallow protected waters behind Stora Ekön became a back-up dive site, a place to go when the seas were too rough elsewhere. The local diving community knew the wreck well, but its name remained a mystery.
In 2001, the wreck’s peculiar features drew the divers’ attention. They informed Kalmar Museum and Länstyrelsen i Blekinge that the site held the remains of early naval gun carriages. A two-day dive by archaeologists later that year confirmed the historical significance of these artifacts and the wreck itself, and Försvarshögskolan historian Ingvar Sjöblom tentatively identified the ship as Gribshunden.
Over the next years, a series of brief and limited interventions kindled curiosity, especially when archaeologists discovered the ship’s grotesque figurehead of the griffin-dog eating an unfortunate soul.
The 2019 Excavation
Interest in the ship swelled in 2018, when a consortium of Swedish and some Danish institutions formed to propel its study. With funding from Crafoord Foundation, the first extensive excavation campaign took place in late summer 2019. Over three weeks, an international team of maritime archaeologists mapped the wreck in exquisite precision with photogrammetry (figure 2) and excavated a 6 x 2 m trench in the middle of the ship (figure 3), less than 1% of the wreck’s total area. At Lund University a dozen researchers from different scientific fields launched an interdisciplinary study of all of the artifacts raised since the 1970s. The results of this comprehensive investigation highlight not only aspects of nautical archaeology, but also of Hans’ attempt to build a new nation-state at the end of the Medieval period.
Within the first hours of the excavation, the artifact deposit proved its richness. Objects with no archaeological precedent emerged. First came the wooden handle of a dagger, then the wooden stock of a crossbow, and not far from it the wooden stock of an arquebus, a type of early handgun. Alongside the arquebus nestled the bolt of a long arrow, probably loaded in the gun at the time of sinking. Anaerobic bacteria living in the sediments consumed all of the iron components of these weapons, but the recesses and through-holes in the stocks indicate the positions of vanished fittings. These provide enough information to inform working replicas of each piece. Combined with the main battery of guns, the shipwreck yielded the entire range of late Medieval weapons.
Gribshunden was on a diplomatic mission, not a military campaign, but the variety of weapons we recovered from a very small excavation trench prove that the ship was full of men-at-arms and their equipment. Hans surely intended to hold a military review in Kalmar, to display the power of his forces alongside his prized vessel. In his bid to unify the Nordic region, the threat of violence backstopped negotiation and persuasion.
A scant two meters from the weapons locus, we uncovered a particularly evocative cluster of small finds. Hundreds of copper rings linked together sat atop a badly degraded pile of iron oxide. These are the remains of a suit of chain mail armor. The copper links embellished the cuffs, collar, and waist of an iron mail shirt. Within this rust-stained silt lay a small copper ring. Barely discernable through the tarnish, raised symbols hinted that this may be the maker’s mark of the armor, a hunch later confirmed by X-ray imaging (figure 4). Maker’s marks from medieval chain mail are extraordinarily rare; this is the only example known from an archaeological source. Remarkably, the name of the armorer, Ulrich Feurer, is listed in a 1416 census of Nurnberg as a maker of fine and expensive chain mail. Either the valuable armor was decades old when its owner carried it on Gribshunden, or successive generations of Feurers carried on the family business. A suit of chainmail of this quality would have been beyond the budget of a common soldier. It was probably owned by a nobleman or a senior mercenary.
Nearby artifacts provided more evidence of the owner’s elite social status. A purse filled with a metal concretion about the size of a man’s thumb rested centimeters from the chain mail. We recognized a few loose objects in the purse as silver coins. At Lund University, we made a digital 3D model of the coin purse using a structured light scanner. From that digital file we 3D-printed a physical copy in nylon. At the Danish Technical University’s 3D Imaging Centre, we CT scanned the mass and revealed that it holds more than 120 silver coins. Within the oxidized crust, the coins are well-preserved. The CT data showed both faces of several coins. Comparison to coins in the study collection at Blekinge Museum determined that these are Danish hvid coins, minted in Ålborg and Malmö during Hans’ reign (figure 5). This is the only known coin horde from a context definitely associated with the monarch who minted them.
The monetary value of this cache is difficult to estimate because 15th century records are scarce, but one 1495 account shows a crossbow that sold for 60 hvid. This diminutive purse of coins weighed only 100 grams, but certainly was a fair amount of wealth. That it was abandoned indicates that the owner either fled in a terrific panic or perished on the burning ship. In either case, this small artifact presents a stark picture of the ship’s final moments.
Other objects recovered from the wreck demonstrate Hans’ plans for a fancy table. Upside-down in the hold and obscured among several intact wooden casks and a wicker basket, we found a completely intact wooden tankard (figure 6). At the time of discovery, its lid was still in place, making the jar air-tight. It was so full of gas from the decomposition of its contents, it nearly popped to the surface like a balloon. After tipping out the gas, we safely recovered the tankard. Chemical and aDNA analysis of the residues within may reveal a 524 year-old tipple. This remarkable drinking vessel was milled and carved from a single block of alder wood, and perhaps was stained red. The tankard from Gribshunden is emblazoned with a crown-like symbol. Could it be the mark of Hans himself?
Gribshunden’s hold delivered a tangible bounty of history. Intact wooden barrels (Figure 7) bear witness to the disrupted Kalmar feasts: beef and mutton bones, beer kegs, and cask holding the remains of a two-meter long sturgeon. aDNA and osteological study conducted at Lund University prove that this huge fish was an Atlantic sturgeon, perhaps caught during the voyage and inexpertly butchered. The Danish “Beach Law” dictated that all sturgeon were the property of the king, the meat and roe perhaps reserved for his table while the various organs such as the swim bladder used for glue-making and other industrial processes. The wooden barrels themselves are as interesting as their contents. Dendrochronology allows us to determine the date the trees were cut, and the location where they grew. Combined with chemical and molecular analysis of their contents, barrels from Baltic shipwrecks offer an entirely untapped source of information about the Medieval and early modern political economy of Europe. Half a millennium after the blaze that paradoxically destroyed and preserved the ship, Gribshunden has sparked the imaginations of a wide range of researchers. International interest is now focused on this ship and the archaeological project funded by Crafoord Foundation: it is also the subject of an international documentary film to be broadcast in North America in autumn 2020 (figure 8).
The finds conveyed here are mere higlights from a single campaign. More than 99% of the wreck is still unexcavated and unexplored. As the project continues, we expect to find the sea chests of the noblemen and the king, full of fine clothing and luxury personal possessions. Although the historical written sources are mute on the subject, it is possible that archaeology will reveal the presence of women aboard the ship. Perhaps the medicine kit of the doctor or curiosities of the star-gazer/alchemist await discovery. The structure of this hull and upper works will showcase the Ship of Discovery as a technical achievement, while the internal layout of the ship and physical spaces occupied by the various ranks of men aboard will demonstrate the origins of today’s naval traditions. As an example of the process of building a modern nation-state, no other site can compare to Gribshunden. This shipwreck is poised to become the world’s premier maritime archaeology project, thanks to support from the Crafoord Foundation.
Dr. Brendan Foley, Principal Investigator
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University