A 525-year old fish story

There are tales of the ‘big fish’ that got away. Now, researchers from Lund University have revealed that a two-metre long Atlantic Sturgeon was able to escape a royal feast, by remaining in a barrel of a sunken ship for the last 525 years.

In the year 1495, the Danish King Hans sailed from Copenhagen to Kalmar, Sweden, on the royal flagship Gribshunden. Onboard were the most prestigious goods the Danish royal court could provide, since King Hans was going to Sweden to lay claim to the country’s throne. However, when the ship reached the town of Ronneby, which was Danish territory at the time, a fire broke out on board and Gribshunden sank. The King himself was not on board that night, however, both crew and cargo sank with the ship to the sea floor, where it has lain ever since.


Thanks to the unique environment of the Baltic Sea – with oxygen-free seabeds, low salinity and an absence of shipworms – the wreck was particularly well preserved when it was discovered approximately fifty years ago, and has provided researchers with a unique insight into life on board a royal ship in the late Middle Ages. In addition, researchers now also know what was in the royal pantry – the wooden barrel discovered last year, with fish remains inside.

“It is a really thrilling discovery, as you do not ordinarily find fish in a barrel in this way. For me, as an osteologist, it has been very exciting to work with”, says Stella Macheridis, researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University.


When the remains were discovered it was possible to see that they came from a sturgeon pretty early on due to the special bony plates, the scutes. However, researchers were unsure which species it was. Up until relatively recently, it was believed to be the European sturgeon found in the Baltic Sea at the time. However, the DNA analysis revealed it was the Atlantic variety with which King Hans planned on impressing the Swedes. Researchers have also been able to estimate the length of the sturgeon – two metres – as well as demonstrate how it was cut.

For Maria Hansson, molecular biologist at Lund University, and the researcher who carried out the DNA analysis, the discovery is of major significance, particularly for her own research on the environment of the Baltic Sea. “For me, this has been a glimpse of what the Baltic Sea looked like before we interfered with it. Now we know that the Atlantic sturgeon was presumably part of the ecosystem. I think there could be great potential in using underwater DNA in this way to be able to recreate what it looked like previously”, she says.

Wooden barrel with parts of the sturgeon (in orange) Photo: Brett Seymour / Lund University

Macheridis, Hansson and Brendan Foley are the authors of a recent article about this discovery, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. They summarize their findings:

We argue that the sturgeon remains in barrel A42 represent one individual, coarsely chopped into large pieces to fit into a barrel. We suggest that the fish was most likely temporarily stored in brine. Additionally, we do not know for certain if barrel A42 was equipped with a head to seal in the sturgeon. Perhaps the lid was only loosely fastened, which would make it improbable that the sturgeon was preserved for a longer period… We conclude that the most likely scenario of the origin of the sturgeon in the barrel was from a chance catch on board the ship Gribshunden during the voyage, or just before it set sail from the Copenhagen area. The coarse butchering of the sturgeon probably was the result of processing by a hand inexperienced with this species, an attempt to preserve the fish until arrival at Kalmar.


Today, the Atlantic sturgeon is currently an endangered species and virtually extinct. The discovery on Gribshunden is unique in both the Scandinavian and European contexts – such well preserved and old sturgeon remains have only been discovered a few times at an underwater archaeological site.

It is now possible, in a very specific way, to link the sturgeon to a royal environment – the discovery confirms the high status it had at the time. The fish was coveted for its roe, flesh and swim bladder – the latter could be used to produce a kind of glue (isinglass) that, among other things, was used to produce gold paint.

“The sturgeon in the King’s pantry was a propaganda tool, as was the entire ship. Everything on that ship served a political function, which is another element that makes this discovery particularly interesting. It provides us with important information about this pivotal moment for nation-building in Europe, as politics, religion and economics – indeed, everything – was changing”, adds Foley, marine archaeologist at Lund University, and project coordinator for the excavations.


Gribshunden will become the subject of further archaeological excavations and scientific analyses in the coming years.

The article, “Fish in a barrel: Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) from the Baltic Sea wreck of the royal Danish flagship Gribshunden (1495),”by Stella Macheridis, Maria C.Hansson and Brendan P. Foley, is published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Click here to read it.

Top Image: British Library MS Additional 30024 f. 64v


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!