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Researchers present new finds from Gribshunden shipwreck

Gribshunden was a unique ship and is an equally unique shipwreck. It has lain on the bottom of the Baltic Sea for more than 500 years, providing researchers with the first opportunity to study the construction of 15th-century ships. MARIS, the research institute for marine archaeology at Södertörn University, is now releasing a report that describes the new finds and discoveries made during an excavation of the wreck in 2019.

North of the island of Stora Ekön in the Blekinge archipelago, almost ten metres below the surface, lies the wreck of Gribshunden, flagship of the Kalmar Union’s King John. It has lain there since 1495, when it sank after catching fire as the king was travelling to meet Sten Sture the Elder in Kalmar. She lay undisturbed on the bottom of the Baltic Sea for almost five centuries, before being discovered by a recreational diver in 1970.

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Gribshunden was a unique ship – a large royal ship from the late Middle Ages and a representative of the large new vessels which, teamed with their princes, contributed to early modern societal change. Thanks to the brackish water of the Baltic Sea, she retains this uniqueness as a wreck, as she is the best-preserved shipwreck of her time and the only one of this type.

MARIS, the research institute for marine archaeology at Södertörn University, has been investigating the wreck since 2013. In the autumn of 2019, working with Blekinge Museum, Lund University and Southampton University, among others, Södertörn University conducted a more extensive excavation of the ship. The researchers are now releasing a report that describes the new finds and discoveries made during this excavation, as well as a summary of previous knowledge and a new interpretive discussion of the large carvel vessel’s European origin and context.

The report is compiled by Professor Johan Rönnby from Södertörn University, who has held scientific responsibility for surveys of the wreck off Stora Ekön since 2013.

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Handgun from Gribshunden. Photo: Rolf Warming (Society for Combat Archaeology).

Some new and important results are presented in the report:

– The ship’s construction shows that it was probably built somewhere in the southern Netherlands. It was an extremely modern ship for its time, the type of prestige vessel built by those in power, but also for exploring the globe. Danish kings were involved several such enterprises, and some sources indicate that Danish sea captains may have visited the New World as early as the 1470s.

– The archaeological investigation shows that salvage attempts were clearly carried out at the site, and cannons and valuable objects were retrieved from the wreck after it sank. The ability to do this type of underwater work is mentioned in written sources, with one of the ship’s contemporaries, Leonardo de Vinci, describing a range of diving aids.

– The finds from 2019’s excavation vary widely and provide support for the notion that the king’s entire household was on board. These finds include barrels of beer and fish, as well as household utensils marked with the royal emblem. Two different weapons were also found: a crossbow and a small, unique “hand cannon”. These weapons reflect the transition between medieval combat equipment and the gunpowder weapons of the new era.

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Fragmented crossbow stock excavated on the Gribshunden wreck site.
Photo: Morgan Olsson (Blekinge Museum), labels added by Rolf Warming (Society for Combat Archaeology).

– Some finds indicate that there may have been women and children on board. These include a spindle whorl, a toy cannon and a child-size hauberk. Could the hauberk has belonged to Crown Prince Christian (later known in Sweden as “Christian the Tyrant”)? At the time he would have been 13, probably old enough to accompany his father and learn what happened at a “meeting of men”.

– King John and his queen, Christine, (and also his parents and his son) belonged to the elite of late medieval Europe. They were related to and socialised with kings and princes on the continent and visited the pope in Rome. One noble house that they associated with was the northern Italian House of Sforzas. This Machiavellian house had a snakelike monster swallowing a human on its coat of arms, which bears a great resemblance to the large wooden figure salvaged from the wreck in 2015. Could there be a direct link?

– Two contemporaneous sources name the ship that sinks off Ekön as Grifun in one and Gribshund in the other. It had earlier also been named Griffone and Griffen. All these are probably just different spellings. Recently, Danish marine archaeologist Rolf Warming has proposed that the name “hund” [dog] should probably be regarded as a linguistic misunderstanding between German and Danish. In modern Swedish, the ship’s name was probably thus Gripen (a not unusual name for a ship at the time), which means griffin in English.

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To learn more, please see Grifun/Gribshund (1495): Marinarkeologiska undersökningar, which includes an English summary.

Top Image: Decorative cuff to a mail shirt from Gribshunden. The dimensions suggest it was worn by a person who was not full-grown. Crown prince Christian, later King Christian (II) the Tyrant, was only 14 years of age at the time of the loss of Gribshunden and may have accompanied his father on this diplomatic voyage. Photo: Max Jahrehorn.

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