The Loss of the Gribshunden (1495) and Preliminary Archaeological Investigations

Guest post on Gribshunden by Rolf Fabricius Warming

Gribshunden figurehead
Gribshunden figurehead

Gribshunden, also known as Gripshunden, and Griffone, was a large Danish warship employed in the fleet of King John I (Danish: Kong Hans) who reigned in Denmark from 1481 to 1513. Gribshunden appears in some of the earliest Danish fleet records and is amongst the first Danish vessels to be described as a carvel. The vessel, which seems to have served as the king’s flagship, sank in 1495 on an important diplomatic voyage bound for Kalmar, Sweden, where King John was to meet with Regent Stent Sture the Elder and the Swedish council, probably to discuss details regarding the Kalmar Union (Barfod 1990: 80-81). Unfortunately, John I arrived at Kalmar without his mighty Gribshunden

While anchored at the natural harbour off Ronneby on his way to Kalmar, Gribshunden suddenly caught fire and sank, killing several of the men aboard (Barfod 1990: 80-81, 203). By chance, John I was not aboard Gribshunden at this time himself but witnessed the flames engulf his flagship from a distance from within a ship’s boat. The wreck and its location ultimately sank into oblivion.

The wreck was rediscovered by local sports divers in the 1970s but it wasn’t until 2001, when strange artefacts had been uncovered on the site, that archaeologists were made aware of its existence and began to investigate it. The wreck, which was unidentified at the time, was found to be rather disjointed but otherwise well-preserved. A wooden sample was promptly taken from one of the timbers, revealing that the ship had been constructed of oak wood felled in the winter of AD 1482-83.

The Museum of Kalmar County subsequently entered into collaboration with the local dive club to undertake further investigations of the wreck. Several extraordinary artefacts, which had been preserved in the muddy sediment, were salvaged from the site, including nine gun carriages for breech-loading iron guns, mail armour fragments and a capstan (now exhibited in Blekinge Museum).

The collaborative fieldwork efforts, moreover, yielded valuable information about the ship construction itself. Most importantly, it was quickly observed that ship had been built by use of carvel planking, i.e. the hull planks had been laid flushed and fastened edge-to-edge. It is thus the oldest carvel built shipwreck discovered in Nordic waters, standing in contrast to the traditional Nordic clinker built watercraft (in which the hull planks overlap). The technological significance of its construction prompted further investigations into the wreck, which, through careful analysis of ordnance pieces and by the process of elimination, resulted in the tentative identification of the wreck as the Gribshunden.

Although the archaeological investigations are only in their earliest stages, the wreck has already been subject to much mass media attention and research interests, particularly as a consequence of the salvaging of the wreck’s figurehead which was undertaken in the summer of 2015. The figurehead, a menacing dog-like monster, is exceptionally unique, being the only one of its kind in the world.

Much has already been gained from the few investigations of the site and several sets of data collections are currently being processed and treated. With this new knowledge, it will be possible to return to the wreck site in the near future to undertake a larger fieldwork project. Future studies of the site will doubtlessly make significant contributions to knowledge of Late Medieval life, especially in relation to seafaring and naval warfare.

Further information about Gribshunden:

Last year, Rolf wrote a more detailed blogpost about the Gribshunden before the figurehead was salvaged:

The figurehead is now being conserved at the National Museum of Denmark, but will be returned to Blekinge Museum witin 2-3 years after having been conserved by PEG and freeze-dried.

The Gribshunden research project is a work in progress, so here may be other exciting developments in future.

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