Within the sheltered waters of Ronneby archipelago near the island of Stora Ekön, southeastern Sweden, lies the remains of a rather disjointed but well-preserved wooden wreck. The wreck, previously known as the Stora Ekö or Ekö wreck, was already discovered by local sport divers in the 1970s. However, it was only in 2001, when strange artefacts had been uncovered on the site, that archaeologists were made aware of its location (Einarsson 2008). 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 (Kalmar Läns Museum) subsequently entered into collaboration with the local dive club, “Doppingarna”, 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 armor fragments and a capstan (now exhibited in Blekinge Museum; fig. 1). 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 (fig. 2). As such, the Ekö wreck is 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). Further investigations were carried out on the site in 2013 by MARIS under the general direction of Professor Johan Rönnby as a part of the “Ships at War” project, a larger archaeological-historical study including other significant Baltic shipwrecks, such as the Mars (1564). A collaboration between MARIS, Blekinge Museum and Kalmar County Museum resulted in a new investigatory expedition which was undertaken in June 2015. Other participants in the renewed project efforts include University of Southampton, notably Professor Jon Adams, the company Marin Mätteknik AB and Combat Archaeology.
The wreck has tentatively been identified as the Gribshunden (1495). Danish historical sources offer detailed descriptions of the loss of Gribshunden off Stora Ekön by “Rendebye” (Ronneby). The size of the ship, its carvel construction and the dendrochronological dating of the wreck as well as the gun carriages is in accordance with the information gathered from the historical sources (Sjöblom 2013; forthcoming). Lime mortar, which had been recovered from the hold of the wreck, offered further indications of the same after it was established that the lime originated from Saltholmen near Copenhagen.
Gribshunden, also known as Gripshunden and Griffen, was a large Danish warship employed in the fleet of King John (Danish: kong Hans), who reigned in Denmark from 1481 to 1513. Gribshunden appears in some of the earliest Danish fleet records as well as in royal letters written aboard the ship which attest the presence of the king (Barfod 1990:80-81). In fact, she appears to have served as the king’s flagship.
Historical Context and Significance
Gribshunden merits special attention not only due to the implications of this distinguished naval role but also because of the historical context of which she was a part as well as her role in the unfolding of important historical events. Gribshunden’s last mission, which resulted in her loss, was perhaps her most important one.
King John and his fleet set sail for Kalmar, Sweden, in the summer of 1495. The purpose of the voyage was to meet with regent Sten Sture the Elder and the Swedish council, probably to discuss details regarding the Kalmar Union (ibid). The Kalmar Union was established at a meeting in Kalmar in 1397 as a personal union that brought together the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden under the rule of a single monarch. The Swedes, however, became increasingly dissatisfied with Danish dominance in the union in the course of the 15th century and managed to extricate themselves from the grasp of the union to a considerable extent, especially during the lifetime of Sten Sture. He had attained significant political and military power in the second half of the 15th century and, although the Swedish high nobility was ready to confirm the new Danish king John as true king in 1483, Sture succeeded in maintaining power and thereby continued to act as independent regent in Sweden (Bain 1911: 1051-1052; Scocozza 1997: 563-564). King John’s journey of 1495 was therefore of utmost political importance.
As the king’s flagship, Gribshunden assumed a particularly meaningful role within the setting of this political turmoil. It has long been recognized that the design, building and use of warships in the past included many more considerations than their prosaic function as instruments of power in battles. Large warships were martial engineering marvels, acting as power enhancers and status symbols as well as symbols for how a society should function (Lemée 2006:71; Rönnby & Adams 1994:68; Adams 2013: 29). In this sense, then, Gribshunden was not merely an instrument of military force but also a status symbol, serving as a material expression of the power of the Kalmar Union monarch. Ultimately, given the political nature of the voyage, Gribshunden’s primary mission was to instill confidence into the Swedes that King John was the rightful and supreme leader of all of Scandinavia.
Unfortunately, King John’s “great carvel” never reached Kalmar. While anchored at the natural harbor off Ronneby on his way to Kalmar, the king’s Gribshunden suddenly caught fire and sank, killing many of the men aboard (Barfod 1990: 81-81, 203). By chance, King John himself was not aboard Gribshunden at this time but witnessed the flames engulf his flagship from a distance in a ship’s boat. He continued his journey to Kalmar after this disastrous event, only to find that Sten Sture had been considerably delayed. After weeks of patient waiting, King John promptly returned to Denmark empty-handed. Not until 1497, two years after the expedition, was King John crowned king of Sweden (as King John II) after Sten Sture had lost much of his support and subsequently been defeated at the Battle of Rotebro by this Danish king the same year (Scocozza 1997:564). King John thereby succeeded in re-incorporating Sweden into the Kalmar Union, of which it would be a part until 1501 when Sten Sture again had gained political power, resulting in another break and a longer intermission from inclusion in the union.
The imaginative mind cannot help but wonder how differently history would have unfolded if King John arrived at Kalmar with his impressive Gribshunden in 1495. Could King John and the Swedish council have reached some satisfactory conclusion already at this meeting? Could the Danish king have gained considerable support, and undermined the authority of Sten Sture, as a direct result of his display of royal power, particularly through his mighty fleet? Perhaps further bloodshed could have been avoided in this manner. Most interestingly, if Sten Sture would have been halted at this point, the Swedish separatist political movement could conceivably have suffered a severe setback, ultimately resulting in that persons such as Gustav Vasa I never would have gained the necessary political foothold for the definitive break with the Kalmar Union in 1523. These were politically dynamic times and the pivotal role of Sten Sture the Elder in relation to Swedish independence cannot be underestimated.
These were also militarily dynamic times and Gribshunden should at once be understood as the apex of naval technology of the period and as a foreshadowing of the military developments of the 16th century. The 15th century was a period of transition for larger ships (Rönnby forthcoming). Being a large and modern carvel-built ship, Gribshunden was at the forefront of the technological naval developments in Scandinavian waters. It is also worth remembering that King John officially established a permanent Danish navy in 1510. His ambitions to build up a strong naval power, however, were present from the earliest years of his reign (Barfod 1990: 119-138). In the light of this, Gribshunden is a clear material expression of King John’s important naval initiatives that would ultimately culminate in the founding of the Royal Danish Navy. The establishment of permanent navies would have grave consequences in the future, intensifying naval technological advancements and naval engagements considerably in the 16th century (Mortensen 2002). Renaissance state formation strategies were seemingly well underway already during the lifetime of Gribshunden.
The Wreck Site – New Investigations and Discoveries
The remains of Gribshunden lies at a depth of 10 m outside the island of Stora Ekön. The wreck is oriented roughly N-S with the stem in the south, facing Stora Ekön. The site is complex and much of the wreck remains buried in the sediment. Several frames, however, protrude high above the sediment and many other structural features are discernible on the site, including stem and sternpost, cohesive hull planking, deck beams and a hawse (fig. 3).
An intensive survey of the wreck was conducted in June 2015 under the general direction of Professor Johan Rönnby. The aim was to compile an overview and plan of the site by means of underwater photography and Blueview scanner (Rönnby forthcoming). Significant constructional features – hereunder stempost, rudder and hawse – were also recorded in detail, notably by, but not limited to, meticulous underwater sketches produced by Professor Jon Adams and Niklas Eriksson. Based on measurements taken from the stern to the stempost, the ship may be estimated to have had a length of at least 35 m. The deck beams, moreover, reveal that the ship had a beam of at least 7.5 m. The deck beams vary in length and more detailed recordings of the timbers may reveal intricate details about the decks and hull shape in the future (J. Rönnby 2015, pers.comm., 14 June).The ship had most likely been equipped with fore and aftcastle which, seemingly, were constructed in clinker fashion. Stringers and fastenings in the hull indicate where the breech-loading wrought iron guns would have been positioned (Rönnby forthcoming). Three led shot (approx. 5 cm in diameter) were discovered amidships (fig. 4), highlighting further the ship’s martial function along with the mail armor fragments and crossbow bolts which had been found on the site in the previous years. Another two gun carriages (measuring approx. 2.55 m in length) were discovered towards the stern. The site may also contain what can be tentatively identified as fragments of medieval polearms shafts, though this remains to be confirmed. Charcoal traces were observed on the site, offering further confirmation of the ship’s identity and her reportedly violent end.
A Medieval Figurehead
An extraordinary find, which immediately attracted mass media attention, was found in the stem. The find in question, a large timber functioning as central support for the triangular forecastle, had already evoked suspicions last season (N. Eriksson 2015, pers. comm., 15 June). The timber featured peculiar indentations in one of its ends and it soon became clear upon closer inspection that these actually were decorative carvings. It was, in fact, a sculpture which had been discovered – a figurehead from the 15th century! As such, it is exceptionally unique, being the world’s oldest known in existence. The sculpture (c. 100 cm in length and 30-35 cm in width) is partially buried in sediment but it is already clear that one of its sides features a carefully carved ear and a mouth full of sharp teeth (fig. 5). A carved feature protrudes from the mouth of the beast but what it represents cannot be precisely determined at present. The side of the sculpture buried in the sediment is expected to be even better preserved than the exposed timber and may reveal additional details regarding this feature. A detailed sketch of the exposed timber was produced by Professor Jon Adams (fig. 6).
The sculpture has, in fact, a rather dog-like appearance, wherefore it has been referred to Gribshunden itself. Gribshunden can literally be interpreted as “Griffin-Hound” but it is also possible that the name refers to a specific dog breed. In particular, in a letter dated May 16 1486, King John writes “In navi nostra Griffone” (Barfod 1990: 81). “In…Griffone” would imply nominative “griffo” which linguistically can be considered as an alternate form of “gryps” or “gryphus” (griffin) (A. Ijäs 2015, pers. comm., 27 June). While this may offer an explanation to the absence of a beak on the sculpture, it should be noted that the unidentifiable feature protruding from the mouth of the beast might well be a bird’s head (fig. 7). Griffin-Hound or not, the beast is a fear-provoking sculpture. It stands in stark contrast to the delicate line and angle symmetry revered in the Renaissance and is instead rather reminiscent of Gothic art in all its earthly complexity and mythic absurdity.
While the find is unique and certainly fits well with the canine-associated profile, the sculpture prompts the question of what figureheads actually looked like during this period in general. The subject, which hitherto remains largely unexplored, warrants detailed analyses of contemporary iconography and historical sources which are beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say in this place that preliminary observations of roughly contemporary iconographic material suggests that dog-like figureheads were not uncommon in this period. Exemplary evidence can be found on the continent in ex-voto iconography at the church of St. Peter in Zumaia, Spain, in a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and on the Mataró ship model dated to the mid-fifteenth century (figs. 8-10) .
Closer parallels are perhaps the dog-like figureheads that appear on several contemporary carvings contained in Sæby Church in Denmark. If we are to consider the carvings as representative and judge from their estimated age and relative size, it may even be possible that one or two of the depictions in this church is that of Gribshunden, though a validation of this requires further historical studies into the sizes of contemporary ships in Denmark (fig. 11).
As can be gained from the above, Gribshunden is an extraordinarily unique find. Future studies of the site will doubtlessly make significant contributions to knowledge of Late Medieval life, especially in relation to seafaring and naval warfare. The wreck is the best preserved example of the carvel construction technique of this period and of the new ship type that would develop (Rönnby forthcoming). It is also from a period where naval engagements were strictly dominated by boarding tactics, given that effective use of naval ordnance fire had not yet developed (Warming 2014, forthcoming). The material, therefore, is a particularly instructive topic of investigation for the study of the development of naval warfare, offering an insight into the navy’s first steps towards extricating itself from the medieval bind of determining naval battles by boarding action. The focal shift towards naval heavy ordnance fire is an important stage in the history of warfare, for out of it emerged purely impersonal warfare (Warming 2014). The violence, now generated in a detached and distant way, was something new, having interesting psychological repercussions that are known to result in that the violence becomes more extreme (Shalit 1988: 77). Gribshunden, when coupled and contrasted to other wrecks – such as Mary Rose (1545), Elefanten (1564), Mars (1564), Vasa (1628) and Kronan (1676) – has the potential to reveal incredible insights concerning the overall trajectory of the development of warfare at sea, not least the underlying social institutions that both governed and were influenced by these technological advancements.
Much has already been gained from the few investigations that have been undertaken and many new details await to be discovered. The data collected during the last investigations is currently being processed and treated (Eriksson, Rönnby, Sjöblom forthcoming). With this new knowledge – it is to be hoped – it will be possible to return to the wreck site in the near future to undertake a larger fieldwork project, perhaps with the salvaging of the figurehead as one of its aims. Until then, the menacing Danish dog will remain there on the seabed, guarding its ship and grinning mockingly.
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Warming, R. 2014. Towards an Archaeology of Boarding: Naval Hand-to-Hand Combat Tactics in Northwestern Europe in the 16th Century. MA Dissertation. University of Southampton.
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Rolf Warming is the founder of Combat Archaeology. He holds an MA degree in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton and a BA degree in Prehistoric Archaeology from the University of Copenhagen. Currently, he is writing his dissertation for another MA degree, this time in Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. His studies have preeminently been on the subject of combat and conflict in the past, ranging from Mesolithic violence to organized state formation in the Renaissance. He is currently enrolled as an Officer Cadet in the Danish Royal Army.