In the summer of 1495, King John I of Denmark set out on an important diplomatic mission aboard his flagship, GRIBSHUNDEN (English= “Griffin-Hound”), or the GRIFFIN, as she is also known. Joined by a fleet of other vessels, GRIBSHUNDEN was bound for Kalmar, Sweden, where King John was to meet with the Swedish council and regent of Sweden, Sten Sture the Elder. While anchored at the natural harbour by the island of Stora Ekön, located off the coast of Blekinge near the medieval town of Ronneby, which was Danish territory until 1658, the ship caught fire and was destroyed. Historical sources describe how she was lost along with many men as well as the king´s valuable possessions and a number of important diplomatic documents that had been brought along for the meeting. King John himself was not aboard the ship during the incident and subsequently continued on his journey with the rest of the fleet. The remains of GRIBSHUNDEN were discovered in the 1970s by the local sports diving club, “Doppingarna”, but the identification of the wreck was only made in the early 2000s through combined archaeological and historical investigations by Kalmar Läns Museum and historian Ingvar Sjöblom (Einarsson & Wallbom 2002: 6 ff; Sjöblom 2015:33 ff). GRIBSHUNDEN is judged to be one of the most significant wrecks in the world in virtue of her incredible level of preservation and research potential for a broad range of subjects, including naval warfare, shipbuilding, politics, etc. Read more about the significance of the wreck here.
Since 2002, a total of nine gun carriages/beds for breech-loading guns of relatively small calibers have been salvaged from the site (fig. 1; Einarsson & Wallbom 2002), these possibly being the world’s oldest recovered from a wreck. At least two other gun carriages are preserved in situ. Led shots of varying calibers (c. 30-40 mm) belonging to the guns have also been uncovered on the wreck site (fig. 2).
Although of similar construction, the dimensions of the carriages vary considerably, ranging from 162 to 280 cm in length. The carriages stem from anti-personnel guns of wrought iron which were intended as support for the infantry troops who constituted the main fighting force of the vessel (Warming 2015, 2019). All carriages have been made with a transverse hole for a miche (an iron stirrup) in their center which would allow the gun to be pivoted in various directions, revealing that they are intended as swivel guns (Einarsson & Wallbom 2002: 4; Eriksson 2015:24). Their general construction corresponds to that of other rare guns dating to around this period where the miche has been preserved, such as the swivel guns from Riddarholmskeppet found in Stockholm harbour and similar guns from Anholt, Denmark (Howard 1986: 446; Howard 1987: 50-51). The original gun positions on the ship are somewhat uncertain; however, with the invention of gun ports still being in its very infancy, shipborne guns were mostly confined to the upper works of warships during this period (Warming 2019:115). Since they are swivel guns, it can be assumed that they were positioned on the upper deck and castles of the ship. Some of the swivel guns were assumedly fixed to a robust railing on the side of the ship. A larger piece of perforated timber, which probably served such a purpose, has been observed in the center of the wreck. It is assumed that the timber was originally positioned in either port or starboard side of the open waist between the fore and aft castle (Eriksson 2015: 24).
One of the gun carriages, Blm 28314 3, stands out from the rest and may have had a unique placement on the ship (fig. 3). It is by far the shortest of the carriages (162 cm in length) and was made for a gun of a larger caliber, which, when considering its length, indicates that it was intended for shrapnel and grapeshot, rather than charges consisting of a singular led shot. For an effective dispersion of such shot against personnel on enemy decks, the gun would have been required to have been fired from an elevated position, such as relatively high up in the forecastle or in a fighting top (fig. 4). This observation is consistent with the fact that the gun carriage has the most visible damage from the fire aboard out of all the carriages discovered on the site, although the breech end appears to have been somehow sheltered from the fire, possibly by the fighting top construction. Considering the damage to the other gun carriages and their relative levels of preservation, the fire appears to have spread across most of the open waist but been less intensive in certain areas of the ship, such as towards the aft, especially on port side, where guns with relatively few traces of the fire have been uncovered (Blm 28314 9-11.). Further analyses of damage to the gun carriages may provide a clearer understanding of the fire and the original placement of the guns.
It is unknown how many guns GRIBSHUNDEN actually carried on this particular mission but these eleven carriages are hardly to be considered as representative of her total number of ordnance pieces. According to one Swedish source (Sturekrönikan), which describes the disastrous event of 1495, GRIBSHUNDEN was lost with 500 guns (serpentines); that, however, is judged to be an exaggeration intended to convey that the power balance had shifted in favour of Sten Sture (Sjöblom 2015: 42). Another, more realistic historical account is the description of a journey made to England in 1491 with GRIBSHUNDEN and SVANEN (English: The Swan), reporting that one of the two ships was armed with 68 guns (Barfod 1990: 81, 128). The account does not state which ship was armed with said guns but the number seems more representative of what one could reasonably expect of a warship the size of GRIBSHUNDEN (Sjöblom 2015: 42). Although on a diplomatic mission, the warship, along with its crew and armaments, were intended as an impressive show of might. As such, GRIBSHUNDEN can be assumed to have been fully armed on this expedition – but where are the actual guns?
Many guns have presumedly been salvaged as the wreck has remained relatively accessible since the time of her sinking. When she sank, she landed relatively intact in a more-or-less upright position at a maximum depth of 9 m, meaning that her upper decks and castles were positioned several meters off the seabed. Parts of the wreck may have been visible from the surface or even above it. Positioned at such shallow depths, GRIBSHUNDEN’s guns, among other things, would have been easily accessible to salvage operations. Such salvage operations, moreover, would have benefitted from the sheltered waters of the natural harbour as well as the close proximity of island of Stora Ekön which would have been useful as a base. Recent excavations on the wreck site indicate that the deck may have been broken up in conjunction with salvaging, leading to archaeological contexts with greatly varied assortments of artefacts (Gribshunden, marinarkeologisk undersökning 2019. Forthcoming). Salvaging is likely to have continued on the site following the time of her loss. In this regard, it is worth noting that ceramics stemming from previous investigations of the wreck site have recently been determined to be of a later historical date (Brorsson 2020; Gribshunden, marinarkeologisk undersökning 2019. Forthcoming) and could be interpreted as stemming from later salvage operations.
The eleven empty gun carriages which have been found on the wreck site can be interpreted as guns that were relatively inaccessible or given a lower priority during early salvage operations. As they are all swivel guns, it is possible that their fastening systems presented certain challenges to the salvagers and consequently left in place while other guns – especially those of larger calibers – were prioritized and successfully salvaged.
Where are the guns belonging to these now empty carriages which were seemingly left behind on the wreck? Some carriages show traces of iron corrosion and crusts stemming from the wrought iron guns for which they are made. One of the carriages, Blm 28314 3, was also found with a large quantity of iron corrosion (Einarsson & Wallbom 2002: appendix 2), which could be interpreted as fragments of the gun or possibly shrapnel, considering the caliber of the gun. There is thus direct evidence that the guns were left in their carriages at the time of her sinking and that they have corroded away underwater along with metallic fittings and other components of the gun, such as their charges.
Other carriages show surprisingly little or no traces of corrosion, such as Blm 28314 7 (fig 5). This may be due to preservation conditions but other possibilities remain to be considered. While it would be far too tedious to disassemble the guns underwater, it is possible that some guns (and associated metal components) were extracted from the carriages when salvaged and the carriages subsequently re-deposited onto the site. Interestingly, Blm 28314 7 was found further away from the wreck than the other guns and may represent such a case; however, it may also simply have fallen off the ship at the time of her sinking or been moved in some other manner which could have influenced preservation conditions (for a site formation process study, see Björk 2016). The absence of other carriages for guns of a larger caliber may be taken as an indication that guns were salvaged and removed from the site together with their carriages. Future analyses focusing on tool marks, potential damage from removal and traces of corrosion on the gun carriages combined with a study of the site plan may offer further insights into early salvage operations and the original placement of the guns.
Apart from the gun carriages and led shots, there has thus far been little trace of the actual guns. It is to be assumed that the breech-loading guns and their associated chambers have corroded away or, with some luck, are preserved to some degree deeper down in the sediment.
One interesting artefact in this regard is artefact number A60 (fig. 6), which was discovered during the 2019 underwater excavations of the wreck site (led by MARIS/Södertörn University, Lund University and Blekinge Museum). The artefact in question consists of several pieces of partially smelted iron, tentatively identified as cast iron. Following a close-up personal examination after the objects had been conserved, a number of observations were made which indicate that at least one of the fragments belong to a powder chamber from a breech-loading gun (watch one such gun loaded and fired at the end of this article). Having been exposed to extreme temperatures, the fragments apparently stem from the upper works of the ship where she had caught fire, thus being in accordance with our knowledge of the original placement of the guns. The tentative identification of the cast iron is also suggestive in that chambers belonging to such wrought iron guns could consist of either wrought iron or cast iron (Mortensen 1999: 200).
More detailed observations can be derived from the largest of the surviving pieces, which, although fragmented and deformed, is judged to be in accordance with a gun chamber in terms of both size and shape. The external diameter measures c. 64 mm (Christoffer Sandahl, pers. com. 30.8.2020). It has certainly lost much of its thickness due to corrosion but could potentially match the estimated diameter of the barrels of some of the guns belonging to the salvaged carriages (e.g. Blm 28314 12). The internal diameter of the artefact measures c. 55 mm. This measurement may have been smaller towards the opposite end where it would have been fitted and sealed into the barrel (into which the shot would have been loaded from the breech). As such, the internal diameter does not need to correspond precisely with the caliber of the gun to which it belongs but provides a rough idea of its size. Nonetheless, the measurement fits well with the diameter of the largest led shot discovered on the wreck site (c. 40 mm) and is in accordance with known calibers of other contemporary guns of the same type, such as guns 4 and 5 from Anholt (Howard 1986: 451; Mortensen 1999: 522-523).
With regards to the shape of the fragment, the bottom seems to have been made relatively thick, a common feature on gun chambers intended to minimize the potential risk of it rupturing when fired (Mortensen 1999: 38). The shape of the artefact’s cross-section is challenging to discern due to the poor level of preservation. The cross-section is most likely of a hexagonal (or perhaps octagonal) shape but the object may also have been cast as a rounded chamber, given that the sides could have been shaped in connection with the fire aboard or later corrosion in the water. Looking at parallel artefacts in museum collections, there is unfortunately no uniformity with regards to the shape of surviving examples of powder chambers of such guns as those discussed in this text. The majority of surviving chambers are more-or-less rounded, although there are also examples of chambers with more polygonal cross-sections, such as that of gun nr. 2 from Anholt which is equipped with an octagonal chamber (Howard 1986: 445).
Overall, despite some ambiguity resulting from the level of preservation, the metal and general shape and dimensions of the artefact is strongly suggestive of this being a chamber for a breechloader. A large number of chambers can be expected to have been present on the ship when she sank. Historical sources from the early 16th century indicate that it was standard practice for each gun to be accompanied by two to three chambers when bought or distributed from arsenals (Mortensen 1999: 200). The use of several chambers entailed that the guns could be re-loaded quickly and provide a rapid firing rate. Finally, while this interpretation appears plausible, it should be noted that other possibilities should not be discounted without further analyses of the artefact, such as it potentially being fragments stemming from a handgun or hand cannon.
Regardless of such interpretations, the presence of the fragments is a good indication that artefacts of similar nature – including more armaments – may be preserved further down in the sediment. The GRIBSHUNDEN wreck site thus remains full of research potential and can, among other things, make significant contributions to our current body of knowledge of artillery and naval warfare in the Late Middle Ages.
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Warming, R. 2015. Gribshunden: Significance and Preliminary Investigations. Society for Combat Archaeology. Available at: http://combatarchaeology.org/gribshunden-significance-and-preliminary-investigations/ (accessed 05.10.2020).
Warming. R. 2019. An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Technologies from c. 1210 BCE to 1600 CE. In: Rönnby, Johan (ed.), On War On Board: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Early Modern Maritime Violence and Warfare. Stockholm: Södertörn Högskola. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/41911906/An_Introduction_to_Hand-to-Hand_Combat_at_Sea_General_Characteristics_and_Shipborne_Technologies_from_c._1210_BCE_to_1600_CE (accessed 05.10.2020).
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Rolf is the founder of the Society for Combat Archaeology (SoCA). He holds an MA degree in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton and another MA degree in Prehistoric Archaeology from 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 has achieved the rank of sergeant in the Royal Danish Army. In addition to this, Rolf is the chief instructor of Weapons Combat Systems, a weaponry-based martial art which he teaches on both a national and international level through classes, seminars, etc.