New insights into combat platforms of warships and a unique weapon chest from the Late Middle Ages. These are some new results from studies of the Danish flagship Gribshunden/Griffin, which sank in the Blekinge archipelago in 1495.

Last spring, maritime archaeologists from Stockholm University and Södertörn University dived on Danish-Norwegian King Hans’ flagship Griffin (also known as the Griffin-Hound or Gribshunden) at Stora Ekön in the Blekinge archipelago. The flagship sank along with about a hundred German mercenaries after a fire on board during a voyage to Kalmar in 1495. Although the wreck is partly disintegrated, the timbers on the seabed is very well preserved. There are also timbers that are believed to have belonged to the ship’s superstructure, including parts from the fore and aft castles, which served as elevated combat platforms on the ship.

Study of warships

Underwater investigations have been carried out on the wreck by Södertörn University since 2013. Last year’s fieldwork, which was conducted in collaboration with Södertörn University, focused on Rolf Warming’s ongoing dissertation project at the Centre for Maritime Studies (CEMAS) and Stockholm University. In his study, “Soldiers at Sea”, he investigates weaponry technology linked to the soldiers aboard and the superstructure of warships during the period 1450–1650.

New report based on last year’s dives

A report by Rolf Warming and Johan Rönnby, Professor of Maritime Archaeology at MARIS/Södertörn University, about the findings of last year’s fieldwork has now been published. The survey has provided new data for the ongoing work of reconstructing and analysing the ship’s superstructure. The results thus complement the current ship construction knowledge of the wreck and the overall ambition to reconstruct the ship. Furthermore, the results provide a more detailed insight into the soldiers’ armament and presence on board. New insights have also been gained concerning how the wreck site has been affected and changed over the years.

After mapping the timber at the wreck site, the researchers can conclude that a large amount of the superstructure has been preserved, even though the different timbers are disarticulated and scattered on the seabed. These timbers come from the fore and aft castles of the ship – the ship’s elevated combat platforms. The timbers can provide researchers with important insights into what the superstructure looked like and thus the warship’s military capability.

Unique weapon chest from German mercenaries

The researchers have also identified and documented two cannon carriages and a unique weapon chest.

“The contents of the weapon chest are undeniably one of the most important finds. The chest has been known since the fieldwork in 2019 but now we have documented the contents carefully with 3D. It contains, among other things, several different molds and lead plates for the manufacture of lead bullets for early handguns. It’s an ammunition tool chest – probably belonging to the German mercenaries who were on board at the time of the sinking,” says Rolf Warming.

Mail armour with 150,000 rings

Mail armour fragments have been found at the wreck site during previous investigations. These fragments probably come from one or more mail shirts. The analysis, which was carried out together with Professor Kerstin Lidén at the Archaeological Research Laboratory ( Stockholm University), shows that the mail contained several different wires and was weaved together with a variety of techniques. This indicates that it has been repaired on several occasions. Based on the dimensions of the preserved rings, such mail shirts (known as hauberks) may have contained up to 150,000 rings.

The work to reconstruct the Griffin/Griffin-Hound has been ongoing since 2013. Right now, efforts are focused on the superstructure. In his doctoral thesis, Rolf Warming is also working on clarifying the ship’s military capability and the role of the soldiers on board.

“The ship is an important piece of the puzzle in the ‘military revolution at sea’ in the Early Modern Period, in which the primary tactics shifted from hand-to-hand combat to  heavy naval artillery fire. The ship will therefore also be compared with other important and uniquely preserved wrecks – such as Mars (1564) and Vasa (1628) – in order to understand this development ” says Rolf Warming.

Underwater cameras and 3D technology

Documentation is carried out using underwater cameras and photogrammetric 3D technology. This is done in collaboration with an international team of specialists from the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth), the University of Southampton and the University of Connecticut who are involved in the project. The fieldwork operation was carried out with support from the Voice of the Ocean Foundation and CEMAS.

Read the report Gripen/Gripbshund  (1495) Maritime Archaeological Documentation of a Late Medieval Carvel Ship, which is included in Södertörn Archaeological Reports and Studies and Stockholm Studies in Archaeology.

Read about the Centre for Maritime Studies (CEMAS), a collaboration between Stockholm University and the National Maritime and Transport Museums.

The fieldwork was accompanied by a German film crew, who included the wreck in the Terra X documentary, “Treasures unter wasser” for Spiegel TV, presented by maritime archaeologist Dr. Florian Huber and directed by Nanje Teuscher. The documentary (in German) is freely available here.