Archaeologists find an overlooked treasure of a 15th-century Norse king

A pair of marine archaeologists find "a treasure trove" aboard a sunken Norse ship after several previous expeditions failed to spot it.
Paul Ratner
Variety of plant species from the Gribshunden shipwreck.
Variety of plant species from the Gribshunden shipwreck.


Not all treasures recovered from sunken ships consist of gold and precious artifacts — a recent study identified thousands of spice specimens aboard a medieval Danish warship that somehow got overlooked for centuries. 

The study, published in PLOS ONE, comes from archaeologists Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley of Lund University in Sweden. They focused their attention on the remains of Gribshunden, a flagship belonging to the Danish King Hans, which sank off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea in 1495.

The ship was actually docked in anticipation of a meeting with the Swedish ruler at the time — Sten Sture, the Elder. Its accompanying squadron included the king, courtiers, noblemen, and soldiers from Copenhagen.

The purpose of the event was supposed to be a deal that would see King Hans elected King of Sweden by the Swedish Council. This would create a unified Nordic kingdom that also included Norway — but it was not meant to be.

The Gribshunden experienced an explosion, caught fire, and sank, taking with it warriors and expensive goods. As a result, King Hans had to forego diplomacy and resorted to attacking Sweden, eventually conquering the country.

Many expeditions

Instead of being a token of peace, the sunken ship became a treasure trove of artifacts that tell historians much about life in its time.

The ship’s wreck was discovered by divers in the 1960s and has been the subject of numerous dives. Apparently, despite this, it took a recent study that lasted from 2019 to 2021 to reveal one of the ship’s most unexpected riches — containers with 3,000 well-preserved plant specimens.

These included spices like nutmeg, mustard, dill, and cloves. There were also samples of saffron, ginger, peppercorns, and almonds, as well as snacks like dried raspberries, blackberries, flax, and grapes.

The uniqueness of some of the spices, which had to have come from far-off places like Indonesia, suggested to the marine archaeologists that King Hans’s trade network was fairly sophisticated. 

Archaeologists find an overlooked treasure of a 15th-century Norse king
Black pepper from the Gribshunden shipwreck.

Interesting Engineering connected with Mikael Larsson, the study’s co-author, for further insight into the find. 

The following exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: How were the spices overlooked on a ship that was studied since 1960? How did you discover them?

Mikael Larsson: The spices weren’t discovered because there has been very little archaeological excavation of the site: just a 1-meter by 1-meter test excavation in 2006, and then since 2019 when Lund University and Blekinge Museum took over the direction of the project, two excavation campaigns within the hulls (2019 and 2021). The 2021 excavation happened to be in the area where the spice cabinet was located.

IE: What allowed the spices to be well-preserved?

The physical oceanographic conditions of cold water, low salinity, and perhaps low dissolved oxygen in the sediments seem to have preserved the species.

Archaeologists find an overlooked treasure of a 15th-century Norse king
Location of the Gribshunden shipwreck.

Credit: Republished from Media Tryck, Lund University under a CC BY license, with permission from Frida Nilsson, original copyright 2022.

IE: What can we learn about King Hans and the habits of the people of his time from this discovery?

These spice finds certainly are proof of a nearly global network of trade and exchange, spanning not just the former Roman and Byzantine empires, but stretching, by the late 1400s, all the way to the northern edge of Europe. The spices also indicate that the Nordic region was not an isolated backwater to continental Europe, but a vibrant and connected group of emerging nation-states with regional style and consumption patterns that were as sophisticated and diverse as those on the continent.

Only the royal court would have had the wherewithal to procure the volume of spices we found on Gribshunden. However, the upper classes of society mirrored the cultural patterns established by the king. When they could afford it, and on special occasions, the merchants and members of some guilds would have purchased lesser volumes of spices to display and eat at festivals, weddings, and other important events.

A fascinating phenomenon is the Swedish tradition of eating saffron buns (lussekatt) around 13 December in celebration of St Lucia; this date is, of course, [near] the winter solstice, so the Christian saints day is layered onto the earlier pagan calendar. I am struck that the saffron we found shows that the Danish/Swedish love of this spice certainly extends back to King Hans; did the lussekatt tradition start with him, or are the historical roots even deeper?

Check out the study “The king’s spice cabinet–Plant remains from Gribshunden, a 15th-century royal shipwreck in the Baltic Sea” in PLOS ONE.

Study abstract

Maritime archaeological investigations of the wreck of the medieval warship Gribshunden (1495), flagship of King Hans of Denmark and Norway, have revealed diverse artifacts including exotic spices imported from far distant origins: saffron, ginger, clove, peppercorns, and almond. The special circumstances of the vessel’s last voyage add unique context to the assemblage. Gribshunden and an accompanying squadron conveyed the king, courtiers, noblemen, and soldiers from Copenhagen to a political summit in Kalmar, Sweden. At that conference, Hans expected the Swedish Council to elect him king of Sweden, and thereby fulfill his ambition to reunify the Nordic region under a single crown. To achieve this, Hans assembled in his fleet and particularly aboard his flagship the people and elite cultural signifiers that would convince the Swedish delegation to accept his rule. Along the way, the ships anchored near Ronneby, Blekinge. Written sources record that an explosion and fire caused Gribshunden to sink off Stora Ekön (Great Oak Island). Exotic spices were status markers among the aristocracy in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea during the Middle Ages (1050–1550 CE). Until the Gribshunden finds, these extravagances have rarely or never been represented archaeologically. Evidence of their use and consumption in medieval Scandinavia has been limited to sparse written references. We present here the botanical remains from the Gribshunden shipwreck and compare them to previous archaeobotanical finds from the medieval Baltic region. These opulent status symbols traveled with a medieval king en route to a major historical event. The combination of textual and archaeological evidence allows a novel analytical view of the social environment in which these luxurious foods were consumed.

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