King’s 15th-Century ‘Floating Castle’ Shipwreck Reveals New ‘Thrilling Haul’

A 15th-century shipwreck discovered in the 1970s continues to reveal what was traveling with King John of Denmark and how the ruling class lived. The well-preserved Danish warship, a favorite of the king, contained exotic spices and numerous plant foods, according to a new study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One published in late January.

The Gribshunden, also known as the Griffon, was known as King John’s “floating castle” and has produced many new finds since its discovery off the southern coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. It is one of the best-preserved shipwrecks from the Age of Exploration, which lasted roughly from the 1400s to the 1600s. This study, the first on the archaeobotanical material from the site, sheds light on the luxuries “limited to the elites.”

“This is perhaps the most thrilling haul of spices from a shipwreck because of its age, quality of the plant remains—exotic, expensive spices—and the remarkable state of preservation,” Brendan Foley, a researcher at the Lund University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History and co-author of the study, told Newsweek. “Beyond shipwrecks, this is certainly among the most fabulous discoveries of spices in any archaeological context, on land or sea.”

The study, which is based on a 2021 excavation campaign of the site, split the finds from the wreck into five categories: cereals, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables, and spices and nuts. Beyond the five food categories, researchers also discovered henbane, which was used for medicinal purposes. Archeologists discovered all of the botanical remains in the sediment within a square meter unit near the ship’s stern, according to the study.

Among the many spices found are ginger, saffron, black pepper, clove, black mustard, and dill. Other finds, which the study explains could be eaten as snacks, used in baking, or in the main meal, include berries, grapes, flax, nuts, and cucumber. The fruits and vegetables were found as seeds. Berries, which are highly perishable when fresh, were preserved likely by drying, allowing them to be identified.

This new discovery shows that luxury foods for kings, queens, and other royals weren’t confined to land only. “The consumption of luxurious foods was a crucial aspect of King Hans’ and other monarchs’ presentation of themselves to their subjects,” the study states. It explains that many of these spices and foods, including saffron, ginger, and grapes, were not accessible to most people in that period due to cost and rarity.

King John, or King Hans in Danish, ruled both Denmark and Norway and was on his way to Sweden to convince them to rejoin the Scandinavian union, thereby becoming king of Sweden as well. On the way to the summit in Kalmar, Sweden, in the summer of 1495, the Gribshunden caught on fire after an explosion, sinking the vessel and all the luxury goods that were aboard. The ship was docked off of Great Oak Island, and while King John was not on board, several crew members perished.

One of the possible reasons for the many items that were aboard the ship was to “demonstrate to the Swedish delegation the authority and wealth of his crown,” by showing off artillery, warships, soldiers, and other weapons, in addition to “soft power signifiers: coinage, artwork, splendid livery, and delicacies for feasting,” according to the study.

Foley says the ship is “a well-preserved example of the enabling technologies that led to European domination of the planet after 1492.”

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