Medieval Pantry Stocked With Spices Found in 500-Year-Old Shipwreck

The vessel, called “Gribshunden,” sank off the coast of Sweden in 1495

Pile of saffron with wooden spoon
Archaeologists found saffron, as well as peppercorns, almonds, raspberries and other foods. Marco Verch Professional Photographer via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In the summer of 1495, King Hans of Denmark and Norway anchored his warship off the southern coast of Sweden. While Hans was on land, his vessel—known as Gribshunden or Griffen—mysteriously caught fire and sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Hans was on his way to Kalmar, where he hoped to be elected king of Sweden and reunite the broader Nordic region under a single ruler. As such, Hans brought many opulent status symbols, including luxurious foods and spices, to help persuade the Swedish leadership to agree to his plan.

Remarkably, many of those foods and spices have survived underwater for the last five centuries, archaeologists revealed last month in the journal PLOS One. During a recent excavation, they found 40 different types of fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, cereals and other plants.

Graphic showing bits of saffron
The saffron recovered from the Gribshunden shipwreck site Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley / PLOS One

The discovery of a “substantially complete royal medieval pantry” offers new insights into how nobility in the Baltic region lived and what they ate, study co-authors Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley, archaeologists at Lund University in Sweden, write in the paper.

“The Nordic region was not an isolated backwater to continental Europe,” Foley tells McClatchy News’ Brendan Rascius, “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.” 

The researchers found spices from far-flung locales, including ginger, clove, peppercorns, dill, mustard and caraway, as well as the remains of fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, grapes, raspberries and blackberries. They also found almonds and hazelnuts.

Peppercorns against a black background
Various plant parts of black pepper, including peppercorns, found in Gribshunden Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley / PLOS One

Notably, they unearthed more than 13 ounces (400 milliliters) of saffron, an amount of the rare spice that would have been—and still is—quite expensive, Foley tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

The finds are rare, because plant remains don’t typically survive in such good condition for so many years. The Baltic Sea, however, is very cold and has low salinity, which helps preserve archaeological materials.

“Many plant remains feature fruit flesh and skin, still colored, and the saffron retains its distinctive aroma after 527 years submerged,” write the co-authors in the paper.

Divers first discovered the remains of Gribshunden in the 1960s and ’70s, but researchers only started wondering whether it was a medieval wreck in the early 2000s. In 2019, archaeologists launched a new research initiative, hoping to uncover even more of the vessel’s secrets.

Built in 1485, Gribshunden was a large, sophisticated vessel that served as Hans’ mobile office while he was traveling. The ship, which carried 11 iron cannons and could accommodate up to 150 people, combined northern European and Mediterranean shipbuilding styles, per Newsweek.

Very old almonds against a black background
Almonds recovered from the ship Mikael Larsson and Brendan Foley / PLOS One

“Hans used this artillery-carrying warship to stitch together his widespread kingdom,” Foley tells Newsweek. “It was quite literally his floating castle. Not just a warship, Gribshunden was an instrument of economic power, a social and cultural center, and also the focus of administrative and political functions of government.”

Though the Gribshunden accident delayed his progress, Hans did eventually achieve his goal. In 1497, Hans was crowned king of Sweden after forcing the Swedish ruler Sten Sture, the Elder to resign.

His rule over Sweden was short-lived, however. In 1501, Swedish nobles reinstated Sten Sture as the nation’s leader. Hans, for his part, ruled Denmark and Norway until his death in 1513.

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