Weapon Chest With Tools for Making Ammunition Found in 500-Year-Old Shipwreck in Sweden

The mercenaries on board the “Griffin” lived during a time of great change in naval warfare

Lead Divers
Researchers Johan Rönnby and Rolf Warming examine the stern of the ship that sunk over 500 years ago off the coast of Sweden. Florian Huber / University of Stockholm

In the summer of 1495, a warship caught fire while traveling to the coastal city of Kalmar, Sweden. The vessel sank, taking the soldiers on board—about 100 German mercenaries—down with it.

Now, over 500 years later, researchers are learning more about the Griffin, Danish-Norwegian King Hans’ doomed flagship, through underwater investigations. Their latest discovery—a specialized weapon chest—provides new insights into the soldiers’ activities, according to a statement from Stockholm University.

The partially disintegrated wreckage of the Griffin, also known as the Griffin-Hound or Gribshunden, lies on the seafloor near the island of Stora Ekön in Sweden’s Blekinge archipelago. Recreational divers first discovered it in the 1970s, though it wasn’t reported to authorities until several decades later, per Arkeonews’ Leman Altuntaş.

Maritime archaeologists from Södertörn University have been studying the site since 2013. Last spring, they conducted a series of dives in partnership with researchers from Stockholm University. They published a report detailing their findings earlier this month.

Based on the artifacts on board, the Griffin is a “unique example of a royal ship from the end of the Middle Ages,” they write, per Google Translate.

Fragments of interwoven, riveted brass rings were once parts of chainmail shirts. Rolf Warming / University of Stockholm

The wreck has revealed numerous military artifacts, including cannon carriages, fragments of mail armor and a “unique weapon chest.” The team says the chainmail fragments once made up a protective battle shirt, which appears to have been damaged and repaired several times. Woven from small metal loops, this kind of mail shirt is known as a hauberk, and it may have been made from as many as 150,000 rings.

The team was particularly interested in the weapon chest, which held tools used to manufacture ammunition. While researchers first discovered the chest in 2019, the items inside had not been carefully documented until now.

“The contents of the weapon chest are undeniably one of the most important finds,” says Rolf Warming, a maritime archaeologist at Stockholm University, in the statement. “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.”

In this image, annotated by archaeologist Rolf Warming, dotted and solid lines indicate the chest's walls. It contained supplies and tools for creating ammunition, including lead plates (1) and molds (2, 3 and 6). Florian Huber / Rolf Warming / University of Stockholm

These soldiers lived during a time of great change in naval warfare. McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft writes that the weapon chest is “evidence of the larger shift” that took place during the late 1400s and 1500s.

“The ship is an important piece of the puzzle in the ‘military revolution at sea,’” says Warming in the statement. During this time, “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.”

Based on their maps of the wreck site, the researchers say that much of the Griffin’s superstructure is well-preserved, though many of the timbers are scattered on the nearby seabed. They also identified the remains of elevated combat platforms, which sailors stood on to aim and fire ammunition.

The recent underwater investigations are part of an ongoing effort to “reconstruct” the Griffin based on evidence found at the wreck site, according to the statement. The project is ongoing, and Warming hopes to learn more about “the ship's military capability and the role of the soldiers on board.”

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