The Ancient Sea Monster Discovered in The Hull of King’s Ship
During the summer solstice of 1495 AD, the royal flagship Gribshunden of the Danish King Hans, also known as King John of Denmark, sank when sailing from Copenhagen to Kalmar, Sweden, where it was to meet Sten Sture the Elder as part of Hans’s claim to the Swedish throne. The shipwreck was discovered by sport divers in the 1970s, but unaware of its significance they didn't alert archaeologists until 2000. The Gribshunden shipwreck, from the late medieval period, came to media attention when archaeologists salvaged a fabulously well-preserved wooden figurehead of a dragon-like monster from the stern and brought it to the surface, probably the only one left in the world from a 15 th century ship.
Then, in August 2020, archaeologists made another sensational discovery. Buried in silt in the ancient hull of the ship, archaeologists found a barrel containing the skeleton of an ancient sea monster measuring two meters (6.56 feet) long. Having applied DNA analysis to the sea monster’s remains, researchers at Lund University in Sweden announced that the remains came from an Atlantic sturgeon. It appears that King Hans was aiming to demonstrate both power and grandeur to Sten Sture by presenting the giant fish, but the Gribshunden caught fire and sank, taking with it the monster’s skeleton which has remained on the bed of the Baltic Sea for over five hundred years.
The Gribshunden shipwreck came to media attention when archaeologists salvaged a fabulously well-preserved wooden figurehead of a dragon-like monster from the stern and brought it to the surface. (Blekinge Museum)
The 120,000-Million-Year-Old Legacy About To Go Extinct
The Atlantic sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that has existed for more than 120 million years. Its long, hard, upturned snout, has four sensory barbels on the side of its mouth which is soft and toothless. Famed for its eggs, which are used for caviar, this bony ancient-looking fish has no scales but five rows of bony plates, called scutes, which protect its head and body. While males can weigh up to 90 pounds (41kg), females can weigh up to 160 pounds (72.5kg). Atlantic sturgeons can live for more than 60 years and while males do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 10 years old, females take nearly 20 years to mature.
The largest Atlantic sturgeon ever recorded was caught in America’s Chesapeake Bay, measuring over 4.2 meters (14 ft) long and weighing almost 370 kilos (811 lbs). The Atlantic sturgeon was an important fishing industry commodity from colonial times up until the early 20th century. However, in 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially declared the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species, defining it as “almost extinct.” Today it is illegal to fish for, catch or harvest Atlantic sturgeon or their eggs.
Skeletal remains of the ancient sturgeon were found in a barrel buried in silt in the hull of the shipwreck. (Lund University / Science Direct)
Ancient Sea Monster Preserved in the Pantry of a King’s Ship
Discovered fifty years ago, King Hans’s shipwreck was well preserved in the Baltic Sea’s high salt oxygen-free environment, and an absence of deteriorating shipworms has offered researchers data about how royal ships in late Middle Age Europe functioned. But it was the discovery last year of a wooden barrel in the royal pantry that uncovered the giant fish.
In a press release, Dr. Stella Macheridis, a researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University, said “it is a really thrilling discovery” and that it has been “very exciting” to work with the ancient sea monster. The professor also added that when the fish remains were first discovered, they instantly knew it was a sturgeon because of its bony plate armor.
Skeletal remains of the ancient sturgeon which measured two meters long. (Lund University / Science Direct)
A Monstrous Tool of Propaganda
While the scientists knew the fish was a sturgeon, it was incorrectly assumed to have been a European sturgeon, commonly found in the Baltic Sea at that time. However, DNA analysis revealed it was an Atlantic sturgeon, the species currently on the endangered list and nearing extinction. King Hans must have planned on seriously impressing the Swedes with the ancient sea monster!
Maria C. Hansson, the molecular biologist at Lund University who carried out the DNA analysis, said that for her the discovery is “of major significance” because it offered a glimpse of what the Baltic Sea looked like before we interfered with it. Thanks to the discovery we now know that the Atlantic sturgeon was a member of that ancient ecosystem. In order to reanimate the creature, the professor claimed that by using underwater DNA, it might be possible “to recreate what it looked like previously.”
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Sturgeon remains are rare archaeological finds. Thanks to this breakthrough discovery in an ancient royal environment, it is now known that the giant creature was a symbol of high status and power in the medieval period. Brendan P. Foley, marine archaeologist at Lund University, and project coordinator for the excavations, explained that the sturgeon located in the ships pantry was “a propaganda tool” that would have served a political function. As such it provided archaeologists with crucial information about medieval European politics, religion and economics.
Top image: Buried in silt in the hull of the Gribshunden shipwreck, archaeologists have now discovered a barrel containing the skeleton of what appears to be an ancient sea monster measuring two meters long. Source: Reuseableart
By Ashley Cowie