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The figurehead of the Gribshunden resembles a monster or dog.

Beast from the Deep: Rare wooden figurehead salvaged from historic Danish shipwreck

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A wooden figurehead depicting a doglike figure or monster from a historic 15 th century Danish ship has been pulled from Swedish waters. This is one of the oldest known preserved wooden carvings of its kind in the world. Wood disintegrates relatively quickly unless it is preserved by submersion.

The ship the figurehead is believed to have come from was the warship Gribshunden, which was possibly a flagship built under King Hans of Denmark, who ruled from 1481 to 1513. The ship, which had been carrying Hans (or King John) to Sweden on a 1495 diplomatic mission, is believed to have burned before arrival. Hans, who watched the ship burn from a nearby boat, called off the mission. In later years war ensued between Denmark and Sweden, which wanted independence from the Kalmar Union that united Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Historians wonder if the diplomatic mission had succeeded whether war could have been avoided later.

Charcoal has been found at the site of the shipwreck, lending further credence to the belief that this wreck is in fact the Gribshunden. The shipwreck, which lies in waters off the south coast of Sweden, is considered vitally important in the history of naval warfare.

Lead shot found amidships of the Gribshunden wreck; these may be among the first artillery lead shot meant for use in naval warfare.

Lead shot found amidships of the Gribshunden wreck; these may be among the first artillery lead shot meant for use in naval warfare. (Photo by Johan Ronnby)

The Swedish waters where divers are now working to salvage the Gribshunden were considered Danish waters in the 15 th century. The shipwreck, which was discovered by sport divers in the 1970s, has deep historical significance, according to the blog Combat Archaeology .

“As can be gained from the above, Gribshunden is an extraordinarily unique find. Future studies of the site will doubtlessly make significant contributions to knowledge of Late Medieval life, especially in relation to seafaring and naval warfare,” the blog states.

This YouTube videos shows Professor Jon Adams working underwater at the Gribshunden site.

The ship was 35 meters (114 feet) from bow to stern and had a beam of at least 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) and had forecastle and aftcastle. It was an early type of ship constructed using the carvel method in which planks of the hull were laid flush and edge to edge instead of overlapping in the clinker type construction. In addition to the figurehead, divers have found three lead shot of 5 cm (about 2 inches) in diameter and carriages on the hull for wrought iron guns. Crossbow bolts also have been found at the shipwreck in previous years.

The significance of the military hardware is that this ship is right at or near the beginning of a new type of warfare—blasting away with artillery from a distance instead of boarding and doing hand-to-hand combat, which had been done from ancient times.

Gun carriages from the Gribshunden in Blekinge Museum

Gun carriages from the Gribshunden in Blekinge Museum (Photo by Mattias Mattison)

“The material, therefore, is a particularly instructive topic of investigation for the study of the development of naval warfare, offering an insight into the navy’s first steps towards extricating itself from the medieval bind of determining naval battles by boarding action,” says Combat Archaeology.

“The focal shift towards naval heavy ordnance fire is an important stage in the history of warfare, for out of it emerged purely impersonal warfare. The violence, now generated in a detached and distant way, was something new, having interesting psychological repercussions that are known to result in that the violence becomes more extreme. Gribshunden, when coupled and contrasted to other wrecks – such as Mary Rose (1545), Elefanten (1564), Mars (1564), Vasa (1628) and Kronan (1676) – has the potential to reveal incredible insights concerning the overall trajectory of the development of warfare at sea, not least the underlying social institutions that both governed and were influenced by these technological advancements.”

Marcus Sandekejer of Blekinge museum, where the figurehead will be displayed later in August 2015, told TheLocal.dk : "This figurehead is probably the only one left from a 15th century ship in the world. Five hundred twenty years under water and in such a great condition!"

The wooden figurehead is in a bath of sugar water to remove salt, which could corrode it now that it has been salvaged.

"After that, we will look at other ways of keeping it well maintained for the longer term,” he said. “We have been working with top archaeologists who have worked with other big preservations such as the Kronan ship in Kalmar.”

Featured image: The figurehead of the Gribshunden resembles a monster or dog. ( Blekinge Museum photo )

By Mark Miller

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