The remarkable Gribshunden find: a 1495 shipwreck revolutionizing our understanding of a critical age of sail

A detail of the Gribshunden wreck, fig. 12 in the 2021 archaeologists’ report.

Smithsonian Magazine this month has a feature article on the most recent underwater archaeology performed on the Gribshunden (Greyhound), a heavily-armed flagship of King Hans of Denmark that caught fire, exploded, and sank on the coast of Sweden in 1495. Despite the spectacular exit from its nautical career, the Gribshunden is an extraordinary rarity as a survival from an age of European seafaring—this is the time of Columbus, Cabot, Da Gama, and so many more textbook figures—for which we have precious little physical evidence. The article does a good job of explaining the wreck’s significance. You can also download a 2021 report on the archaeological work to date. It may be in Swedish, but it’s chock full of imagery of photo site mapping and artifacts.

The Smithsonian story makes passing mention of a controversial claim to a pre-Columbian voyage to Newfoundland: “A 16th-century letter reveals that Hans’ father, Christian I, dispatched his own northern voyage of discovery, financed by the Portuguese, that may have followed a route past Greenland into the North Atlantic that we know the Vikings traveled centuries earlier when they temporarily settled in North America. Some historians read the evidence as showing that, 20 years before Columbus arrived in the Americas, Christian’s ship reached ‘cod country’: Newfoundland.” This is an unelaborated reference to the supposed voyage of Germany’s Didrik Pining and Hans Pothorst, in concert with Portugal’s Corte-Real brothers, under the flag of Christian I, in the early 1470s. The scholarly jury is still out on this voyage, but the record of early northern voyages to the New Found Land is fairly murky, as I explored in The Race to the New World. The British scholar Alwyn Ruddock asserted she had evidence of an English voyage around the same time, but died before publishing on it, as I discuss here and in The Race to the New World.

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