Unique spices found on 500-year-old medieval shipwreck

Lund University

Marine archaeologists from Lund University in Sweden have found exotic spices such as black pepper, cloves, ginger and saffron on the royal warship Gribshunden, that belonged to the Danish King Hans. The shipwreck is located on the sea floor off the southern coast of Sweden. The findings provide a fascinating insight into the world of the medieval elite.

“It was a real surprise how well preserved the spices were. The saffron was still brilliant red-orange and has retained its aroma”, says archaeobotanist Mikael Larsson.

The saffron is entirely unique as it has never before been found in any archaeological context.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes when we found the saffron. We checked several times to be certain”, says Mikael Larsson. Another surprise was that when the 500-year-old lumps of saffron were dissolved in water, they still smelled of saffron, unlike, for example, the black peppercorns, that didn’t have any aroma left.

The spices were found when Lund University marine archaeologist Brendan Foley and his diving team excavated Gribshunden. Four sediment samples were collected for macrofossil analysis. Among the 40 different plant species that were identified, there were spices of both local and exotic origin, as well as fruits, vegetables, berries and nuts. The exotic spices were particularly unique as several of them had not previously been found in northern Europe.

“The number of different spices and the amount of each spice, as well as their age and how well preserved they are, make the finds absolutely exceptional and provide invaluable insight into the social and physical life of the medieval elite”, says Mikael Larsson.

The well-preserved spices can be attributed to the specific marine environment in the Baltic Sea, that with its low salinity and low temperature allows plant material such as seeds to be preserved. Some of the finds have both peel and some pulp left.

The spices were found in the stern of the ship where King Hans, his court and the senior officers stayed. This indicates that the items were for elite consumption.

Documents from the Middle Ages around the Baltic Sea area show that rare and precious spices were connected to society’s elite and were consumed, among other things, at feasts and festivals.

For King Hans, it was a way to show that he and his kingdom were part of international trade, as the spices came from different parts of the world – cloves from Indonesia and black pepper from a coastal strip in southern India. This tells us what the trade routes looked like, and that the Nordic countries were not a European backwater, but rather traded with other parts of the world. It also shows that the Nordic kingdoms followed the cultural trends that existed in court environments around the continent.

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