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The king's spice cabinet-Plant remains from Gribshunden, a 15th century royal shipwreck in the Baltic Sea



Maritime archaeological investigations of the wreck of the medieval warship Gribshunden (1495), flagship of King Hans of Denmark and Norway, have revealed diverse artifacts including exotic spices imported from far distant origins: saffron, ginger, clove, peppercorns, and almond. The special circumstances of the vessel's last voyage add unique context to the assemblage. Gribshunden and an accompanying squadron conveyed the king, courtiers, noblemen, and soldiers from Copenhagen to a political summit in Kalmar, Sweden. At that conference, Hans expected the Swedish Council to elect him king of Sweden, and thereby fulfill his ambition to reunify the Nordic region under a single crown. To achieve this, Hans assembled in his fleet and particularly aboard his flagship the people and elite cultural signifiers that would convince the Swedish delegation to accept his rule. Along the way, the ships anchored near Ronneby, Blekinge. Written sources record that an explosion and fire caused Gribshunden to sink off Stora Ekön (Great Oak Island). Exotic spices were status markers among the aristocracy in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea during the Middle Ages (1050-1550 CE). Until the Gribshunden finds, these extravagances have rarely or never been represented archaeologically. Evidence of their use and consumption in medieval Scandinavia has been limited to sparse written references. We present here the botanical remains from the Gribshunden shipwreck and compare them to previous archaeobotanical finds from the medieval Baltic region. These opulent status symbols traveled with a medieval king en route to a major historical event. The combination of textual and archaeological evidence allows a novel analytical view of the social environment in which these luxurious foods were consumed.
The king’s spice cabinet–Plant remains from
Gribshunden, a 15
century royal shipwreck in
the Baltic Sea
Mikael LarssonID
*, Brendan FoleyID
1Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, 2Blekinge County
Museum, Karlskrona, Sweden
Maritime archaeological investigations of the wreck of the medieval warship Gribshunden
(1495), flagship of King Hans of Denmark and Norway, have revealed diverse artifacts
including exotic spices imported from far distant origins: saffron, ginger, clove, peppercorns,
and almond. The special circumstances of the vessel’s last voyage add unique context to
the assemblage. Gribshunden and an accompanying squadron conveyed the king, cour-
tiers, noblemen, and soldiers from Copenhagen to a political summit in Kalmar, Sweden. At
that conference, Hans expected the Swedish Council to elect him king of Sweden, and
thereby fulfill his ambition to reunify the Nordic region under a single crown. To achieve this,
Hans assembled in his fleet and particularly aboard his flagship the people and elite cultural
signifiers that would convince the Swedish delegation to accept his rule. Along the way, the
ships anchored near Ronneby, Blekinge. Written sources record that an explosion and fire
caused Gribshunden to sink off Stora Eko
¨n (Great Oak Island). Exotic spices were status
markers among the aristocracy in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea during the Middle
Ages (1050–1550 CE). Until the Gribshunden finds, these extravagances have rarely or
never been represented archaeologically. Evidence of their use and consumption in medie-
val Scandinavia has been limited to sparse written references. We present here the botani-
cal remains from the Gribshunden shipwreck and compare them to previous
archaeobotanical finds from the medieval Baltic region. These opulent status symbols trav-
eled with a medieval king en route to a major historical event. The combination of textual
and archaeological evidence allows a novel analytical view of the social environment in
which these luxurious foods were consumed.
On the southern coast of Sweden, among the islands of the Blekinge archipelago, sits the wreck
of a late medieval royal warship variously known as Gribshunden or Griffen (Fig 1). Built in
1485, probably in the Low Countries [1], the vessel was a “floating castle” that served as the
flagship and mobile seat of government for King Hans of Denmark and Norway. Just before
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 1 / 31
Citation: Larsson M, Foley B (2023) The king’s
spice cabinet–Plant remains from Gribshunden, a
century royal shipwreck in the Baltic Sea.
PLoS ONE 18(1): e0281010.
Editor: John P. Hart, New York State Museum,
Received: October 20, 2022
Accepted: January 12, 2023
Published: January 26, 2023
Peer Review History: PLOS recognizes the
benefits of transparency in the peer review
process; therefore, we enable the publication of
all of the content of peer review and author
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Copyright: ©2023 Larsson, Foley. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
within the paper and its Supporting Information
Funding: This research was supported by funds
awarded to Brendan Foley from Crafood
midsommar, at the end of June 1495, the ship anchored off Stora Eko¨n (Great Oak Island) [2].
Hans disembarked, presumably with a noble retinue to meet officials in the nearby town of
Ronneby. While he was ashore, a fire and explosion claimed the ship. The hull settled onto a
soft sea floor in about 11 meters of water. Some salvage undoubtedly occurred immediately, as
the masts and rigging and perhaps even superstructure stood above the sea surface. Eventually,
the upper works collapsed and fine-grained sediments infilled the hull, preserving the archaeo-
logical deposit.
The circumstances of the ship’s final voyage are noteworthy. Gribshunden sank while Hans
sailed with it and a fleet to a political summit in Kalmar, Sweden to meet with the Swedish
regent and noble council. At the culmination of the five-week negotiation, Hans expected the
Swedish Council to elect him as their king, thereby fulfilling his ambition to re-unite the Nor-
dic region under a single monarch. To achieve this result, Hans would demonstrate to the
Swedish delegation the authority and wealth of his crown. He carried with him all manner of
power displays: his warships, shipboard artillery, a battalion of professional soldiers, and small
arms including crossbows and gunpowder weapons. Buttressing these hard power elements
were soft power signifiers: coinage, artwork, splendid livery, and delicacies for feasting.
Archaeological investigations of the site have produced material evidence of all of these facets
of Hans’ strategy [37].
This study presents macrofossil botanical finds from the 2021 excavation campaign, which
revealed a diverse assemblage of plant materials, including exotic flavorings with no Nordic-
region archaeological precedent: saffron, cloves, and ginger. The same context produced pep-
percorns, mustard, caraway, dill, raspberry and blackberry, cucumber, grape, almonds, and
hazelnuts. Preservation of these organic remains is due to the Baltic Sea’s exceptional environ-
mental conditions. The Baltic is well-known for preserving archaeological material, particu-
larly wooden shipwrecks. At the Gribshunden wreck site, this is due to low salinity of about 7.7
Practical Salinity Units, combined with low temperatures averaging 9 degrees Celsius (seasonal
range 2–19˚ C) [5,6]. These factors prevent the propagation of the wood-eating Teredo navalis
shipworm [8,9]. The wooden s lhipwreck structure on the sea floor creates a microenviron-
ment by capturing drifting marine algae, with seasonal deposits of algae reaching depths of 40
cm in and around the wreck. As the algae decays, localized areas of oxygen depletion occur,
characterized by the presence of white mats of organic matter. These factors contribute to
excellent preservation of archaeological remains, particularly plant foods carried aboard the
ship: cereals, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, and berries. All have been recovered from
this site and identified through archaeobotanical research.
This is the first report on archaeobotanical material from the wreck site. We present all eco-
nomic plant species found on this late medieval ship and archaeobotanical references for each
taxon are summarized. The geographical frame of this investigation is centered on Scandinavia
and the Baltic Sea area: we refer to this as the “Baltic region”. The temporal focus is the Middle
Ages. In Scandinavian historical archaeology, this is typically divided into the Early Medieval
period (1050–1300 CE) and the Late Medieval period (1300–1550 CE).
The plant remains from the wreck site are important for two reasons. First, the diversity of
edible plants includes exotic species rarely or never found in medieval archaeological contexts,
and most specimens from the wreck exhibit an excellent degree of preservation condition. The
use of some of these spices in northern Europe is known only from medieval written sources.
The Gribshunden collection of spices represents the earliest archaeological examples for several
of these luxury goods in the Baltic region, and in Northern Europe [1013]. Second, the
archaeological context of the plant remains is the sterncastle of the royal flagship. Here the
archaeobotanical assemblage is found in an area accessible to certain sailors, such as the helms-
men, but hypothesized to have housed only senior officers and royal/noble passengers. This
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 2 / 31
Foundation, Sweden [grant numbers 20190008
and 20200003], the Swordspoint Foundation, USA
[no grant number], and the Huckleberry
Foundation, USA [no grant number], and by funds
awarded to Mikael Larsson from the Swedish
Research Council [grant number 2019-02547],
supplemented by internal funding from Blekinge
Museum and the Department of Archaeology and
Ancient History, Lund University. Brendan Foley
received salary from the Swordspoint Foundation,
USA [no grant number], the Huckleberry
Foundation, USA [no grant number], Blekinge
Museum and the Department of Archaeology and
Ancient History, Lund University. Mikael Larsson
received salary from the Swedish Research Council
[grant number 2019-02547]. The funders had no
role in study design, data collection and analysis,
decision to publish, or preparation of the
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
Fig 1. Location of the Gribshunden shipwreck. Map depicting the wreck site in southeastern Sweden (red quadrant), and showing the main
medieval towns along the Baltic coasts with archaeobotanical data discussed in this paper. Area of detail show wreck site located north of Stora
Eko¨n island. Republished from Media Tryck, Lund University under a CC BY license, with permission from Frida Nilsson, original copyright
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 3 / 31
presents an opportunity to learn more about the social environments in which luxury goods
were consumed in late medieval northern Europe. Artifacts recovered from the loci immedi-
ately surrounding the spices represent possessions of the king and noblemen. Finds include a
purse of silver coins, armor, weapons, a cask containing a butchered sturgeon, and a wooden
tankard incised with a crown symbol [3,14]. The newly-discovered stores of exotic foods and
spices attest to other extravagances.
The Gribshunden assemblage of provisions and exotic spices is the only known archaeolog-
ical example of a substantially complete royal medieval pantry. The archaeobotanical data and
the context of the botanical finds provide an unparalleled insight into the workings of the late
medieval Nordic royal court. We glimpse the cultural and social signifiers of the elite: how the
monarch and nobility behaved, what they ate, how their food was prepared. This allows discus-
sion of medieval elite consumption and the social differentiation of foodways.
Previous marine archaeobotanical work has identified plant remains from a few shipwrecks
in Northern Europe, notably the 1545 wreck of Henry the VIII’s warship Mary Rose and the
century Copper Wreck near Gdansk [1517]. These studies contribute information about
trade and commodity consumption, victualling at sea, and life on board ship. The botanical
finds from these wrecks are compared and discussed in relation to the new finds from Grib-
shunden. These recent botanical discoveries are of some relevance to the experience of the
medieval maritime world, but more generally provide insights to the use of luxury foods in the
highest echelons of medieval society in the Baltic region.
Archaeological background
The wreck at Stora Eko¨n was re-discovered by sport scuba divers in the 1960-70s. Around
2000 a diver recognized the possibility that it was a medieval shipwreck, based on the distinc-
tive oak gun carriages that once held wrought iron artillery. The Blekinge County Administra-
tive Board then engaged a maritime archaeological reconnaissance of the wreck. This showed
the main wreck site is approximately 30 m long and 10 m wide, with coherent structure under-
lying a mass of disarticulated and semi-articulated timbers. Between 2000 and 2012 archaeolo-
gists recovered nine oak gun carriages, collected thirteen dendrochronological samples from
various structural elements, performed a limited test excavation along the centerline at the
stern of the ship, and conducted an acoustic survey over the site. Concurrent with these
archaeological activities, a naval historian identified the wreck as Gribshunden [1821].
After a multi-year hiatus, a new research initiative was launched in 2019 and a second lim-
ited excavation trench was opened. This straddled the starboard side of the hull slightly aft of
amidships, revealing hull structure and producing 60 artifacts and samples [22]. Activities in
2020 and 2021 consisted of a metal detection survey, recovery of wooden cask components for
dendrochronology and analytical chemistry, and a third excavation adjacent to the 2019 trench
Materials and methods
Maritime archaeological excavation and sampling
Archaeological investigation in and around the locus of the archaeobotanical remains dis-
cussed here took place over two excavation campaigns (Fig 2). In 2019, a trench measuring 2 x
6 x 1.5 m was excavated forward of the archaeobotanical sampling locus. No archaeobotanical
investigation was conducted during that excavation. In 2021, a trench measuring 2 x 3 x 1.2 m
was placed aft and inboard of the 2019 trench, separated from it by about 1.3 m. Diving archae-
ologists employed standard excavation tools and methods, including a venturi water dredge
for removal of suspended sediments. After each excavation rotation, a mesh catchment bag
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 4 / 31
attached to the water dredge discharge was recovered and sifted on the deck of the surface sup-
port platform. The material captured in the catchment bag from a locus in the western corner
of the trench included almond shell and peppercorns. Subsequent excavation in that locus
delivered more almonds and peppercorns, and revealed deposits of saffron directly underneath
and adjacent to a deck beam, in a stratum 5–10 cm below the sediment surface. Archaeological
divers collected the saffron deposits by hand, and observed several additional discrete concen-
trations of archaeobotanical remains in the trench balk. They collected sediment block samples
from this locus for archaeobotanical analysis, placing them in plastic containers. The saffron
was recovered in a water-filled plastic sample bag. These samples were stored initially at Ble-
kinge Museum and later shifted to the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund
University. At the conclusion of the excavation campaign, the trench balk at the spice locus
was reinforced with casks staves that originated from a position directly adjacent to the spices,
with the intention of continuing excavation and sample recovery in that locus in future inter-
ventions [6].
All necessary permits were obtained for the described study, which complied with all rele-
vant regulations. The 2021 maritime excavation campaign was conducted under permit 431-
1299-2021 (permit holder: Blekinge Museum; project archaeological director Brendan Foley)
authorized by Länsstyrelsen i Blekinge, Sweden (Blekinge County Administrative Board). The
collected and studied botanical specimens are curated at the Department of Archaeology and
Fig 2. Three-dimensional model of the wreck site. The model produced during the 2019–21 field campaigns illustrates the Gribshunden shipwreck site. The
square identifies the outline of the excavation trench from where the archaeobotanical samples were collected. Republished from Media Tryck, Lund University
under a CC BY license, with permission from Frida Nilsson, original copyright 2022.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 5 / 31
Ancient History, Lund University (address Helgonava¨gen 3, 223 63 Lund, Sweden, for contact:
Dr. M Larsson).
Processing and laboratory methods
The botanical remains recovered from Gribshunden originate from four sediment block sam-
ples of 0.5–2.0 liter each. All samples were processed by floatation with running water, and
sieved over three mesh sizes: 1 mm, 0.4 mm and 0.25 mm. The saffron stigma masses were col-
lected by hand by divers, and the deposits were placed in a 5-liter bag during the dive. This was
not subject to wet-sieving; the “water-sample” (sample 5, Table 1) contained the
Table 1. List of economic plant species in the archaeobotanical plant remains from the Gribshunden wreck site.
Sample no. 1 2 3 4 5
Sample vol. (liter) 2,0 2,0 1,6 0,5 water sample
Cereal grain Botanical remains
Triticum cf. aestivum Bread wheat testa 1
Triticum sp. Wheat indet. testa 2
Linum usitatissimum Flax seed 1
Fruits and vegetables
Cucumis sativus Cucumber seed 1
Vitis vinifera Grape seed 1
Rubus fruticosus Blackberry seed 1 1
Rubus idaeus Raspberry seed 1
Berry, indet. seed 1
Herbs and spices (and medicinal plants)
Anethum graveolens Dill fruit 1 2
Brassica nigra Black mustard seed 7 82 33 4
Carum carvi Caraway fruit 1 2
cf. Carum carvi Caraway fruit, mesocarp missing 3 1 4
Crocus sativus Saffron stigmas p p p p 450 ml
Crocus sativus Saffron ground stigmas (powder conglomerates) p
Humulus lupulus Hop fruit 1
Hyoscyamus niger Henbane seed 1
Piper nigrum Black pepper fruit (peppercorn) 179 979 658 139
Piper nigrum Pepper stalk segment 1 9 6
Syzygium aromaticum Clove whole flower bud 5 3 1
Syzygium aromaticum Clove hypanthium, complete/near complete 8 32 14 7
Syzygium aromaticum Clove hypanthium, half or less 23 88 62 27
Syzygium aromaticum Clove globular head 5 17 11
Syzygium aromaticum Clove petals 9 15 24 3
Syzygium aromaticum Clove ovary, complete/near complete 18 42 43 11
Syzygium aromaticum Clove stalk segment 1 8 9 1
Zingiber officinale Ginger rhizome epidermis parts 5 34 23 2
Corylus avellana Hazel endocarp fragm. 1
Prunus dulcis Almond testa, complete 8 35 15 17
Prunus dulcis Almond testa, half or less 29 126 91 25
Prunus dulcis Almond seed fragm. p p p p
Prunus dulcis Almond endocarp fragm. 8 6 1
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
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concentrations of only stigmas. Flotation was unnecessary, and would have posed a risk of
damaging the delicate strands.
Morphological identification of seeds, fruits, nutshells, flower parts, and leaves was under-
taken using a microscope (x8–80), with comparisons made to relevant literature [2426] and
to a modern reference collection of seeds at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient His-
tory, Lund University. Since recovery, all plant remains have been stored in containers with
water. The plant remains were kept in water during microscopic examination.
After identification, all species were quantified from individual samples. In some cases
(clove and almond), different botanical parts of a species were identified; these parts were
counted as separate examples. Complete and incomplete specimens were also distinguished.
The approximate quantity of saffron was obtained by pouring the water sample containing the
stigmas into a measuring beaker, allowing time for the stigmas to settle to the bottom of the
beaker, and reading the volume. Presence of saffron stigmas in the four sediment samples
(present in the hundreds) is indicated with (p), as it is unclear if the stigmas were in situ or
were deposited in the samples due to excavation activity during which some stigmas dispersed
into the water and might have settled on the seabed within the excavated unit. Presence of
small endosperm (seed) fragments from almond, leaf parts and undetermined specimens are
indicated in Tables 1and S1 by presence (p). All analyzed plant material are held at the
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University.
The exotic spices, and the total botanical assemblage
All recovered botanical remains were subfossil specimens. Identified economic plant species
are presented in Table 1. The preservation state is noteworthy. Many plant remains feature
fruit flesh and skin, still colored (Figs 39) and the saffron retains its distinctive aroma after
527 years submerged. Excluding the saffron stigmas which were quantified by volume (450
ml), a total of 3097 plant remains representing 40 species were identified from the sediment
samples (full dataset S1 Table). They comprise 1 species of cereal, 1 species of oilseed, 4 species
of fruits and vegetables, 8 species of spices, 2 species of nuts, 1 species of medicinal plant, and
23 species of wild taxa. The spices are numerically the most abundant plant remains in the
assemblage, representing 86%, followed by nuts 12%. Crops, fruits, and vegetables make up a
small portion of all the edible plants recovered thus far from the shipwreck. Wild taxa are rep-
resented by 2% in the plant assemblage, and these most likely entered the deposits over time as
contamination from the coastal environment. In addition to the identified plant remains listed
in S1 Table, sediment samples contained small plant debris from marine algae and remains of
marine animals (shells, ligaments, perioctracum from mussels).
The archaeobotanical data discussed in this paper include only economic plant species typi-
cally used in food preparation or medicinal application. Wild taxa of the local flora fall outside
the scope of this research, and therefore are excluded. Notes on some critical identifications of
plants rarely found or previously unknown from archaeological deposits are discussed below.
Crocus sativus (Fig 3). The most important part of the saffron flower for human use is one
of its female organs: the style, ending in three red-orange stigmas. Identification of saffron was
based on the presence of these stigmas, also known as filaments, strands, or saffron threads.
The recovered saffron stigmas do not consist of smaller pieces that have broken apart over
time, or from handling by divers or during laboratory preparation and examination. Instead,
the stigmas have a characteristic trumpet-like shape at the end of the pestle, indicating that the
recovered strands are intact. Today and presumably historically, the price of saffron is deter-
mined by its quality. Grading criteria include the length of the threads. High-grade saffron is
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 7 / 31
composed of whole or cut threads (stigma with or without part of the style), and premium
quality eliminates the yellow/orange part of the style [27]. Typical length of modern saffron
stigmas are ca 2.5–3.5 cm [28]. Measurement of 50 Gribshunden stigmas with removed styles
produced an average length of 2.36 cm. Thus, the Gribshunden saffron threads are consistent
with modern grading for premium quality.
Several discrete concentrations of red material were noticed in sample 3, ranging in size
from ca. 1x1 cm to ca. 5x5 cm. These were observed in the sample prior to wet sieving, and
were removed from the sediment in which they were embedded. Each of the concentrations
was placed in water, which quickly turned red/orange. Examination under a light microscope
showed the concentrations were finely ground saffron stigmas; the water was colored as the
powder dispersed into it. It is unclear how the ground saffron was stored on the ship, as no
container or bag enclosing the powdery substance was observed. We hypothesize that the saf-
fron might have been in textile bags which have not survived.
Piper nigrum (Fig 4). Black pepper was identified by the whole unprocessed fruits, in which
the outer skin (epicarp) was complete or near complete among most of the specimens. The
outer skin of the fruit shows the characteristic pattern of wrinkles from the drying process of
unripe fruit. Some fruits entirely lacked their outer skin, or retained only fragments of it. This
Fig 3. Saffron from the Gribshunden shipwreck site. Plant parts of saffron: a-c) stigmas, d) petri dish showing a portion of the recovered saffron stigmas.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 8 / 31
condition exposed the characteristic radial vessels of the fruit, resembling that of white pepper-
corn. Peppercorns with partially preserved and shriveled skin were able to be identified as
black pepper. The loss of the outer skin surrounding the fruit is likely due to degradation over
time or from handling during excavation or wet sieving. Some immature specimens and stalk
parts were also recovered, including a few small stalk segments bearing unripe berries.
Prunus dulcis (Fig 5). Almond was identified by the presence of its seed coat (testa). While
the seed coats of some specimens were complete, most were incompletely preserved with seed
coat halves or mere shreds. Small white seed bits from endosperm were attached to some seed
coats. Fragments of the nutshell (endocarp) from almond were also found among the samples,
characterized by pitted canals containing vascular bundles.
Syzgium aromaticum (Figs 6and 7). Cloves consist of a lower quadrangular stalked portion
(the hypanthium) that terminates in four thick spreading sepals, which surrounds a globular
head (the crown) having four imbricated petals. Identification of clove was possible from com-
plete unopened flower buds preserved, but also from different fragmented parts of clove that
have broken up over time. These parts include the hypanthium, the globular head, detached
membranous petals that would have been attached to the globular head, and fragmented ova-
ries and ovules which have been released from broken up ovaries situated in the upper part of
Fig 4. Black pepper from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Plant parts of black pepper: a-c) different views of peppercorns, d) stalk segments, some with unripe
berries of pepper.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
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the hypanthium. Clove stalk was also identified, as were numerous oil glands from the disinte-
grated hypanthium observed in the samples. Oil glands were not quantified, as these were pres-
ent in the thousands.
Zingiber officinale (Fig 8). Ginger was represented by small parts of rhizome skin (epider-
mis) from the creeping underground stem. From rhizome skin parts, it was possible to identify
the circular scars representing the nodes with small scales and buds, as well as small black dots
on the surface of the skin. While most fragmentary skin was ca. 10–40 mm in length, a larger
piece measured 60 mm. Adhering to some of the rhizome skins were whitish fibrous threads.
Cucumis sativus (Fig 9A). The seeds of cucumber can be difficult to distinguish from those
of melon (Cucumis melo), as the size of the seeds are variable. Identification was possible by
examining the fine anatomy of the seed surface: C.sativus has fine straight parallel lines in the
middle of the seeds’ surface, and parallel lines which follow the oval shape of the seed. In com-
parison, C.melo have fine parallel lines of cells on the entire seed surface [29].
Economic plants from the Gribshunden shipwreck and archaeological
The economic plant species from the Gribshunden botanical assemblage represent a wide
range of food plants, presented here in five food categories: cereals, oilseeds, fruits and vegeta-
bles, spices and nuts. We acknowledge the overlap between culinary and medicinal applica-
tions of these plants. Henbane is the only non-food plant identified in this assemblage.
Henbane had medicinal and magical purposes, and is presented under a separate heading. The
archaeological context can help determine the most likely use for the recovered plants. All
Fig 5. Almond from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Plant parts of almond: a) seed coats, b) nutshells.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
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botanical remains from the Gribshunden shipwreck were recovered from sediments within a
one square meter unit located toward the stern of the ship. The locus that produced the botani-
cal remains also held several wooden casks presumed to have contained foodstuffs and bever-
ages [3,23] Among these plant species, all are edible except henbane, which was used only
medicinally. Then, as now, some of these plants are commonly consumed as flavorings (saf-
fron, black pepper, clove, ginger, black mustard, dill, caraway), others eaten as snacks or used
in baking (nuts, berries, grapes, flax), and some could be eaten as part of a meal (cucumber).
Grapes could have been consumed as raisins. Raisins and almonds could be consumed alone
or as ingredients in prepared dishes.
It is unclear how these food plants were stored and transported. No containers of wood,
metal, glass, or ceramic were excavated in the same locus. Similarly, this locus produced no
remains of bags made from textile or leather, though it is possible that bags simply have not
survived. Shells from nuts and ground saffron (conglomerates of ground stigmas) were recov-
ered in the botanical assemblage, suggesting that these foods were handled and prepared close
to the sample area shortly before the ship sank. From this, we propose that the economic plant
remains were foremost intended as foodstuffs.
We speculate that the ground saffron was separated into several small packages. This possi-
bly suggests medicinal doses or discrete volumes of flavorings for food or beverage servings; it
Fig 6. Clove from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Plant parts of clove: a-b) flower buds, c) stalks, d) side view of complete ovaries.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 11 / 31
could also indicate division based on ownership, or even packaging as gifts. However, detailed
discussion of specific culinary use or healing properties of respective food plants during the
Middle Ages is outside the scope of this paper. Medicinal preparation and application of these
spices in medieval Europe was diverse, and information from Scandinavia is at best fragmen-
tary. An overview of previous archaeobotanical data from the medieval Baltic Sea region with
reference to selected food plants recovered from Gribshunden is summarized in Table 2. For
each of the five food categories, we present the individual Gribshunden plant species with a
summary of relevant published archaeobotanical documentation for medieval Scandinavia
and the Baltic region. The archaeological record is, of course, incomplete. Cereal grains, oil-
seeds, nutshells, or aromatic fruit or seed condiments are sometimes represented in archaeo-
logical deposits. However, those plants used for their vegetative parts rarely survive
archaeologically, unless preserved in the waterlogged contexts of latrines, wells, or underwater
environments. Preservation of food plants in the macrofossil record may further be prevented
Fig 7. Clove from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Different views of detached globular head of clove: a) side view with attached petals, b) side
view without petals, c) proximal side (above) of globular head, d) distal side (below) of globular head.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 12 / 31
if processed and used in other forms, such as ground or as powder, or pressed into oil. Written
sources that mention rare food plants can, however, complement archaeobotanical data with
insights into the procurement and consumption of these plants.
Cereals. Cereal grain was present in small quantities of a few seed coats from wheat grains
(testa), with one grain probably bread wheat, also known as common wheat. Whole unpro-
cessed cereal grain found on shipwrecks is often cargo. However, Gribshunden was a warship
on a diplomatic mission, not a cargo-laden trading vessel. It is unknown if Gribshunden car-
ried unprocessed grain as provisions, as most of the hold has not yet been investigated. A 1493
provisions list of another Danish warship, David, includes flour and bread [38]. This ship was
equipped with a bakery and full galley. Similar facilities are not mentioned in accounts con-
cerning Gribshunden. Considering the substantial time the king spent aboard his flagship, it
must have been similarly outfitted; future excavations are likely to reveal these features. While
it is likely that much of the bread and biscuit consumed by the common sailors was supplied
from shore, it is probable that a bakery on board Gribshunden provided fresh baked goods for
the noble passengers. The recovered wheat grains could have originated in these supplies of
wheat flour, or as contamination among other products.
Until modern times, bread wheat was considered a luxurious cereal in the Baltic region.
Used for making cakes and bread, it was appreciated for its white flour and dough properties.
Fig 8. Ginger from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Plant parts of ginger: a-c) rhizome skin showing scales and auxiliary buds, d) close-up of black-
spotted surface of skin.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 13 / 31
It produced a leavened loaf not possible to make with flour from the other wheat species [39].
Bread wheat’s medieval exclusivity might lie in dietary traditions and fashions, but it might
also be due to its cultivation requirements. It is the most demanding species of all cereals,
requiring humus-rich soils and laborious crop processing regimes. From 15
century Scandi-
navian accounts, cultivation of wheat is described as problematic as it was difficult to keep
seed grain pure; rye would start to grow among the wheat rows, and after a few years it domi-
nate the field [40]. Rye and barley were the more common cereal types in medieval Scandina-
via, followed by oats [35,41]. Rye was used for bread making. Barley sometimes was used as
food in whole-grained groats, but its primary use was in beer production. Oats were suste-
nance for both people and their horses.
Oilseeds. Plants with oil-rich seeds are represented on Gribshunden by flax. This plant has
played an important economic role in Northern Europe since its introduction in the beginning
of the first millennium CE. It is commonly found in medieval Baltic domestic archaeological
contexts [42,43]. The plant was valued for its nutritious seeds, consumed whole by adding
them to foods or pressed to extract oil, or used in medicinal preparations. Besides its seeds,
Fig 9. Variety of plant species from the Gribshunden shipwreck. Seeds of: a) cucumber, b) grape, c) black mustard, d) raspberry, e) hop, f) henbane.
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
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Table 2. Previously recorded archaeobotanical finds of imported or rare food plant found at the Gribshunden shipwreck that illustrates the evidence of these in the
Baltic Sea region during a time sequence from the Early to Late Medieval Age using presence and absence.
Plant species Almond
Black pepper
(Piper nigrum)
Clove (Syzygium
(Cucumis sativus)
Grape (Vitis
Timeline (CE) Countries
Early Medieval
Age (1050–1300)
1100 Denmark
1200 Denmark
Late Medival
Age (1300–1550)
1300 Denmark
1400 Denmark
1500 Denmark
Species that are commonly represented in medieval contexts are not included (i.e. wheat, flax, hop, local spices, hazel, berries, and henbane). The archaeobotanical
records are based on [12,3037].
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PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 15 / 31
flax was an important source of raw material in fiber production. The widespread documenta-
tion of the seeds in archaeological layers indicates that the plant was commonly used across all
strata of society. The occurrence of flaxseeds on Gribshunden indicates consumption of the
whole seeds, perhaps added to foods such as breads and porridge.
Fruits and vegetables. The plants in this category consist of seeds from four taxa: cucum-
ber, grape, raspberry and blackberry. Cucumber’s botanical classification is as a fruit; but
because it is often eaten as part of a main meal, its culinary definition is as a vegetable. Grape is
a fruit, consumed fresh or dried as raisins, and in the medieval era it often was a dessert ingre-
dient on elite tables [11]. Raspberry and blackberries are aggregate fruits, commonly referred
to as berries, and these are indigenous to woodland areas across the Baltic region. Fresh berries
are highly perishable, with shelf lives extending only a few days. However, preservation by dry-
ing or other means could prolong their storage life. The seeds from these berries occur fre-
quently in medieval archaeobotanical material from both urban and rural contexts.
Archaeobotanical remains of cucumber from the Baltic region are rare for any period
[35,44]. The few reported finds come from urban cultural layers of latrines or backyard depos-
its. A single seed dated to the 13
century has been recorded from a latrine from the coastal
Hanseatic city of Gdansk, Poland, and cucumber seeds dated to the 8
centuries have
been reported from the Polish interior [45]. In Tartu, Estonia, cucumber seeds have also been
found in excavations of 15
century latrines [46]. By the 16
century, seeds of cucumber
become more frequent in archaeological layers from towns along the southern Baltic coast
[35], and historical documents from Gdansk mention that cucumbers were grown in gardens
[45]. The only medieval botanical evidence of cucumber in Scandinavia is a late medieval find
of pollen from a latrine at Svendborg on the island Fyn, Denmark [47].
Grape seeds, or pips, dated to the medieval period are infrequent in Scandinavian archaeol-
ogy. Grape has been reported from Bergen, Norway dating to 13
century [48], and a few
single pips dated to the 14
century have been reported from Sweden and Denmark [35,49].
Grape is more commonly encountered in excavations of Hanseatic towns in northern Poland,
northern Germany, and Estonia [12,45,46,50].
If the primary consumption of grape products was as wine, and raisins did not play a signif-
icant role as imported goods to Scandinavia, this may explain the scant archaeobotanical finds
of grape pips. While most grapes likely were imported from more southern regions, some level
of local Baltic cultivation might have been attempted. From the 17
century, a written account
from Poland reports that grapes did not ripen and were of poor quality [37]. A Danish bishop
mentions in his diaries how the September frosts in 1694 and 1695 caused the local grapevines
to lose their leaves [51]. Before the Middle Ages, sporadic finds of grape pips dating to 800–
1000 CE have been documented in southern Scandinavia: at the trading town of Hedeby in
Northern Schleswig [52], in a Viking Age grave on Gotland, Sweden [53], and from a royal
Viking Age complex at Tissø, Denmark [54].
Spices. The eight species listed in this category are commonly employed as food flavor-
ings, using the plants’ seeds, flowers, or rhizomes. Of these, saffron, black pepper, clove, and
ginger are from geographical origins far distant from Scandinavia. We refer to these four as
exotic spices. The others are species that grow well in the Baltic region: black mustard, dill, car-
away, and hop. We refer to them as local spices. Beyond their properties for flavoring and col-
oring food (saffron), they were also used as food preservatives and medicine [55]. Their
presence on Gribshunden complements the Scandinavian and the Baltic region archaeobotani-
cal record, and their mentions in medieval written sources.
Exotic spices. The exotic spices identified from Gribshunden were luxurious foods in medie-
val North Europe, imported through a chain of traders extending to Asia. These are repre-
sented in the Gribshunden botanical assemblage by fruits (black pepper), stigmas (saffron),
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 16 / 31
flower buds and stalks (clove) and rhizome skin (ginger). These plant parts were abundant in
the samples from the wreck; this is remarkable because of their archaeological rarity. The deli-
cate fragments of these plants seldom survive in terrestrial archaeological contexts. Spices
from Asia were introduced to western and central Europe by the Roman legions during the
first millennium CE [56,57], but archaeobotanical material and written sources show that such
exotic spices first reach Northern Europe only in the early medieval period [58].
After the development of the Hanseatic League in 12
century, German merchants domi-
nated Baltic trade networks, displacing Scandinavians traders. Historical documents indicate
that the Hanse traded exotic spices in the Nordic region, conveyed from the Mediterranean
and Asia through the continent to the Baltic coasts [58]. Exotic spices were known in medieval
Scandinavia, as evidenced by a handful of historical sources. An early 13
century French
cookbook was copied in courts across Europe, and translated to Danish by Henrik Harpes-
treng (d. 1244) [59,60]. It lists thirty-one abbreviated recipes, with dishes including ingredients
and spices available only to the highest social strata: pepper, saffron, clove and ginger. The
1231 cadaster of the Danish King Valdemar II mentions one exotic spice, pepper, in a list of
provisions that the king and his court expected on visitations within his kingdom [61]. A 1315
bequest to the abbey of Sorø, on the island of Zealand, Denmark, records that one course of a
meal for duke Christopher of Halland and Samsø(he later became King Christopher II), was
to be made with pepper [62]. In Sweden, according to an account from 1328 of a merchant in
Stockholm, saffron, pepper and ginger were among the spices sold to the organizers of the
burial of Birger Persson, the father of Saint Birgitta [63,64]. Later, an estate inventory from
1365 of Queen Blanche of Norway and Sweden lists clove among her spices [65], and in Stock-
holm in 1467, an account from a religious order mentions pepper and saffron [66].
Medieval written sources from the southern Baltic, especially from the Hanseatic towns in
areas of northern Germany, northern Poland, and Estonia, reveal that a greater variety of
exotic spices was more frequently consumed there than in Scandinavia, and by a wider but still
exclusive segment of the population [12,45,46]. Studies of inventories and purchase lists from
Baltic merchants, city councils, guilds, and wealthy households indicate saffron, pepper, clove
and ginger were consumed by an expanding elite [11,12,58].
Previous archaeobotanical data from the Baltic region concerning the exotic spices found
on Gribshunden are summarized below.
Black pepper is indigenous to the western coast of South India [67,68]. The peppercorns
can be used ground, dried, or added whole to foods. While black pepper is mostly employed in
cooking as a food seasoning or as a table spice, peppercorns also has medicinal uses. The spice
could also have been used to make rancid meat palatable while at sea [69].
Among the four exotic plant species found on Gribshunden, black pepper is the only spice
previously found in the Baltic region archaeobotanical record. The early finds of black pepper
are rare and consist of a few fruits, an.d these are mostly documented in excavations in Hanse-
atic towns along the southern Baltic coasts. They occur first in Bremen, Rostock, and Olden-
burg, Germany in the 13
century [70]; then somewhat later in Gdansk and Elblag,
Poland [71]; and Tartu, Estonia in the 14
century [43]. Its rare archaeological appear-
ances are only in contexts of exclusive buildings associated with high-ranking individuals, sug-
gests pepper consumption was limited to the social elites during this period.
Archaeological documentation of peppercorn in medieval Scandinavia occurs at two sites: a
single peppercorn from the 13
century cathedral in Turku, Finland [44], and from a 15
tury latrine in Nӕstved, Denmark [72]. While finds of peppercorns increase somewhat in 17
century archaeological contexts, they are still rare. Typically finds are from latrine and waste
deposits in urban contexts, such as in Copenhagen [73], and Stockholm and Jo¨nko¨ping, Swe-
den [74,75]. The Danish Bishop’s hall at St. Botolph’s church produced a single peppercorn
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 17 / 31
[51]. These latter finds coincide with the establishment of several charter companies in north-
ern Europe during the 17
century, including several East Indian Companies, which triggered
an expansion of spice importation to the Baltic region.
Saffron joins the other three species previously not found in the archaeological material
from Scandinavia or the Baltic region. Saffron is made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sati-
vus, the saffron crocus. It is highly valued for flavoring foods and for coloring them golden-yel-
low, and for its medicinal properties. The delicate stigmas typically defy archaeological
preservation. The recovery of an abundance of saffron stigmas and lumps of ground saffron
from Gribshunden is exceptional; no archaeobotanical remains of saffron have previously been
The geographical origin for saffron is not entirely understood. It is believed to have origi-
nated in the eastern Mediterranean, and was grown in Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean
basin in Classical times [76]. The earliest evidence of saffron comes from iconography and
artistic floral motifs of the Bronze Age Minoan culture in the Mediterranean. The ceramic
Kamares Cup from Knossos holds an early iconographic representation of the crocus flower
dating to 2100–1800 BCE [77]. A fresco depicting saffron in the Palace of Knossos in Crete
dates to ca 1700–1600 BCE [78]. Another fresco, dated about 1500 BCE, is the ‘Saffron Gather-
ers’ at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini [79,80]. Plant ideograms found on Mycenaean Linear
B tablets (1400–1100 BCE) perhaps indicate saffron [81,82]. Cultivation of saffron spread to
Spain no later than the 10
century CE, and by the 14
century CE, Spain was a prominent
exporter of saffron [83]. While the medieval Baltic trade in exotic spices expanded at the end
of the 15
century, the geographic origin of the Gribshunden saffron is as yet undetermined;
future aDNA analysis may suggest its source.
Clove and ginger are the two other Gribshunden exotic spices that are without precedent in
the medieval Baltic macrofossil record. The aromatic flower buds of clove are commonly used
as a spice or for medicinal purposes. The rhizome of ginger can be used fresh, dried as a pow-
der, or preserved in vinegar for similar purposes. The origin of ginger is not known, but it is
believed to have evolved in Southeast Asia [84]. Cloves are native to Indonesia [85]. Trade in
these spices from India to Europe can be traced back at least as far as the Classical period
[75,86]. These spices probably first reached the Baltic region in the Middle Ages through
Hanse middlemen [35].
Archaeologically, finds of clove and ginger are both rare and geographically sporadic. The
only possible clove find in the Baltic region is pollen detected in a 17
century latrine in
Copenhagen [47]. It was tentatively identified as Myrtaceae, and interpreted as clove. Beyond
the Baltic, clove pollen has been documented in Dutch cesspits dating from the 16
to 19
centuries [87]. Macrofossil finds of clove have been reported from a few sites. At Les Jacobins
convent, France, a few fragments of the flower bud, dated to the 17
century, was documented
among embalming plants [88]. At the ancient port of Mantai, Sir Lanka, a site related to the
early days of Indian Ocean trade, one clove was found dating to ca. 900–1100 CE [89]. Finds of
ginger are limited to two archaeological sites: dry roots reported among foodstuffs in a tomb
of a Han woman who died in China 168 BCE [90], and from an excavation at the Port of
Qusier al-Qadim, Egypt ca. 1050–1190 CE [91].
Local spices. Spices in this group are plant species that grows well in Scandinavia and were
commonly available in the medieval period. These food and beverage flavorings are connected
to garden cultivation, and include black mustard, dill, caraway, and hop. Hop is typically not
defined as a spice, but we include it in this category because of its primary use as a flavoring
and stability agent in beer. Dill and caraway can both be considered spices or herbs depending
on which plant parts are used. Their seeds are frequently used to spice stews and soups, or to
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 18 / 31
flavor baked goods. When the aromatic leaves are utilized in cooking or eaten raw, they are
commonly described as herbs; or if the root is consumed, a vegetable.
The seeds, aromatic leaves, and roots of the plants in this group are all used for cooking.
While all of these parts could be preserved on the shipwreck, only their seeds have been recov-
ered from Gribshunden. Black mustard was most plentiful in the samples, while the other spe-
cies are more sparsely represented. The seeds of black mustard can be pressed to produce oil,
but the predominant use is as a spice and in the production of mustard. It is likely that black
mustard, dill, and caraway were available at hand for day-to-day culinary use during the
Archaeobotanical records from Northern Europe show that some level of gardening existed
parallel to arable cultivation beginning in the Early Iron Age [92]. Black mustard and dill are
among the spices utilized earliest. They likely were introduced from northern areas of conti-
nental Europe, where the Roman occupation influenced food production in Germania and
spread the knowledge of garden cultivation [36]. Sporadic finds of black mustard and dill
seeds in archaeological contexts are reported from the last centuries BCE and the first centuries
CE in southern Scandinavia [93,94]. The diversity of seeds from plants linked to gardening
increases in Northern Europe around 800–1000 CE [32,92]. During this time, caraway and
hop are occasionally recorded in archaeological layers.
An expanding diversity of species in early medieval Scandinavia coincides with the estab-
lishment of self-sufficient monasteries producing vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices at the
beginning of the second millennium CE. In the developing urban centers of the 11
and 12
centuries, the archaeobotanical record indicates that horticulture became an important part of
household autonomy [31,95,96]. Seeds from black mustard, dill, caraway and hops are repre-
sented in many medieval contexts, particularly in urban cultural layers [31,36,97,98]. As such,
these species seems to have been well-integrated into local medieval Scandinavia cultivation.
Similarly, these species are frequently encountered in archaeobotanical material from medieval
southern Baltic coastal towns [58]. The widespread presence of seeds from black mustard, dill,
caraway and hops in medieval archaeological layers around the Baltic region suggests that
these were commonly grown in gardens, and it is therefore possible that local producers sup-
plied these plants to Gribshunden. Nevertheless, produce that could be supplied locally may
still have been sourced from long-distance networks. A study of the Swedish Navy in the 16
and early 17
centuries describes procurement of staple food supplies such as meats, grain,
peas, butter, and salt through networks of Baltic ports, but there is no mention of sourcing
spices. In that era, vegetables, bread, and beer were typically sourced in proximity to shipyards
or picked up during the journey. During the first leg of a voyage it was not uncommon that
each sailor brought his own food [99].
Hop was represented in the botanical assemblage by a single fruit (seed). Unlike the other
local spices, hop seeds are not utilized. For this reason, only female plants are grown in hop
fields to prevent the ripening of fruits. Male plants are cultivated separately for breeding pur-
poses. The flavor and aroma of hops are instead from the oils of the hop cone. Hop’s foremost
use is as a flavoring and stability agent in beer-making, and the frequency of its archaeological
occurrence may be a testament to the vital role of brewing in medieval society. The oils con-
tained in the cones possess antibiotic properties important to the brewing process. Hops sup-
press bacterial growth, while allowing brewer’s yeast to thrive. Hop fruits are common in
medieval archaeobotanical material from the Baltic region. However, the seeds found in terres-
trial archaeological layers are likely a result of unintentional pollination and dispersal of seeds
when handling hop cones [100,101]. The single hop seed recovered from Gribshunden suggest
that it was accidental contamination, possibly coming in with the beer in barrels, or among
other foodstuffs.
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Information about local horticulture from Scandinavian written sources of the 15
is scarce, with the exception of hop, as the late medieval period witnessed the beginnings of
domestic brewing regulation. Scandinavian laws from 13
century stipulated farmers’
obligation to grow certain quantities of hops, and also regulated sales of hops [102,103]. Hop is
frequently mentioned in Hanseatic towns’ pile duty books (documents recording fees paid by
incoming and outgoing vessels) as a plant produced in specific areas [12]. Cultivation regions
included Zeeland in the Netherlands, the coast of Jutland, Denmark, and areas of contempo-
rary Poland. From there, it was exported to urban areas around the Baltic for use in commer-
cial and domestic breweries [12], indicating that beer and malt were commonly traded
throughout medieval societies [10,104,105].
Nuts. This category comprises two species of nuts: almond, which originates from south-
ern regions with milder climates and was imported to Scandinavia; and hazel, which is indige-
nous to the Baltic region, but might also have been cultivated. Nuts can easily be stored for
long periods. They are an oil-rich food high in calories, and an important source of protein
and carbohydrates. They could be eaten raw on their own, added to main dishes, or used in
Almond was mainly represented in the samples by the seed coat, but also by some shell frag-
ments and bits of endosperm still attached to some seed coats. Archaeological finds of almond
are exceptionally rare from the Middle Ages in the Baltic region. The earliest evidence is from
Oldenburg, Germany, dated to the 13
and 14
centuries [50], while a later find dates to 17
century Poland [45]. Archaeological excavations conducted in 1937 at Aalborg, Denmark, pro-
duced almond shells dated to ca. 1700 [51]. From medieval Scandinavia, evidence of almond
consumption is limited to a few written references to the nut: the 1467 account from a monas-
tery in Stockholm [66], and a 1578 post-medieval account of spices purchased for the Swedish
royal court [106]. Studies of archival documents associated with some festival purchases in
and 16
century Reval (modern Tallinn, Estonia) and Riga, Latvia indicate the upper clas-
ses consumed luxuries including almonds during festivals [11]. Almond was particularly versa-
tile on royal tables, used in spiced almond milk, or even in marchpane (marzipan) [107,108].
In contrast to almond, shells from hazelnut are common in both urban and rural medieval
contexts around the Baltic region. Evidence of its use dates back to the Mesolithic [109111].
Hazel is native to Europe and grows wild as far north as central Scandinavia. But it also has
been cultivated, as management of hazel forests is mentioned in medieval Scandinavian legisla-
tion [37]. The species was valued primarily for its nuts, but its leaves were also used for animal
fodder [112].
Medicinal plants. Henbane is a poisonous plant often connected to cult, magic, and med-
icine, e.g. as drug, poison, and in amulets [113]. In small doses henbane could be used as a gen-
eral analgesic. In large doses it could be used as an ingredient in witches’ ointment. It also
acted as a love philter, and at highest doses it was a poison [114116]. It is indigenous to the
Mediterranean region, but was introduced to Northern Europe during the Pre-Roman Iron
Age, about 400–300 BCE [92,117]. From the first millennium CE henbane seeds occur occa-
sionally in Scandinavian contexts [118]. Henbane is widely detected in various urban medieval
contexts throughout northern Europe, likely due to cultivation and common use [119]. How-
ever, the plant easily spreads from gardens to other areas around living quarters, so henbane
also may represent a weed in urban layers [120,121].
Descriptions of early medieval Scandinavian medicinal use of henbane were recorded by
Henrik Harpestreng, physician to Danish King Erik IV. In his herbals Liber Herbarum [122],
he recommended direct application of the seeds to relieve toothache. This palliative is also
described in a 15
century Swedish medicinal manuscript [123]. Other prescriptions directed
heating the seeds over a fire or a hot iron, and leading the resulting smoke onto the aching
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 20 / 31
tooth [114]. Similar treatment was described in other parts of Europe, for example by the herb-
alist of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16
century [116].
The henbane seed from Gribshunden may represent onboard medicinal supplies, carried
for analgesic purposes. Alternatively, with only a single seed found on Gribshunden so far, it
may have been accidental contamination among other food supplies. Given the range of wild
taxa in the botanical assemblage, another possibility is that the henbane originated from
coastal vegetation. If future excavation on the wreck produces greater numbers of henbane
seeds, its purpose may become clear.
Medicinal benefits are possible for the other spices. Then, as now, various food plants were
present both in the kitchen and the apothecary. For example, saffron, pepper, cloves, and gin-
ger could have been consumed both for their aromatic and medicinal properties when added
to food or beverages. Contextually, the range of economic plant species from Gribshunden rep-
resent those typically used in food preparation; only henbane is a non-food plant. For this rea-
son, it is possible that these spices were foremost linked to food consumption, rather than for
medicinal use alone.
One exception may be hop. Outside of beer-making, hop also has medicinal application
and may have been brought onboard for that use. A sedative effect of hop is its most common
medicinal application, able to induce sleep [124]. Bedclothes could be stuffed with plants
believed to bring calm: for instance, the fresh odor of hop cones, together with lavender and
lemon balm. A Scandinavian archaeological example exists from the casket of a Swedish
bishop buried in Lund in 1679 [125]. The stuffing of the pillow and mattresses upon which he
laid were filled with plants including hop cones and an abundance of hop seeds. No hop cones
have yet been found in the botanical assemblage from Gribshunden; interpretation of similar
use is speculative.
Elite consumers of plant foods recovered from Gribshunden
Knowledge about historical victualling and the diet of ships’ crews is primarily derived from
written sources. Information on maritime foodstuffs is scant for 15
century Scandinavia, and
in the case of Gribshunden, no records detail the diet on board during its last voyage. For the
years 1487 and 1493, however, documents provide some expenses for King Hans’ naval fleet
[38]. The documents are scattered summaries kept by the king’s secretaries, usually recording
supplies of arms and recruitment of soldiers. Notes from 1493 mention funds set aside for
ships’ crew victuals. They consumed meat, butter, fish, bread, flour, salt, and vinegar. The
accounts relate an ordinary and monotonous diet, similar to the fare of other sailors in medie-
val northern Europe. Provisions aboard three 16
century Swedish naval ships (Lindormen
1546, Sankt Erik 1561, Vita Falken 1562) list the same foods, with the addition of peas [126].
Nowhere is there mention of spices, vegetables, fruit or berries for the common Jack Tars.
Other accounts in Hans’ documents detail consumption of beer and bread, with higher-quality
varieties differentiated according to rank and social status [38]. Higher-ranking individuals ate
bread and biscuits made from wheat and washed it down with German beer. The working
crew endured hard bread and lower quality local beer. Future excavations on Gribshunden
may reveal even more stark differences in the food and drink of the nobility and the common
soldier and sailor.
Baltic underwater archaeobotany offers additional victualing details from other medieval
shipwrecks. Finds on the 15
century Copper Wreck in the gulf of Gdansk included food
remains of beans, plums, hazel, walnuts and onions [16]. The wreck also contained garlic,
interpreted as medicinal [17]. These archaeobotanical data complement information in docu-
ments of the ship’s owner. These list expenses for victuals including meat, fish, salt, butter, fat,
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 21 / 31
bread, flour, and beer [16]. Very few other medieval ships from the Baltic Sea have been
archaeobotanically investigated. Two 13
century wrecks are the Gedeby shipwreck, by the
island of Falster, Denmark; and a cog vessel close to Oskarshamn, Sweden [127,128]. These
were small vessels transporting livestock, grain, and iron. The wrecks produced only a few
cereal food plants, interpreted as cargo remains.
Outside the Baltic region, a well-documented wreck from Northern Europe is the 16
tury carrack-type warship Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII [15]. Botanical remains from the
wreck include peppercorn, hops, cereals, hazel, walnut, plum/greengage, cherry, and grapes.
While nuts and fruit would have added variety to the diet, it is unclear if these were limited to
officers, particularly as the fruits were mainly found in the ship’s hold and some in the galley
supplies. The presence of peppercorns on Mary Rose is of particular interest for the study of
Gribshunden. The recovery of peppercorn from multiple loci on Mary Rose suggests that some
could have been for general use in the galley, while individual crew members also cached some
for their personal use [129]. Among the contents of a barbers-surgeon’s chest were a few pep-
percorns, believed to have been part of medicinal supplies. Future excavations on Gribshunden
may reveal similar multiplicity of use.
The plant material from Gribshunden contributes new knowledge about the foodstuffs con-
sumed by the social elite in medieval Scandinavia. Considering that Gribshunden sank in the
beginning of June, perishables such as ginger, grapes, berries, and cucumber were likely pre-
served as dried fruit, pickles, or jams to have been available for consumption all year around. It
is unclear if ginger rhizomes were stored fresh or were preserved in some form. If fresh, the
rhizomes must have been procured within days of Gribshunden’s departure from Copenhagen,
as fresh ginger has a short shelf life. Other foodstuffs recovered from Gribshunden could be
stored for far longer than fresh ginger. Spices from far distant origin, such as black pepper, saf-
fron, and cloves would keep for long periods if they remained dry. Dill, black mustard, and
caraway were likely sourced locally. Flaxseeds, almond, and hazelnut have long storage lives. It
is probable that nuts were stored on board in their shells and cracked opened when ready for
consumption, as broken shell parts were recovered from both nut species.
It is tempting to compare this wide variety of fresh produce to records of medieval maritime
provisioning; but as the royal flagship, Gribshunden is a special case. Instead, the exotic food-
stuffs from the king’s spice cabinet provide a window into the consumption patterns that likely
followed in the elite landscapes of castles ashore. Despite the popularity of exotic spices among
the medieval aristocracy, very few of these foods have survived archaeologically. The preserva-
tion of these plant foods on Gribshunden constitutes a discovery of great historical value.
Spices and other exotic foods such as almonds were typically consumed only by society’s
wealthiest. On Gribshunden these were not victuals for the working crew. Exotic food items
are probably some of the most easily identifiable indicators of social context. King Hans was
travelling on the ship together with his courtiers; these expensive exotic foods are linked to
these passengers.
Danish archival sources from 1487 relate brief but telling details specific to King Hans’
expenses and activities aboard his flagship [38]. While laid up awaiting favorable winds in
1487 en route to Gotland and at a stop on Bornholm island on the return, Hans gambled on
card games. In those few weeks, his recorded losses totaled 42 marks, nearly the annual salary
of one of the ship’s senior officers. He ate candy and nuts, and with his companions, drank
wine and particularly beer. On that voyage the ship reprovisioned with fresh barrels of local
beer, as well as embstøll, a hopped Prussian beer originally brewed in Einbeck, Germany.
Other recorded purchases for Hans’ sea voyages are consistent. He bought more confectionar-
ies for the apothecary, nuts, and saffron while voyaging to Års, Jylland, Denmark. The amount
of saffron purchased was prodigious: the cost was 36 mark danske, equivalent to nine months
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 22 / 31
of salary for a senior officer on Gribshunden, or 18 months of salary for a sailor [38]. These
documentary references combined with the remains of saffron, almonds, and hazelnut recov-
ered from Gribshunden’s 1495 wrecking prove that the king regularly consumed these extrava-
gant foods while at sea, and most probably while ashore.
In addition to information about the specific foodstuffs consumed, the written sources
reveal circumstantial information about procedures and etiquette related to the king’s elite
milieu at sea. The Gribshunden accounts of 1493 list royal court employees [38]. The kelders-
wen (ka¨llarsven), perhaps similar to an army quartermaster, managed the food stores. The
dugeswen”, perhaps similar to a chief steward, was responsible for laying out the royal tables
for meals and banquets. No doubt similar roles and procedures were spelled out and followed
when King Hans traveled on his flagship two years later.
The social context of luxury foods and spices
Food, both in its acquisition and consumption, provides insights to the economic and social
aspects of a society. The archaeobotanical assemblage from Gribshunden shines a light on late
medieval Nordic social structure. As King Hans traveled aboard his flagship on its final voyage,
accompanied by a fleet of perhaps 18 other vessels, different social groups walked those decks.
The king represented the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, the royal court and nobles repre-
sented the elite, the ship’s captain and senior officers another stratum, and the hired soldiers
and ship’s crew the lowest social group in this floating castle. All of these individuals played
important roles in the pageantry of the Kalmar political summit.
Saffron, black pepper, clove, ginger, almonds and grapes were exotic foods and spices out of
reach for most people in medieval society due to cost and rarity. Only those who possessed suf-
ficient financial resources could afford these expensive food items, a luxury limited to the
elites. The elite certainly enjoyed consuming these foods, but their high cost and exotic nature
also marked their social status [130].
The role of luxury foods and spices on Gribshunden may have served different purposes.
The types of luxury foods found were primarily those of flavorings, and while at sea, these
could have had been used for preparation of meals served to the King and his men, and other
dried foods (grapes and nuts) could have been enjoyed as snacks. An interesting analog is a
later royal document from 1627, which show that Gustav II Adolf (King of Sweden 1611–32)
was well-stocked with spices and other exclusive foods on his naval trips [131]. Cucumbers,
almonds, rice, figs, ginger, pepper, anise, nutmeg, saffron and alum were on his menu. Such
historic documentation together with the botanical food remains from Gribshunden, suggest
that consumption of luxury foods among royals was not limited to the main living quarters on
land, but was part of the royal environment at all times, even at sea. Food is more than diet. It
is inextricably linked to the expression of social and cultural identity. The consumption of lux-
urious foods was a crucial aspect of King Hans’ and other monarchs’ presentation of them-
selves to their subjects.
Had Gribshunden safely arrived in Kalmar, from its decks Hans would have employed all
manner of elite signaling to impress the Swedish Council. The consumption of exotic foods
certainly was symbolic of prestige and social superiority within Hans’ realm. It also demon-
strated that King Hans and medieval Denmark were culturally integrated with the rest of
Europe, and the world beyond the continental borders. The goal of the Kalmar negotiations
was for Sweden to re-join the Nordic Union, consolidating the entire region under Hans’ rule.
During the summer-long summit, Hans would have hosted banquets for the Swedish Council,
possibly onboard Gribshunden but more likely on the grounds of Kalmar Castle and within the
castle itself. Through hospitality and feasting, food is recognized in many cultures as a tool for
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 23 / 31
the creation and maintenance of social relations. Feasting embodies two principal characteris-
tics: first, a communal aspect of consumption in large groups, with food (and drinks) that are
different from everyday practices; and second, a display of social prominence, with the presen-
tation of food conveying economic success, high status, and cultural power [130]. Additionally,
knowledge from and of foreign cultures is a way for the e
´lites in stratified societies to manifest
their status and secure political power [132]. All of the events that might have procceded in
Kalmar were likely constructed not merely for practical purposes; they were political theater.
The presentation of exclusive foods and decorative dishes would, in both organization and
content, be designed as an integral part of the entertainment, and be a part of the display of the
king’s status and power.
The banquets hosted by the elites featured feasting and lavish displays. These established
and strengthened relationships, and were critical activities to bind political support and net-
works between states [133,134]. An example of this from the late medieval period is the great
feast hosted by Henry VIII at Greenwich in 1527 to celebrate the conclusion of a treaty with
France. From written accounts of the event, the courtly feast displayed a variety of luxurious
foods and featured several exotic plant foods, such as clove, ginger, almond, mace, and cinna-
mon (but no saffron) [108]. If King Hans planned a banquet, the use of exotic foods and spices
in elaborate cuisine would have showcased the symbolic power of the Danish crown. It would
have been clear to all witnesses and participants that the Danish court followed the culinary
trends of European courtly societies. It would have signaled the cosmopolitan identity of the
king, his access to luxury commodities from far distant origins, and his royal court’s position
in the global economy.
Along with hosting feasts, gift-giving played an integral part in the building and strengthen-
ing of relations in medieval culture [135]. Gifts of food and drink were common across medie-
val society. They could be contributions in kind to feasts or celebrations, or take the form of
support and donations to individuals or institutions [136,137]. These gifts were as significant
as the rank of the donor. In the upper echelon of northern European society, the range of gifted
foodstuffs could be venison or other game, high-status birds, fresh fish, and wine [136]. Gifts
played an important role in negotiations as well. The role of spices as prestige commodities
during the Middle Ages was underlined by their use as gifts on political occasions [135]. For
instance, spices prepared as gifts for ambassadors in the Baltic region are documented from
Reval [46]. In 1494, the Reval Town Council sent an ambassador to Moscow. As gifts to dukes
and a bishop, he presented foodstuffs including boxes of spices. On another occasion when
traveling to meet nobles in Wenden and Narva in 1498, among the foods presented by the
ambassador from Reval were pepper, saffron, ginger, and mustard. Gribshunden’s luxury foods
similarly might have been intended as representation gifts on arrival in Kalmar. Similar to
feasts, gifts made by the crown would express an opportunity to secure the peace by strength-
ening a personal relationship between the two rulers. Gifts, banquet ingredients, or at-sea con-
sumables: given the context and the circumstances of the journey, all are possible purposes for
the exotic foods recovered from Gribshunden.
This first study of plant remains from the 15
century flagship Gribshunden demonstrates that
delicate plant parts that normally do not survive in the archaeological contexts on land can
persist in the marine environment. The archaeological potential of plant remains in underwa-
ter environments connected to wreck sites is extraordinary. The presence of a range of eco-
nomic plants aboard the ship indicates a high-status lifestyle involving the use of luxury foods.
The exceptional finds of saffron, clove, ginger, black peppercorn, and almond from the
Plant remains of spices from a medieval shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
PLOS ONE | January 26, 2023 24 / 31
shipwreck offer a unique keyhole view to the historical consumption and social signifying of
luxurious foods. Access to these items was restricted by high cost. On Gribshunden as on
shore, the possession and consumption of such luxury plants would be inextricably linked to
the most elite social milieu.
Supporting information
S1 Table. List of archaeobotanical plant remains from the Gribshunden wreck site.
The authors thank Blekinge Museum Director Marcus Sandekjer and Head of Collections
Christoffer Sandahl. We acknowledge the 2021 archaeological field team: Jan-Erik Andersson,
Staffan von Arbin, Mikael Bjo¨rk, Paola Derudas, Paolo Iglic, Marie Jonsson, and Phillip Short.
We thank Marcus Lecaros for image editing. The authors thank the academic editors and
anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions.
Author Contributions
Conceptualization: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Data curation: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Formal analysis: Mikael Larsson.
Funding acquisition: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Investigation: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Methodology: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Project administration: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Resources: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Supervision: Mikael Larsson.
Validation: Mikael Larsson.
Visualization: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Writing original draft: Mikael Larsson, Brendan Foley.
Writing review & editing: Mikael Larsson.
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