Fish and Ships

Weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse"

Welcome to the weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse". The aim of the project is to investigate the economic and cultural connections of merchants from Northern German cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland and Faroe during the 15th to 17th centuries. The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven and funded by the Leibniz Association (2015-2018).The research is carried out by four team members, each with their individual research objectives and disciplinary background. With this blog we want to provide information about the current state of our research, and create a platform to make available results and new knowledge. Read more...

El Gran Grífon – The story of a Hanseatic ship in the Spanish Armada, wrecked in Shetland

Philipp Grassel, 29 June 2017

In the 15th to 17th centuries, the North Atlantic Islands of Shetland, Faroe and Iceland were frequently visited by Hanseatic merchants, who usually made one voyage each year. The trading season started roughly in April and finished in August/September and because of its regular character, we have much information about the number of Hanseatic ships sailing North each year.

Map of the Shetland Islands with the positions of Hanseatic ship losses. Fair Isle and the wreck of the Gran Grífon can be seen in the smaller map (map created by P. Grassel)

In the middle of the 16th century, on average 5 ships per year from Bremen and 1 or 2 ships from Hamburg travelled to Shetland. Contemporary sources from 1560 speak of a minimum of 7 ships from Bremen and Hamburg in Shetland harbours. In Iceland, the numbers were even higher. For example in 1585, 14 ships from Hamburg alone and 8 ships from Bremen, Lübeck and Danzig reached Icelandic harbours, and in 1591 as many as 21 ships from Hamburg arrived in Iceland. In spite of these high numbers of voyages and some documented losses of Hanseatic ships – there are at least 10 known losses around Shetland and 3 losses around Iceland – no wrecks or remains of Hanseatic trading ships in the North Atlantic were found yet.

However, this does not mean that there are no Hanseatic trading vessels to be found in the North Atlantic at all. The only wreck which could be considered as Hanseatic are the remains of the El Gran Grífon (The great Griffin). This ship, which is the oldest known wreck both in Shetland and of all the North Atlantic islands, has a quite unusual history.

As the name already suggests, the Gran Grífon did not end up in Shetland by merchants from Bremen or Hamburg. Instead it was part of the famous Spanish Armada. This was a Spanish fleet which was sent in 1588 by the Spanish King Philipp II to invade England. The operation was a complete failure; the bulk of the fleet was lost after attacks by the English Navy and subsequent bad weather conditions on the North Sea.

The Gran Grífon itself was a former Hanseatic merchant vessel from Rostock, a Hansa Town in the Baltic Sea, and was bought by the Spanish Navy for the Armada. This was not unusual; merchant ships were in this time often converted for military use in times of war. After the ship had been roughly modified, it was used as the flagship for a squadron of 23 supply and troop ships. These poorly armed squadrons, called urca squadrons, consisted of acquired merchant vessels and were commanded by Juan Gomez de Medina. The ship had a tonnage of 650 tons, a length of around 30 m and an armament of 38 unspecified cannons. The original crew of 43 men were supplemented with around 200 soldiers. So all in all carried the ship over 243 men.

Part of the wreck site of the Gran Grífon, with remains found in situ (see Martin 1998, 36, fig.19)

After some battles with the English Navy, which took the lives of over 40 soldiers and seamen, the ship was driven to the North of the British Isles. It was accompanied by other Armada vessels like the Barca de Amburgo (probably another converted Hanseatic ship from Hamburg), Castillo Negro and La Trinidad Valencera. After the Barca de Amburgo sank, the Gran Grífon and the Trinidad Valencera took over the surviving men.

Shortly afterwards the contact between the ships was lost and the Gran Grífon sailed in a South-West direction, trying to get back to Spain through the Atlantic. However, after the ship reached the latitude of the Galway Bay in Western Ireland, a strong gale from the South-West got up and flouted the Ship back North. Since the ship was heavily damaged, Juan Gomez de Medina decided to search for the nearest possible land. This turned out to be Fair Isle, the most southern and remote island of the Shetland archipelago. The ship tried to anchor in vain before it was driven ashore and ended up on a cliff at Stroms Hellier at the Southeastern end of the island in September 1588. Most of the remaining crew members and soldiers, including Gomez de Medina, managed to escape from the ship before it disappeared in the waves.

Some excavated parts of the artillery of the Gran Grífon (see Martin 1998, 44, fig.28)

For a long time, the wreck remained untouched in the 9-18m deep water. In 1728, W. Irvine salvaged three cannons from the wreck. An archaeological excavation was carried out between 1970 and 1977 by the Institute of Maritime Archaeology of St Andrews University, led by C. Martin. Unfortunately the wreck was barely preserved. Parts of the stern, a rudder pintle, cannons of different sizes, coins, cannon balls, musket bullets and lead ingots were found, recorded and removed. Other, smaller finds like the handle of a pewter or “Hanseatic” flagon, as well as a curved iron blade, were also recovered. The wooden part of the stern was preserved under a boulder, which had tumbled down from the nearby cliff. Most of the finds were brought to Lerwick, where they can be partly seen at the Shetland Museum.

Further reading:

K. Friedland, Der hansische Shetlandhandel, in: K. Friedland, Stadt und Land in der Geschichte des Ostseeraums (Lübeck 1973) 66-79.

C. Martin, Cave of the Tide Race – El Gran Grifon, 1588, in: C. Martin, Scotland’s Historic Shipwrecks (London 1998) 28-45.

P. Grassel, Late Hanseatic seafaring from Hamburg and Bremen to the North Atlantic Islands. With a marine archaeological excursus in the Shetland Islands, Skyllis. Zeitschrift für marine und limnische Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte, 15.2, 2015, 172-182.

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Dendrochronology of the ‘Bremen Cog’ (Newspaper article)

Bart Holterman, 27 April 2016

Last week Aoife Daly came to the museum in Bremerhaven to take samples of the wood of the so-called Bremen Cog, our famous 14th-century ship wreck, to use them for dendrochronological research. Martina Albert came along to see what she was doing and wrote a nice article (in German) about the work on the ship, published in the Nordsee-Zeitung, 22 April 2016. With kind permission of the author.

A photo impression of the dendrochronological sampling can be seen on our facebook page.

nordseezeitung 22-04-2016

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The 14th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology in Gdańsk/Poland 21.-25. September 2015

Mike Belasus, 25 November 2015

Group photo in front of the medieval crane in Gdańsk made by Paweł Jóźwiak from the National Maritime Museum

Group photo in front of the medieval crane in Gdańsk made by Paweł Jóźwiak from the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk.

From September 21st until September 25th, I participated in the 14th International Symposium for Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 14) in Gdańsk, Poland. My contribution was a talk with the title: “Those bits and pieces from the Baltic shores – Evidence for medieval shipping along the German Baltic Sea coast”. Even though this topic seems to be a bit farfetched considering the topic of our project “Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea”, it bears an important insight into the principles of technical change in medieval and early modern shipbuilding. Moreover when dealing with the North Atlantic trade we face the problem of a lack of archaeological source material. There are several reasons for this situation. The wrecks we know today from the southern North Sea coast are found in the rivers or on land within towns. Here they are often better protected than in the open sea. Some wrecks, foremost in the Netherlands, were found in the Wadden Sea but this is quite rare and requires a certain level of sediment coverage of the site to protect the wreck from wood-degrading microorganisms. Therefore it is not easy to find wooden wrecks in the North Sea. Moreover, the conditions for archaeological documentation are difficult due to weather, tides and swell in the rather unprotected sea. At the destinations of trade in the North Atlantic, ship archaeology is in a very early stage, especially in Iceland. As a consequence we depend on material evidence from for example the Baltic Sea to construct a model of development in shipbuilding that might have influenced the North Atlantic trade of the merchants from Hamburg and Bremen.
The presentation at ISBSA 14 focused on development processes in medieval shipbuilding, which was based on tradition handed over from one generation to the next without the use of written documents, drawings or formulas. An important aspect of the examination was the possibility of changes in shipbuilding by technical transfer between different building methods, in particular between native and introduced methods. Due to the fact that only a very limited number of medieval ship finds along the German Baltic coast are properly documented, this study was mainly based on re-used ship timbers and fragments found in town excavations. Still these bits and pieces give enough technical data for comparative analyses.
The result of this research confirms that shipbuilding methods did not just change without reason. Similarly, technical transfer did not just take place because of the presence of ships built with a different method in the same waters. In fact, technical transfer seems to have been the last choice for changes within traditional building techniques in the medieval period. Changes appear to be alterations within traditional knowledge. The main reasons for changes are economical and aim for greater shipping capacities and rationalisation or simplification of the building process.
What does this mean for the project? Towards the end of the medieval period, the building of ships with flush outer planking appeared in northern Europe. It often has been assumed that the knowledge to build ships in this fashion was simply copied from foreign ships. Instead, the archaeological evidence points towards a development or self-invention of flush-planked carvel-built vessels from within the building traditions of the clinker or Kollerup-Bremen Type building methods. Could these changes, that took place in the second half of the 15th century, have been decisive for the German merchants’ choice to sail the North Atlantic to trade?
The results will be published in the Symposiums proceedings.

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