Vasa (ship)

Vasa (ship)

"Vasa" (or "Wasa") [The original name of the ship was "Wasen"/"Wassen" ("The Sheaf"), after the sheaf in the coat of arms of the House of Vasa, which was also part of the coat of arms of Sweden at the time. "Vasa" has since become the most widely recognized name of the ship because of the popular familiarity with the House of Vasa and the diminutive secondary connotations that the word "vase" has taken on in many Swedish dialects (i.e., "small boy").] was a warship that was built for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden from 1626 to 1628. The ship foundered and sank after sailing less than a nautical mile (ca 2 km) into her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. "Vasa" fell into obscurity after initial attempts at recovering her valuable cannons in the 17th century but was located again in the late 1950s, in a busy shipping lane just outside the Stockholm harbour. She was salvaged with a largely intact hull on April 24, 1961. She was housed in a temporary museum called "Wasavarvet" ("The Wasa Shipyard") until 1987, and was then moved to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. The ship is one of Sweden's most popular tourist attractions and, as of 2007, has attracted more than 25 million visitors.

"Vasa" was built top-heavy with insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, she was allowed to set sail and foundered a few minutes later when she first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze. The impulsive move to set sail resulted from a combination of factors. King Gustavus Adolphus, who was abroad on the date of her maiden voyage, was impatient to see "Vasa" join the Baltic fleet in the Thirty Years' War. At the same time, the king's subordinates lacked the political courage to discuss the ship's structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed. An inquiry was organized by the privy council to find someone responsible for the disaster, but no sentences were handed out.

During the 1961 recovery, thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least 15 people were found in and around the hull of the "Vasa" by marine archaeologists. Among the many items found were clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, cutlery, food, drink and six of the ten sails. The artifacts and the ship itself have provided historians with invaluable insight into details of naval warfare, shipbuilding techniques and everyday life in early 17th-century Sweden. When she was built, "Vasa" was intended to express the expansionist aspirations of Sweden and its king, Gustavus Adolphus, and no expense was spared in decorating and equipping her. She was one of the largest and most heavily armed warships of her time and was adorned with hundreds of sculptures, all of them painted in vivid colors.


During the 17th century, Sweden went from being a small, poor, and peripheral northern European kingdom of little influence to one of the major players in continental politics and, between 1611 and 1718, one of the most powerful states in the Baltic Sea. This rise to prominence in international affairs and increase in military prowess, called "stormaktstiden" (translated as the "age of greatness" or the "great power period"), was made possible by a succession of able monarchs and the establishment of a powerful centralized state with a highly efficient military machine. Swedish historians have often described this as one of the more extreme examples of a country using almost all of its available resources to wage war; the small northern kingdom transformed itself into a fiscal-military state. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 36–39; see also Jan Glete's paper " [ The Swedish fiscal-military state and its navy, 1521–1721] "]

Among the ablest and most militarily successful of Swedish rulers was Gustavus Adolphus. When "Vasa" was built, he had been king for more than a decade. The navy was in poor shape and Sweden was deeply embroiled in a war with Poland, and looked apprehensively at the development of the Thirty Years' War in present day Germany. The war had been raging since 1618 and from a Protestant perspective it was not going well. The king's plans for the Polish campaign and for securing Sweden's interests required a strong naval presence in the Baltic.Roberts]

The navy suffered several severe setbacks during the 1620s. In 1625, a squadron cruising off the Bay of Riga was caught in a storm and 10 ships ran aground and were wrecked. In the Battle of Oliwa in 1627, a Swedish squadron was outmaneuvered and defeated by a larger Polish force and two large ships were lost. "Tigern" ("The Tiger"), which was the Swedish admiral's flagship, was captured by the Poles, and "Solen" ("The Sun") was blown up by her own crew when she was boarded and almost captured. In 1628, three more large ships were lost in less than a month; admiral Klas Fleming's flagship "Kristina" was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Danzig, "Riksnyckeln" ("Key of the Realm") ran aground at Viksten in the southern archipelago of Stockholm and, perhaps most inopportunely for the Swedish crown, "Vasa" foundered on her maiden voyage. Gustavus Adolphus was engaged in naval warfare on several fronts, which further exacerbated the difficulties of the navy. In addition to battling the Polish navy, the Swedes were threatened by Catholic forces that had invaded Jutland. While the Swedish king had little sympathy for the Danish king, Christian IV (Denmark and Sweden had been bitter enemies for well over a century), Sweden feared a Catholic conquest of Copenhagen and Zealand. This would have granted the Catholic powers control over the strategic passages between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, which would be disastrous for Swedish interests. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 47]

Until the early 17th century, the Swedish navy comprised primarily smaller one-decker ships with relatively light guns; these ships were cheaper than larger ships and were well-suited for escort and patrol. However, a fleet of large ships was a bold statement and an effective way to impose authority on enemies and allies alike. For the ambitious Gustavus Adolphus, a navy with a core of powerful capital ships was an opportunity that could not be missed. "Vasa" was the first in a series of five ships intended to be among the heaviest and most splendid of their time. The four other ships, "Äpplet", "Kronan", "Scepter" and "Göta Ark", were successful and formed the backbone of the Swedish navy until the 1660s. Of these so-called "regalskepp" (usually translated as "royal ships"), "Vasa" was meant to be the grandest. The second of the large ships, "Äpplet" ("The Apple"; the Swedish term for the globus cruciger), was built simultaneously with "Vasa". ["Vasa I"; Hocker, p. 39]


Just before "Vasa" was ordered, work at the Stockholm shipyard was led by Antonius Monier, with Dutch-born Henrik Hybertsson as hired shipbuilder. On January 16, 1625, Henrik and his brother, Arendt Hybertsson de Groote, took over the shipyard and soon signed a contract to build four ships, two larger with a keel of around convert|135|ft|m and two smaller of convert|108|ft|m.Sandström (1982)]

After a few years, the shipyard ran into economic problems, delaying the construction of the contracted ships. At the same time, the Swedish navy lost 10 ships in a single storm, and the king sent a worried letter to Admiral Klas Fleming, asking him to make sure that Henrik hurried the construction of the two smaller ships. Along with the letter, the king sent measurements for the ship, which was to have a keel of convert|120|ft|m. That gave Henrik Hybertsson new problems, because the measurements ordered by the king fell between those of the larger and smaller vessels in the original contract, and the timber had already been cut. In a new letter, on February 22, 1626, the king again demanded that his measurements for the new ship be followed. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 43–44] Hybertsson never saw Vasa completed; he fell ill in late 1625, one year into construction, and died in the spring of 1627. The supervision of the shipbuilding was given to Hybertsson's assistant, Henrik 'Hein' Jacobsson, also a Dutch immigrant. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 41]

"Vasa's" hull was complete enough to be launched in 1627, probably during the spring. After this, work most likely began on finishing the upper deck, the stern castle, the beakhead and the rigging. At the time, Sweden had still not developed a sizeable sailcloth industry, and sailcloth had to be ordered from abroad, some from France but also from Germany and the Low Countries. The sails were mostly made of hemp and partly of flax. The rigging was made entirely of hemp imported from Latvia through Riga. The king visited the shipyard in January 1628 and made what was probably his only visit aboard the ship. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 47–50]

While the ship was being equipped, Admiral Fleming ordered a test of "Vasa"'s stability. The standard stability test of the day was to have 30 sailors run from one side of the ship to the other to assess the tendency of the ship to rock. When this was attempted on "Vasa", the ship began to roll significantly after only three runs, and the test was aborted. Fleming allegedly said, "Had they run more times, she would have keeled over". Surprisingly enough, neither Hein Jacobsson nor Johan Isbrandsson, the two shipbuilders in charge, were present for the test. In response to the test, boatswain Matsson is said to have uttered, "God hope it will stay on its keel", to which the admiral replied, "The master shipbuilder surely has built ships before, so Matsson need have no worries of that kind".Kvarning, p. 29] The ship was dangerously unstable, as Captain Hansson, the admiral and at least parts of the crew knew after the stability test. Fleming no doubt wished the king were present during the launch, but he was occupied in Poland, and was sending a steady stream of dispatches instructing that the ship be launched immediately. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 53]

Much confusion exists about whether "Vasa" was lengthened during construction and whether an additional gun deck was added late during the build. Little evidence suggests that "Vasa" was substantially modified after the keel was laid. Ships contemporary to "Vasa" that were elongated were cut in half and new timbers spliced between the existing sections, making the addition readily identifiable, but no such addition can be identified in "Vasa". The addition of a second gun deck is harder to refute, but significant evidence exists against it. The king ordered seventy-two 24-pound cannons for the ship on August 5, 1626, and this was too many to fit on a single gun deck. Since the king's order was issued less than five months after construction started, it would have come early enough for the second deck to be included in the design. The French "Galion du Guise", the ship used as a model for "Vasa", according to Arendt Hybertsson, also had two gun decks. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 45–46]


"Vasa" was built during a time of transition in naval tactics, from an era when boarding was still one of the primary ways of fighting enemy ships to an era of the strictly organized ship-of-the-line and a focus on victory through superior firepower. "Vasa" was armed with powerful guns and a high stern, which would act as a firing platform in boarding actions for some of the 300 soldiers she was supposed to carry. She was neither the largest ship ever built, nor did she have the greatest number of guns. What made her arguably the most powerful warship of the time was that her broadside, the combined weight of the ammunition that could be fired from the cannons of one side, was convert|588|lb|kg. This was the most massive broadside yet conceived, and it was not until the 1630s that a ship capable of hurling a greater weight of shot was built. This massive advantage in firepower was fitted into a ship that was quite small relative to the armament carried. For comparison, the "USS Constitution", a famous Napoleonic era frigate built 169 years after "Vasa", had a broadside that was about equivalent to "Vasa"'s but was more than 700 tonnes (1.5 million lb) heavier. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 49]

Naval gunnery in the 17th century was still in its infancy. Guns were very expensive and had a much longer lifespan than any warship. Using guns for almost a century was not unheard of, and most warships would only be used for 15 to 20 years. In Sweden and in many European countries, a ship would not "own" its guns but for every mission would instead be issued a specific armament from the armory. Ships were therefore mostly fitted with guns of very diverse age and size. What allowed "Vasa" to carry so much firepower was not merely that an unusually large number of guns were crammed into a relatively small ship but that forty-six of the forty-eight 24-pounders were of a new and standardized lightweight design. (The remaining two were heavier 24-pounders of an older design). The cannons on "Vasa" were still made from individual casts but had such uniform precision in their design that their primary dimensions varied by only a few millimeters, and their bores were almost exactly convert|146|mm|in. The remaining armament of "Vasa" consisted of eight 3-pounders, six large caliber howitzers for use during boarding actions, and two 1-pound falconets. Also included on board were convert|894|kg|lb of powder and various shot for the guns. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 47–51]


As was the custom with warships at the time, "Vasa" was decorated with sculptures intended to glorify the authority, wisdom and martial prowess of the monarch and also to deride, taunt and frighten the enemy. The sculptures made up a considerable part of the effort and cost of building the ship and added considerably to its weight, thereby hampering its maneuverability. The symbolism used in decorating the ship is mostly based on the Renaissance idealization of Roman and Greek antiquity, which had been imported from Italy through German and Dutch artists. Imagery borrowed from Mediterranean antiquity dominate the motifs, which also include figures from the Old Testament and even a few from ancient Egypt. Many of the figures are in a Dutch grotesque style depicting fantastic and frightening creatures, including mermaids, savages, sea monsters and tritons. The decoration inside the ship is much more sparse and is largely confined to the officers' quarters and the admiral's cabin, both of which are in the stern.

Residues of paint have been found on many sculptures and on other parts of the ship. The entire ornamentation was once painted in bright, vivid colors and in some cases enhanced with gold leaf. The sides of the beakhead (the protruding structure below the bowsprit), the bulwarks (the protective railing around the weather deck), the roofs of the quarter galleries, and the background of the transom were all painted red, while the sculptures were decorated with natural colors, and the dazzling effect of these was in some places reinforced with patches of gold leaf. Previously, it was believed that the background color had been blue and that most of the sculptures had been almost entirely gilded, and this is reflected in many paintings of "Vasa" from the 1970s to the early 90s, such as the lively and dramatic drawings of Björn Landström or the painting by Francis Smitheman. [See sample from Smitheman's website [ here] ] In the late 1990s, this was revised and the colors are properly reflected in more recent reproductions of the ship's decoration by maritime painter Tim Thompson. "Vasa" is an example not so much of the heavily gilded sculptures of early Baroque art but rather "the last gasps of the medieval sculpture tradition" with its fondness for gaudy colors, closely resembling what today might be called kitsch. ["Vasa I", Hocker p. 47]

The sculptures are carved out of oak, pine or linden, and many of the larger pieces, like the huge 3-meter (10 ft) figurehead lion, consist of several parts carved individually and fitted together with bolts. Close to 500 sculptures, most of which are concentrated on the high stern and its galleries and on the beakhead, are found on the ship. [Soop, pp. 20–21] The figure of Hercules appears as a pair of pendants, one younger and one older, on each side of the lower stern galleries; the pendants depict opposite aspects of the ancient hero, who was extremely popular during antiquity as well as in 17th century European art. On the transom (the flat surface at the stern of the ship) are biblical and nationalistic symbols and images. A particularly popular motif is the lion, which can be found as the mascarons originally fitted on the insides of the gunport doors, as grasping the royal coat of arms on either side, as the 3-meter-long (10 ft) figurehead, and even clinging to the top of the rudder. Each side of the beakhead originally had 20 figures (though only 19 have actually been found) that represented Roman emperors from Tiberius to Septimius Severus. Overall, almost all heroic and positive imagery is directly or indirectly identified with the king and was originally intended to glorify him as an absolute and flawless ruler. The only actual portrait of the king is at the very top of the transom, where he is depicted as a young boy with long, flowing hair who is about to be crowned by two griffins representing the king's father, Charles IX. [Soop, pp. 18–27]

A team of at least six expert sculptors worked for a minimum of two years on the sculptures, most likely with the assistance of an unknown number of apprentices and assistants. No direct credit for any of the sculptures has been provided, but the distinct style of one of the most senior artists, Mårten Redtmer, is clearly identifiable. Other accomplished artists, like Hans Clausink, Johan Didrichson Tijsen (or Thessen in Swedish) and possibly Marcus Ledens, are known to have been employed for extensive work at the naval yards at the time "Vasa" was built, but their respective styles are not distinct enough to associate them directly with any specific sculptures. The artistic quality of the sculptures varies considerably, and about four distinct styles can be identified. The only one that can be directly associated with any one individual is the work of Mårten Redtmer, whose style has been described as "powerful, lively and naturalistic" [Soop, p. 247] and can with great certainty be identified in a considerable percentage of the sculptures. These include some of the most important and prestigious pieces: the figurehead lion, the royal coat of arms and the sculpture of the king at the top of the transom. Two of the other styles are described as "elegant … a little stereotyped and manneristic", and of a "heavy, leisurely but nevertheless rich and lively style", respectively. The fourth and last style, deemed clearly inferior to the other three, is described as "stiff and ungainly" [Quotes from Soop, p. 252] and was done by unidentified carvers, perhaps even apprentices, of lesser skill. [Soop, pp. 241–253]

Maiden voyage

On August 10, 1628, Captain Söfring Hansson ordered "Vasa" to set sail on her maiden voyage to the naval station at Älvsnabben. The day was calm, and the only wind was a light breeze from the southwest. The ship was towed along the waterfront to the southern side of the harbor, where three sails were set, and the ship made way to the east. The gun ports were open, and the guns were out to fire a salute as the ship left Stockholm. Finally the great ship had begun her voyage. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 53]

After "Vasa" emerged from the lee of the city, a gust of wind filled her sails, and she heeled suddenly to port. The sheets were cast off, and the ship slowly righted herself as the gust passed. Soon another gust came, which again forced the ship onto her port side, this time causing water to flow through the open lower gun ports. The incoming rush of water caused "Vasa" to heel further, and she sank to a depth of convert|32|m|ft only convert|120|m|ft from shore. Survivors clung to debris to save themselves, and many nearby boats rushed to their aid, but despite these efforts and the short distance to land, 30 to 50 people perished with the ship, according to reports. The flags and the tops of the main and fore masts, still visible above the surface, leaned heavily to port because of ballast that had shifted during the sinking. "Vasa" sank in full view of a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly ordinary Stockholmers who had come to see the great ship set sail. The crowd included foreign ambassadors, in effect spies of Gustavus Adolphus' allies and enemies, who also saw the catastrophe. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 53–54.]


The king was notified by letter of "Vasa"'s fate on August 27. "Imprudence and negligence" must have been the cause, he wrote angrily in his reply, demanding in no uncertain terms that the guilty parties be punished. Captain Söfring Hansson, who survived the disaster, was immediately imprisoned, awaiting trial. Under initial interrogation, he swore that the guns had been properly secured and the crew sober. A full inquest, organized by a committee, many members of which were also on the privy council, took place before a court of admirals and councilors on September 5, 1628. Each of the surviving officers was questioned as was the supervising shipwright and a number of expert witnesses. Also present at the inquest was the Admiral of the Realm. The object of the inquest was as much or more to find a scapegoat as to find out why the ship had sunk. Whomever the committee might find guilty for the huge fiasco would face a severe penalty.Kvarning, pp. 25–35] Surviving crew members were questioned one by one about the handling of the ship at the time of the disaster. Was she rigged properly for the wind? Was the crew sober? Was the ballast properly stowed? Were the guns properly secured? However, no one was prepared to take the blame. Crewmen and contractors formed two camps; each tried to blame the other, and everyone swore he had done his duty without fault. In the end, the answers were deemed satisfactory, and no incriminating evidence was found. [Kvarning, pp. 29–35] ["Vasa I", pp. 55–60]

Later, the focus was on the ship builders. "Why did you build the ship so narrow, so badly and without enough bottom that it capsized?" the shipwright Jacobsson was asked by the investigators. ["Vasa I", p. 36] He fell back on the classic strategy of civil servants; he had simply followed orders. Jacobsson stated that he built the ship as directed by Henrik Hybertsson (long since dead and buried), who in turn had followed the instructions of the king. Jacobsson had in fact widened the ship by convert|1.38|ft|cm after taking over the construction, but the ship's construction was too far along to allow further widening. ["Vasa I", p. 36]

In the end, no guilty party could be found. "Only God knows", was the answer Arendt Hybertsson gave when asked by the court why the ship sank. [Kvarning, pp. 25–32] Gustavus Adolphus had approved all measurements and armaments, and the ship was built according to the instructions and loaded with the number of guns specified. In the end, no one was punished or found guilty for negligence, and the sinking was explained as an act of God. The sinking of "Vasa" was a major economic disaster; the ship's cost was more than 40,000 dalers, a huge expense for the small Swedish state. [Kvarning, pp. 16, 25–32]

Early recovery attempts

Less than three days after the disaster, a contract was put out for the ship to be raised. However, those efforts were unsuccessful. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 69] The earliest attempts at raising "Vasa" by English engineer Ian Bulmer resulted in righting the ship somewhat to starboard but also got her more securely stuck in the mud and was most likely one of the biggest impediments to the earliest attempts at recovery. ["Vasa I", Hafström p. 69 ]

Salvaging technology in the early 17th century was much more primitive than today, but the recovery of ships was based on roughly the same principles as was used to raise "Vasa" more than 300 years later. Two ships or hulks were placed parallel to either side of the wreck site, and ropes attached to several anchors were sent down and hooked to the ship. The two hulks were filled with as much water as was safe, the ropes tightened, and the water pumped out. The sunken ship then rose with the ships on the surface and could be towed to shallower waters. The process was then repeated until the entire ship was successfully raised above water level. ["Vasa I", Hocker p. 98–104] Even if the underwater weight of "Vasa" was not great, the mud in which she had settled made her sit more secure on the bottom and required considerable lifting power to overcome.

More than 30 years after the ship's sinking, in 1664, Albreckt von Treileben and Andreas Peckell mounted an effort to recover the valuable guns. With a simple diving bell, the team of a Swede and a German retrieved more than 50 of them. ["Vasa I", Hafström, pp. 88–89]

Such activity waned when it became clear that the ship could not be raised by the technology of the time. However, "Vasa" did not fall completely into obscurity after the recovery of the guns. The ship was mentioned in several histories of Sweden and the Swedish Navy, but the exact location of the ship and the details surrounding it tended to vary. In 1844, the navy officer Anton Ludwig Fahnehjelm turned in a request for salvaging rights to the ship, claiming he had located it. Fahnehjelm was an inventor who designed an early form of light diving suit and had previously been involved in other salvage operations. No records exist of any major salvage attempts after Fahnehjelm filed his request, and it has been assumed that none was actually made. Recently, a map found in the Stockholm City Museum archives dated to the late 1830s marks the exact location of the ship with the word "wrak" ("wreck") and a dotted circle as well as detailed depth markings around the wreck site. In 1999, a witness also claimed that his father, a petty officer in the Swedish navy, had partaken in diving exercises down to "Vasa" in the 1920s. ["Vasa I", Hocker, pp. 142–143]

"Vasa" relocated

In the early 1950s, amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén considered the possibility of recovering wrecks from the cold brackish waters of the Baltic because, he reasoned, they were free from the shipworm "Teredo navalis", which usually destroys submerged wood rapidly in warmer, saltier seas. Franzén had previously been successful in locating wrecks such as "Riksäpplet" and "Lybska Svan", and after long and tedious research he began looking for "Vasa" as well. He spent many years probing the waters without success around the many assumed locations of the wreckage. He did not succeed until, based on accounts of an unknown topographical anomaly just south of the Gustav V dock on Beckholmen, he narrowed his search. In 1956, with a home-made, gravity-powered coring probe, he located a large wooden object almost parallel to the mouth of the dock on Beckholmen. The location of the ship received considerable attention, even if the identification of the ship could not be determined without closer investigation. Soon after the announcement of the find, plans were created to determine how to excavate and raise "Vasa". The Swedish Navy was involved from the start, as were various museums and the National Heritage board, representatives of which eventually formed the "Vasa" Committee, the predecessor of the "Vasa" Board. ["Vasa I", Cederlund and Hocker, pp. 172–180]


The wreck was lifted in a relatively straightforward way by digging six tunnels under the hull through which steel cables were attached to a pair of lifting pontoons. The work under the ship was extremely dangerous, requiring the divers to dig by flushing out mud with water sprayed through a Zetterström nozzle under high pressure. Visibility was practically zero most of the time, and was only a few meters in the best of conditions. ["Vasa", Cederlund, p. 234–244] A very real risk existed that the wreck could shift or settle deeper into the mud while a diver was working in a tunnel, trapping him underneath the wreckage. The almost vertical sections of the tunnels near the side of the hull could also potentially collapse and bury the man inside. ["Vasa I", Cederlund, p. 252] Despite the dangerous conditions, more than 1,300 dives were employed in the salvage operation without any serious accidents. [Kvarning, pp. 61–69]

The ship was raised in a series of 18 lifts in August and September 1959, bringing her from a depth of convert|32|m|ft to a more easily managed convert|16|m|ft in the more sheltered area of Kastellholmsviken, where she was prepared for the final lift during a year and a half. [Kvarning, p. 69] Debris and mud were cleared from the upper decks to lighten her, and she was made as watertight as possible. The gun ports were closed by means of temporary lids; a temporary replacement of the collapsed stern castle was constructed, and all the holes from the iron bolts that had rusted away were plugged. The first lift began on April 8, 1961, and on the morning of April 24, "Vasa" was ready to break the surface for the first time in 333 years. Press from all over the world, TV cameras, 400 invited guests on barges and boats, and thousands of spectators on shore watched as the first timbers broke the surface. The ship was then caulked and plugged up, placed on a floating pontoon and towed to the Gustav V dry dock to await the archaeological excavation of her innards. ["Vasa I", Cederlund, pp. 285–290]

From the end of 1961, "Vasa" was housed in a temporary structure called "Wasavarvet" ("The Vasa Shipyard"). The building was very cramped, making it impossible to see the entire ship at once. Visitors could view the ship from just two levels, and the maximum viewing distance was only convert|5|m|ft, which made it difficult for viewers to get an over-all view of the ship. In 1981, the Swedish government decided that a permanent building was to be constructed, and a design competition was organized. The ground was broken in 1987, and "Vasa" was towed to the half-finished Vasa Museum in December 1988. The museum was officially opened to the public in 1990. [Kvarning, pp. 163–173]


"Vasa" posed an unprecedented challenge for archaeologists. Never before had a four-story structure with most of its original contents largely undisturbed been available for excavation. ["Vasa I", Cederlund and Hocker, p. 298] The conditions under which the team had to work added to the difficulties. The ship had to be kept wet in order that it not dry out and crack before it could be properly conserved. Digging had to be performed under a constant drizzle of water and in a sludge-covered mud that could be more than a meter (ca. 3 ft) deep. In order to establish locations, the hull was divided into several sections demarcated by the many structural beams, the decking and by a line drawn along the center of the ship from stern to bow. For the most part, the decks were excavated individually, though at times work progressed on more than one deck level simultaneously. ["Vasa I", Cederlund and Hocker, p. 300]


"Vasa" had four preserved decks: the upper and lower gundecks, the hold and the orlop. Because of the constraints of preparing the ship for conservation, the archaeologists had to work quickly, in 13-hour shifts during the first week of excavation. The upper gundeck was greatly disturbed by interference, both from material from the collapsed decking and from contamination from the surrounding environment. ["Vasa I", Cederlund, p. 315] Nonetheless, the upper gundeck yielded many interesting finds such as a well-preserved chest of personal belongings including a felt hat, sewing tools, a comb, two pairs of shoes, a shoe last, gloves, a schnapps keg, a wooden spoon, a number of coins and some smaller belongings. This and many of the other finds testify to the simple life of a 17th century sailor. ["Vasa I", Cederlund, p. 318]

Initially, many finds were cataloged in groups corresponding to the original object they had been a part of. Later, this method was expanded to count individual objects such as the staves, bottom and hoops of a barrel as separate objects. This considerably increased the already numerous finds, and the current catalog, part of which is available online, comprises well over 26,000 artifacts. ["Vasa I", Cederlund and Hocker, pp. 302–305; for the item catalog, see [ this link] ]

After the ship itself had been salvaged and excavated, the site was searched for artifacts where most of the roughly 700 sculptures that adorned the outside of the ship were found. The last object to be brought up was the longboat, found lying parallel to the ship and believed to have been lying on the weather deck or being towed by "Vasa" when she sank. ["Vasa I", Cederlund, pp. 470–472]

Many more recent objects contaminating the site were disregarded when the finds were registered. Among the more infamous contaminations was a statue of 20th century Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, which was placed on the ship as a prank by students of Helsinki University of Technology just days before the final lift. [Ilta-Sanomat July 5, 1961 "Vasan veijarit", scan available at [ dump of] . Retrieved December 8, 2007.]


In the 333 years that "Vasa" lay on the bottom of Stockholms ström, she and her contents were subject to several destructive forces, first among which were decomposition and erosion. Among the first things to decompose were the thousands of iron bolts that held the beakhead and much of the stern castle in place, and this included all of the ship's wooden sculptures. Almost all of the iron on the ship rusted away within a few years of the sinking, and of the large iron objects like ammunition and cannons almost nothing remained but carbon. This helped preserve the shape of many metal objects, though the actual metal content was negligible. Of the human remains, the soft tissue was soon consumed by bacteria, fish and crustaceans, leaving only the bones, which were often held together only by clothing. Clothing and leather objects, such as pouches and shoes, were badly worn, but many survived until recovered in the 20th century. ["Vasa I", Hocker p. 146–152 ]

The entire stern castle, the high, aft portion of the ship that housed the officers' quarters and held up the transom, gradually collapsed into the mud with all the decorative sculptures, and all but minute traces of the paint and gold leaf on the sculptures disappeared. The quarter galleries, which were merely nailed to the sides of the stern castle, soon collapsed and were found lying almost directly below their original locations. Many of the wooden elements were also worn by the currents and by the flow of mud sediments, and many sculptural elements were worn so badly that they were only barely recognizable as carvings when recovered. ["Vasa I", Hocker pp. 153–170 ]

In addition to deterioration caused by natural forces, the ship suffered many instances of mechanical damage caused by humans. The more or less successful salvage operations from 1629 to the 1680s had considerable impact on the ship's structure. To recover the cannons, Peckell and Treileben had broken up and removed much of the planking of the weather deck above the cannons. Peckell also reported that he had recovered 30 cartloads of wood from the ship; these might have included not just planking and structural details but some of the sculptures which today are missing, such as the life-size Roman warrior near the bow and the sculpture of Septimius Severus that adorned the port side of the beakhead. ["Vasa I", Hocker p. 154] Since "Vasa" lay in a busy shipping channel, many tons of slag and blasting rubble were dumped on the ship in the 19th century; this caused further collapse of the stern castle and most of the weather deck. Also found were several traces of anchors that had caught on the ship and wrenched loose by force. ["Vasa I", Hocker pp. 151–152 ]

Causes of sinking

In the 17th century, the design requirements and calculations for building a ship only existed in the head of the shipwright. Scientific theories on vessel design or stability had not yet been developed, so important factors like the ship's center of gravity had to be estimated from the builder's experience. The hull of "Vasa" was divided into three decks and a bottom compartment containing the ballast, which consisted of large, tightly packed stones. Upon salvaging, the ship was found to have an intact hold full of ballast stones. "Vasa" carried convert|120|t|lb|-3 of ballast, but this was not enough to counter her considerable weight above the water line; even a light squall would have seriously destabilized the ship. Common practice of the time dictated that heavy guns were to be placed on the lower gun deck to decrease the weight on the upper gun deck and improve stability. The armament plans were changed many times during the build to either 24-pounders on the lower deck along with lighter 12-pounders on the upper deck or 24-pounders on both decks. The gun ports on the upper deck were in fact the correct size for 12-pounders, but in the end the ship was finished with the heavy 24-pounders on both decks, and this may have contributed to poor stability. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 51]

Warships of the period, even when properly armed, were highly unstable. A major reason for this was that they were built with high aftercastles to provide a platform for soldiers to fire upon the enemy with small arms. Also, "Vasa" may have had the additional problem of an upper hull built with thick wale planks that were much too heavy. This might have occurred because of inexperience with two-decker ships or because of the possibility of adding even heavier armaments in the future. However, nothing is inherently wrong with the hull form of the ship; it is within the norms of the period. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 59] Later designs, for example Royal Navy ships of equivalent firepower developed after "Vasa", used their heaviest guns on the lower decks and lighter ones on any upper decks, where extra weight was most likely to be detrimental to stability and the righting moment of the ship. Inwardly curved topsides, so called tumblehome, where the upper gun decks were placed were also more pronounced on later designs, so as to bring the mass of the guns closer to the centre line of the ship, thus increasing stability.

Captain Söfring Hansson sailed the new ship with open gunports, which was not common. Usually, a brand new ship sailed first with closed gunports to give the captain and crew an idea of how it would handle. Each ship built in the 17th century handled a little differently from every other ship. Finally, "Vasa" was supposed to head for Älvsnabben, the naval station in the outer archipelago, to take on all of her stores and personnel, and that might have provided more stability. ["Vasa I", Hocker, p. 58–59]


Although "Vasa" was in surprisingly good condition after 333 years at the bottom of the sea, it would have quickly deteriorated if the hull had been simply allowed to dry. The large bulk of "Vasa", over convert|900|m3|cuft of oak timber, constituted an unprecedented conservation problem. After some debate on how to best preserve the ship, conservation was done using polyethylene glycol (PEG), a method that was also used years later in the conservation process of the 16th century English ship "Mary Rose". "Vasa" was sprayed with this glycol for 17 years, followed by 9 years of slow drying. [Kvarning, pp. 133–141]

The reason that "Vasa" was so well-preserved was not just that the shipworm that normally devours wooden ships was absent but also that the water of Stockholms ström was heavily polluted until the late 20th century. The highly toxic and hostile environment meant that even the toughest microorganisms that break down wood had difficulty surviving. This, along with the fact that "Vasa" had been newly built when she sank, contributed to her conservation. Unfortunately, the toxicity of the water also had a negative effect. The sulfur in the water around "Vasa" had penetrated the wood, and when the ship was salvaged, it began reacting with its new, oxygen-rich environment and produced sulfuric acid. In the autumn of 2000, spots of white residue from only a few centimeters to half a meter (ca. 3 to 20 in) were noticed on "Vasa". These turned out to be salts that had formed on the surface of the wood when the sulfates reacted with oxygen. The stains had a very low pH-level and were the first indications that the ship contained considerable amounts of sulfuric acid. The salts on the surface of "Vasa" and objects found in and around her are not a threat themselves (even if the discoloring may be distracting), but if they form inside the wood, they may expand and crack the planking from inside. This would cause particularly serious damage if it happened to objects made by skilled craftsmen, such as household items or some of the hundreds of carved sculptures. As of 2002, the amount of sulfuric acid in "Vasa"'s hull was estimated to be more than convert|2|t|lb|-2, and more is continually being created. Enough sulfur exists in the ship to produce another convert|5000|kg|lb of acid at a rate of about convert|100|kg|lb per year; this might eventually destroy the ship almost entirely. [Dal and Hall Roth pp. 38–39]

The museum is constantly monitoring the ship for damage caused by decay or warping of the wood. Ongoing research seeks the best way to preserve the ship for future generations and to analyze the existing material as closely as possible. A current problem is that the old oak that the ship is built of is starting to give way, and the braces that support her are pressed deeper into the hull every year. "The amount of movement in the hull is worrying. If nothing is done, the ship will most likely capsize again", states Magnus Olofson from the "Vasa" Museum. An effort to secure "Vasa" for the future is under way, in cooperation with the Royal Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and other institutions around the globe. [sv icon Dahlquist, Hans. [ "KTH räddar Vasa från att kantra"] . Ny Teknik on July 19, 2007. Retrieved December 18, 2007; and Katz, Gregory. "Sweden calls on A&M to rescue iconic vessel". European Bureau, reported in the Houston Chronicle on July 28, 2007. Pages A1 and A10.]

To deal with the problem of the inevitable deterioration of the ship, the main hall of the "Vasa" Museum is kept at a temperature of 18–20 °C (65–68 °F) and a humidity level of 55%. To slow the destruction by sulfuric acid, many different methods have been tried. Small objects have been sealed in plastic containers containing nitrogen gas, which creates a seal that halts further reactions between sulfur and oxygen. The ship itself has been treated with cloth saturated in a basic liquid to neutralize the low pH, but this is only a temporary solution as acid is produced continually. The original bolts rusted away after the ship sank but were replaced with modern ones that were galvanized and covered with epoxy. Despite this, the new bolts have also started to rust and are releasing iron into the wood, which speeds the deterioration. Plans call for new bolts made from materials that are non-reactive, such as titanium, carbon fiber or fiberglass. [Dal and Hall Roth, pp. 39–41] Sandstrom, M.; Jalilehvand, F.; Persson, I.; Gelius, U.; Frank, P.; Hall-roth, I. (2002) "Deterioration of the seventeenth-century warship Vasa by internal formation of sulphuric acid", "Nature" 415 (6874): 893–7. ]

Literature and popular culture

"Vasa" has been the subject of hundreds of books, articles and papers on topics ranging from marine archaeology to culinary history. Three children's books about "Vasa" have been written in Swedish and later translated into English, German, Danish, and Norwegian: "The Vasa Saga" by Bertil Almqvist, "The Vasa Sets Sail" by Mats Wahl (illustrated by Sven Nordqvist), and "The Vasa Piglet" by Björn Bergenholtz.

"Vasa's" unique status has drawn considerable attention and captured the imagination of more than two generations of scholars, tourists, model builders, and authors. The popular perception of the building of the ship as a botched and disorganized affair (dubbed "the "Vasa"-syndrome") has been used by many authors of management literature as an educational example of how not to organize a successful business. [For example this article from IEEE computing: Richard E. Fairley, Mary Jane Willshire, "Why the Vasa Sank: 10 Problems and Some Antidotes for Software Projects," "IEEE Software" vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 18–25, March/April, 2003; see also "Vasa I", Hocker, p. 58]

The museum has produced two versions of a documentary about the history and recovery of the ship; it is shown in the museum and has been released on VHS and DVD with narration in 16 languages. An educational computer game, now in its second generation, has been made and is used in the museum and on its website to explain the fundamentals of 17th century ship construction and stability. Several mass-produced model kits and countless custom-built models of the ship have been made. In 1991, a 308-tonne (680,000 lb) pastiche reproduction of the ship was built in Tokyo to serve as a 650-passenger sightseeing ship. "Vasa" has inspired many works of art, including a gilded Disney-themed parody of the pilaster sculptures on the ship's quarter galleries. ["Modellen: Vasamodeller från när och fjärran"] Being a popular tourist attraction, "Vasa" is a popular motif for various souvenir products such as T-shirts, mugs, refrigerator magnets, and posters. Commercially produced replicas—such as glasses, plates, spoons, and even a backgammon game—have been made from many of the objects belonging to the crew or officers found on the ship. [ [ Vasa Museum homepage] . Statens maritima museer. Retrieved July 7, 2008.]

ee also

*List of world's largest wooden ships
*"Mary Rose"



*sv icon Borgenstam, Curt and Sandström, Anders (1984), "Varför kantrade Wasa?: Wasastudier, nr 12" ISBN 91-85268-21-6
*Cederlund, Carl Olof (2006) "Vasa I, The Archaeology of a Swedish Warship of 1628", series editor: Fred Hocker ISBN 91-974659-0-9
*sv icon Dal, Lovisa and Hall Roth, Ingrid "Marinarkeologisk tidsskrift", 4/2002
*Kvarning, Lars-Åke and Ohrelius, Bengt (1998) "The Vasa: the Royal Ship" ISBN 91-7486-581-1
*Roberts, Michael (1953–58) "Gustavus Adolphus: A History of Sweden 1611–1632" (2 vols, 1953, 1958)
*sv icon Sandström, Anders (1982) "Sjöstrid på Wasas tid: Wasastudier, nr 9" ISBN 91-85268-15-1
*Soop, Hans (1986) "The Power and the Glory: The Sculptures of The Warship Wasa" ISBN 91-7402-168-0
*sv icon "Modellen: Vasamodeller från när och fjärran" (1997), ISBN 91-85268-69-0 (Vasa Museum exhibit catalog)
* [ Vasa Museum homepage]

External links

* [ "Vasa" Museum]
* [ Vasa Stability] A game in Flash format simulating the stability of "Vasa" (in Swedish)
* [ Vasa's revival] Report on the "Vasa" from the University of Miami
* [ SVT Play] Video clips of the recovery of "Vasa" (in Swedish)

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