Archaeology Cultural Heritage Museums

The tragically fortunate sinking of the Vasa

The top deck. Source: Flickr/Hugh Llewelyn

On the 10th of August 1628, the Vasa warship, the newest addition to the Swedish King’s fleet that took more than two years to complete, and whose sheer size and grandeur was unofficially meant to strike fear into the hearts of Sweden’s enemies, sank on her maiden voyage after only about 20 minutes on the water. On her way to pick up the soldiers who would accompany her to Prussia where King Gustavus II Adolphus was awaiting their arrival, a gust of wind entered her sails, causing her to heel hard to the lee side. She managed to right herself but was then struck by a second, slightly stronger gust which again caused her to heel over. This time, water seeped in through the still-open gun ports that fired the ceremonial salute only minutes ago. Within no time at all, she capsized. Less than 1000 nautical meters from where she had set sail, the Vasa sank before ever even leaving the Stockholm archipelago.

Before continuing with the Vasa’s story, let us for a moment imagine what would have happened had the ship never sunk. As a war ship, she was built for the purpose of warfare – the fact that she was the most heavily armed warship in the Baltic and perhaps of the day, with a total of 64 guns on board (including forty-eight large guns for 24-pounder ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars) attests to this. Had she managed to leave the harbour, had she arrived in Prussia, had she recuperated the King, and had she gone off to war, one of two things would have happened. Either she would have had a successful career spanning between 20 and 30 years, after which she would have been dismantled as was customary for warships of the day, or she would have been so heavily damaged during combat that she would have met a watery grave following a bloody battle, lost to the world forever. In either case, the Vasa would not have been here today, and the contemporary world would have been all the poorer for it. By sinking, the Vasa did modern times a favour, and as such her sinking can be seen as a (very) fortunate tragedy.

The hull and part of the stern. The Vasa is an imposing 69 meters in lenght and more than 19 meters high. Source: Flickr/Jon Mountjoy

The hull and part of the stern. The Vasa is an imposing 69 meters in length and more than 19 meters tall. Source: Flickr/Jon Mountjoy

After sinking, the masts (the only parts of the ship that were still visible above water) were removed in order not to interrupt ship traffic in the busy harbour, but no attempts were made to bring her to the surface as technology was not yet far enough advanced to undertake a project of this magnitude. Some attempts were however made to bring the guns to the surface through a diving project launched around the 1660s, and about fifty guns were successfully brought to the surface using the diving-bell method – think placing a bell upside down in the water and using the pocket of air that forms at the top on the inside to breathe while unfastening the guns below you in complete darkness. The heaviest ones however remained secured to their posts underwater until the ship was found in 1956 (its exact location was forgotten over the years) by Swedish navy fuel engineer and part-time amateur-archaeologist-with-a-love-for-lost-shipwrecks, Anders Franzén. After 333 years spent in the murky water watching life in Stockholm go by, the Vasa saw daylight once again.

The outside of the museum showing the artificial masts that give visitors an idea just of how the Vasa was. Source: Flickr/Udo Schröter

The outside of the museum showing the artificial masts that give visitors an idea just of how the Vasa was. Source: Flickr/Udo Schröter

Now the question is, if she was as majestic as everyone said, with a hull constructed from one thousand Swedish oaks and more than a hundred gilded and painted sculptures all around her, what caused her to sink? The reason is quite simple. For a warship, she was massive, and as already mentioned, one of – if not the most – heavily-armed ship in existence at the time. A total of 69 metres in length, her stern alone is 19.3 metres high. With her masts in place, she reaches a staggering 52.5 metres – the size of which becomes very clear when you see the masts depicting her height on the day she set sail towering out above the museum building where she stands. For her size, she is however very narrow and extremely top heavy, and since the specific mathematical equations needed to determine the necessary weight down in the hull to counter-balance the weight on the top would not be developed for another hundred years, she was very unstable too. So unstable, in fact, that during her stability test before setting sail (during which 30 men ran back and forth over the deck Pirates of the Caribbean-style) she nearly capsized after only three runs, prompting Admiral Klas Fleming of the Swedish navy who oversaw the test to call it off immediately (but still allowed her to set sail). Despite these problems, she was still extremely well-constructed, and after spending more than three centuries under water she managed to float by herself when brought to the surface.

A model of the ship's stern, showing what it would have looked like on the day that she set sail. Source: Flickr/Andy G

A model of the ship’s stern, showing what it would have looked like on the day that she set sail. Source: Flickr/Andy G

The statues on the ship are attribued to master German sculptor of the 17th century, Mårten Redtmer. He was aided by the Dutch sculptor Johan Thesson and German sculptor Hans Clausink. Source: Flickr/Jon Mountjoy

The statues on the ship are attributed to master German sculptor of the 17th century, Mårten Redtmer. He was aided by the Dutch sculptor Johan Thesson and German sculptor Hans Clausink. Source: Flickr/Jon Mountjoy

Now that we know the story of one of the most important warships that never was, we get to ask: what does this mean in terms of cultural heritage?

It needs to be mentioned that the brackish water in the Stockholm archipelago provided perfect conditions for the preservation of the wreck and everything -as well as everyone- inside. About 30 people perished in the sinking, and the remains of about 15 of those who died during the accident were so well preserved that some were found with their hair (and even their brains) still intact and with their shoes still on their feet. Tests done on these remains have been able to determine the kinds of diets that they had, which grants significant insight into the daily life of early 17th century Stockholm. Along with these remains, many personal belongings such as clothes, shoes, combs, sewing thread and smoking pipes were found, along with eating utensils, over 4000 coins, medical equipment and even a board game that one sailor brought on as an off-duty pastime. By studying these items, it is possible for archaeologists and anthropologists to piece together the lives that surrounded them, which helps us to better understand the conditions during this time and ultimately leads to better understand life as it is today.

… the real tragedy if viewed from a modern perspective, would have been had she not sunk.

Although the sinking of the Vasa was a terrible disaster for Sweden, and an even bigger embarrassment for King Gustavus Adolphus, the real tragedy if viewed from a modern perspective, would have been had she not sunk. Today however, even though extensive preservation methods have been put in place, the Vasa is slowly deteriorating as she stands. Luckily, the day that she will no longer be here is far away in the future, and for now people from all over the world get to marvel at her majesty every day. And who knows, perhaps some of them, when they think nobody is listening, sometimes whisper under their breath: thank you, Vasa, for sinking.

Feature image source: Flickr/Hugh Llewelyn

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