The Vasa

20 May

This marks the end of my Sweden posts, but I definitely saved the best for last. The Vasamuseet was practically the only thing I knew about Stockholm and wanted to see before getting there. It’s a museum for a complete warship from the 17th century. What’s not to love?

P1070371The Vasa

Commissioned by King Gustavus Adolphus in 1625, the Vasa was meant to be the grandest ship in his navy. He was embroiled in the Thirty Years War at the time and impatient for his flagship, rushing production. The Vasa was finished in a mere three years, which was an impressive feat when you consider how intricate and well crafted it was. Unfortunately, within 25 minute of setting sail on her maiden voyage out of Stockholm, she caught a wind off her starboard side and sank within a matter of minutes.

stern coat of armsGustavus’ coat of arms carved into the stern.

The Vasa was left at the bottom of the harbor, her masts cut off at the water line and some of her guns salvaged. Raising her from the sea floor proved to be impossible for the technology at the time and she was left there for 333 years. In the 1950s, an amateur marine archaeologist went searching for the Vasa, and found her lying quietly at the bottom of Stockholm Bay. The cold, brackish waters of the Baltic and the lack of the shipworm that destroyed wood so easily kept the Vasa in excellent condition, giving archaeologists an unprecedented chance at recovery. It is the only ship from the 17th century to be found so intact.

Why would a brand new warship sink in a gentle breeze in the her home port? Was is poorly rigged? Were the heavy cannons improperly tided down? The conclusion found by the royal inquest mostly boiled down to “only god knows”.

sternThis was six stories up.

The problem lay mostly in the engineering. The first thing you notice when you walk into the museum is how freaking top heavy she is. She’s 50 meters tall, has 10 sails, you need to go up seven flights of stairs to get from bottom to top. The stern end is just massive and far too high above the water to my untrained eye. There’s two level of gun decks, the lower one maybe five feet above the water line. But according to the guide, the Vasa wasn’t much different than other gunships of the era. In fact, they’ve done the math and the Vasa only needed one more meter in width and she would have been able to keep her balance with the extra ballast space that would have provided. As it was, she was too unwieldy to maintain and went straight to the bottom of the harbor asap.

caesarOne of the many intricate wood carvings that adorned the ship, now painted in the original gaudy colors of the 1600s.

The Vasa is a treasure trove of archeological finds and really just an impressive find. They’re still learning fascinating things about life in the “great power period” for Swedes. I really do suggest you head over to the Museum if you’re ever in Stockholm; it’s definitely a treat to see. (Also, their canteen has delicious Swedish meatballs.) I probably spent four hours in there and still could have spent more time.

 

More information (and better pictures!) can be found at the Vasamuseet website here.

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One Response to “The Vasa”

  1. Alvin E. Powell May 25, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    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 exhaustive research he began looking for Vasa as well. He spent years probing the waters around the many assumed locations of the wreckage, without success. He did not succeed until he narrowed his search based on accounts of an unknown topographical anomaly just south of the Gustav V dock on Beckholmen . 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 made 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.

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