Vasa is an example of a wreck that was raised first and excavated after. A team led by Per Lundström consisting of ten archaeologists, a photographer and an artist, were charged with the task. Working conditions were exceptionally harsh. The ship had to be sprayed constantly with cold, fresh water to keep it from drying out, meaning that the team had to work in an invariably wet environment. Garden hoses and spray nozzles were used to wash away the black mud covering Vasa’s decks. What was revealed was an astonishing assemblage of artefacts still lying in place.
On both gundecks, the gun carriages stood at their gun ports and the belongings of sailors were still stored in chests toward the bow. In the hold, hundreds of cannonballs were found, but also barrels of salted meat – over time reduced to bones – and huge coils of anchor cable. In the cabins, pewter plates, hunting rifles and a gilt brass table clock were found, the belongings of the officers. Perhaps the most remarkable find were the carefully folded remains of six of Vasa’s sails plus the sails for the longboat, still tied up as they had been delivered from the sailmaker in 1627. The archaeologists registered each artefact, recorded its find place and gave it a unique find number after which the object was placed in water-filled tanks to await conservation.
However, diving work also continued at the site where Vasa sunk. Many pieces of the ship had fallen off the vessel and lay around it. From 1963 to 1967 divers surveyed the site and recovered the collapsed beakhead, the upper sterncastle, parts of the foremast and mainmast, many sculptures, the ship’s anchors and the longboat, a large vessel in itself measuring 12 m long, which had another smaller boat inside it. By the time the excavation of Vasa and the diving on the site of her sinking was complete, over 40 000 objects had been registered, including almost all of the parts of the ship needed to reconstruct Vasa more or less completely, and to tell the story of the people who made up the crew.
The discovery, raising and excavation of Vasa was one of the key developments in the theory and practice of the – at that point in time – new field of maritime archaeology, primarily in Sweden, but also internationally. Together with other significant finds from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the excavation of the remains of five Viking ships found in Roskilde Fjord, Denmark, under Olaf Olsen and Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, the medieval cog discovered in the River Weser at Bremen in Germany and, on the other side of the world, the wreck of the VOC ship Batavia in Western Australia, the work on Vasa demonstrated the potential of this growing corpus of ‘underwater’ archaeological finds to produce meaningful and significant insights into our past.
The research on the history and archaeology of Vasa and the 40 000 objects found with the ship is ongoing and tackles a wide range of topics including social, environmental, economic, political and technological issues affecting the northern European world of the first half of the 17th century. Doing this are a team of international researchers and students from – next to the conventional fields of history and archaeology – disciplines such as genetics, ballistics, metallurgy, zoology and economics. Recent projects have focused on the test firing of a replica of one of the ship’s 24-pounder bonze cannon, DNA analysis of the human remains found on the ship and inquiries into the role of woman in the Swedish economy. The research on Vasa is not just the analysis of a particular ship and how it sank, but has demonstrated to have the potential to contribute to wider technological and socio-economic questions, ranging from how the ship was built and sailed to the role of Sweden in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
- Museum website: http://www.vasamuseet.se/en
- Adams, J. 2013. A Maritime Archaeology of Ships, Innovation and Social Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
- Cederlund, C. O. & Hocker, F. 2006. Vasa I: The Archaeology of a Swedish Warship of 1628. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
- Hocker, F. 2011. Vasa: A Swedish Warship. Stockholm: Medstroms Bokforlag.