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As their focus shifts from preservation to documentation, researchers are learning new lessons from the majestic Vasa— a warship monumental in its ambition, its failure, and its role in maritime archaeology


The wreck of Vasa, a 17th-century Swedish warship

The wreck of Vasa, a 17th-century Swedish warship, now resides in a custom-built museum in Stockholm. Laser surveys and digital models are helping determine why the ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. (Courtesy Fred Hocker, Swedish National Maritime Museums)

The warship survived the first blast of wind it encountered on its maiden voyage in Stockholm Harbor. But the second gust did it in. The sinking of Vasa, on August 10, 1628, took place nowhere near an enemy. In fact, it sank in full view of a horrified public, assembled to see off their navy’s—and Europe’s—most ambitious warship to date. The 220-foot, triple-deck, 64-gun leviathan, elaborately adorned, had been rush-ordered for King Gustav Adolf’s war against Poland. But before it faced an opposing ship or fired a single shot, Vasa slipped beneath the waves.

Gustav angrily demanded an inquest into why his expensive new flagship lay at the bottom of the harbor. At the time, investigators found several clues. Compared with previous ships, Vasa had a thicker deck and held more and larger guns on its upper deck, making it top-heavy. When it embarked, Vasa carried almost none of the cargo and ballast that keep ships low in the water and help them resist listing. And when Vasa did list, open gun bays allowed the sea to rush in. The inquest blamed the ship’s proportions for the sinking, but without modern blueprints or measuring techniques, investigators offered few details. Still, Swedish shipbuilders appeared to have learned from the experience: Vasa’s subsequent sister ships sailed without problems.

The cold, oxygen-poor water of the Baltic Sea protected Vasa from the bacteria and worms that usually digest wooden wrecks. Perhaps 95 percent of Vasa’s wood was intact when Sweden finally raised the wreck in 1961. The ship’s waterlogged wood could not support its own weight, so experts crafted a steel cradle to hold the ship, first in a temporary structure and then in a custom-built museum. Despite the cradle, Vasa began a slow-motion collapse, and preservationists scrambled to improve the cradle. They also strengthened Vasa’s wood by spraying it with polyethylene glycol continuously for 17 years, followed by nine years of drying. These challenges meant that, for decades, preservation took precedence over archaeological investigations into why the ship sank so suddenly. “Archaeologists had their hands on the ship only in the initial excavation phase: two months, for a 1,200-ton ship,” says Kroum Batchvarov, a marine archaeologist from the University of Connecticut Avery Point, and a former student of Fred Hocker, who has led the Vasa Museum’s study of the ship since 2003.


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Lucas Laursen is a science and technology journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

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