Encyclopaedia Fennica

Sweden '15. IV: Vasa Museum

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Vasa Ship Museum (Vasamuseet) is one of the best known museums of Djurgården. As its name suggests, it is basically built around one single exhibit: Vasa ship.

Some history is in order, now. Sweden in the 17th century was a major European power. At the peak of its growth, it ruled over territories which are now known as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, parts of Russian Republic of Karelia and Russian Leningrad Oblast, and some territories in Germany (Bremen-Verden) and Poland (Pomerania). During this period, Sweden also finalized its own borders, annexing Scania, Öland, Jämtland, and some other territories. Russia in particular had a lot of wars with Sweden in 17th and 18th centuries.

King Gustav II Adolf the Great ruled Sweden in 1611-1632, and he is now known as one of the greatest military commanders Sweden ever had; he is even considered "the father of modern warfare", and he was greatly admired by Napoleon himself. He was the one who recognized that the Swedish Navy had to be modernized in order to be competitive. At the time, boarding was considered to be how naval battles are won. Gustav Adolf however loved artillery, and ordered construction of new warships, heavily armed with cannons. Which turned out to be a really great idea, except for that minor Vasa mishap. Vasa was to be the first of these ships with two cannon decks, and to become the flagship of the Swedish Navy. Thus, it was laid down in 1626, at the shipyard on Blasieholmen (just off the Old Town of Stockholm, now built-up and connected to the mainland).

Vasa was to be a very impressive ship, 47.5 meters long with 64 cannons in total, and lots and lots of ornamentation. The thing is, the design had major stability problems. The ship was too tall and top-heavy with all those cannons, and not nearly wide enough. It pretty much was unable to sail.

Now, of course the engineers and shipwrights and even simple seamen watching the ship hull grow at the shipyard, had some idea that something was wrong. But laws of physics which apply to ships were not known at the time, and everything was done pretty much by rule of thumb. And if the king orders you to put more and more cannons on the ship, who are you to refuse him. In the end Vasa was launched in 1628 with no major changes to its design.

You could have guessed what happened next. Vasa set sail and actually managed to sail for about a kilometer, just until the first gust of wind. Which promptly capsized the ship. Which sank right in the harbor, in full view of pretty much the entire Stockholm watching the show, including the king. Quite an embarassment. Most of the crew escaped, but still, 30 people died in the shipwreck.

Naturally the king was furious and there was an intense inquest, but in the end most of the blame was pinned on two master shipwrights, who had conveniently died of natural causes before the ship was launched. Attempts to salvage Vasa began immediately, but were not particularly successful. About 30 years later, a diving team managed to recover nearly all of the ship’s cannons, which were the most valuable part of the ship at the time. Kind of surprising that there was sufficient knowledge of diving technology at the time.

After that, Vasa was pretty much forgotten. The shipwrights at least learned from their mistakes, and other large ships with two cannon decks were redesigned accordingly, and launched and served without similar incidents.

Vasa ended up laying on the bottom of Stockholm harbor for 333 years. Amazingly, these 333 years did not do nearly as much damage as you would expect. Brackish water of the Baltic Sea was one of the factors, and the pollution of Stockholm harbor was another one. Up until well into the 20th century, water in Stockholm harbor used to be extremely dirty, unable to sustain most species, including the shipworm, the bane of wooden shipwrecks. In 1956, the location of the wreck (just off the island of Beckholmen, featured in my previous post) was pinpointed by an amateur archaeologist, and he convinced the navy, the National Maritime Museum, and a private salvage company to try recovering Vasa once more.

Long story short, in 1961, the wreck was finally raised from the sea bottom with several pontoons, and put into a temporary shelter Wasavarvet_*_(Vasa Shipyard). In 1988, a permanent museum building was built. According to Wikipedia, Vasa now accounts as the 6th oldest surviving ship in the world, and much bigger than any of those five which predate it. So, we finished with our tea in Vasa Museum restaurant, and beheld Vasa.

*Wasa was the actual historical spelling. In modern Swedish, Vasa the ship, and the Royal House of Vasa after which it had been named, are spelled with a V.

Vasa
Vasa

1. So, this is what you see as soon as you enter the museum. The Vasa hulk is dark brown with age. New masts and probably some superstructure were fitted after Vasa recovery, and its bow had to be rebuilt, but the rest of the ship is 100% authentic.

Vasa statues
Vasa statues

2. The ship had been richly adorned with statues. 333 years spent underwater smoothed them over like sandpaper, but their features still can be made out.

Vasa port side
Vasa port side

3. Port side. Two rows of gun ports are clearly visible.

Vasa port side
Vasa port side

4. You can examine the ship from any of the three floors of the museum, or maybe even four, I don’t remember exactly.

Vasa model
Vasa model

5. A large model, positioned next to the actual Vasa, depicts the undamaged ship as it was launched.

Shipworm damage
Shipworm damage

6. The ship itself is not the only exhibit, actually. More exhibitions tell about its history, construction, crew, sinking, recovery, and preservation efforts. These wooden beams illustrate shipworm damage. The lower (darker) one is from Vasa, and holds its shape perfectly. The higher (ligher) one, from another shipwreck of the same age, is severely decayed and has several holes. That ship sunk in the salty Kattegat, a much better shipworm habitat.

Stockholm harbor map
Stockholm harbor map

7. The red dot in the middle marks the site of the shipwreck. The island of Beckholmen with its docks is immediately upwards.

Vasa recovery
Vasa recovery

8. Illustration of the recovery of Vasa.

Vasa recovery
Vasa recovery

9. And here it is already raised from the bottom. The bow was badly damaged, during the early recovery attempts if I remember correctly, and a wooden cage, visible here, had to be temporarily assembled around it before the recovery.

Vasa recovery pictures
Vasa recovery pictures

10. The actual pictures of the salvage operation. A diver in the bottom right corner holds the skull of one of the crew members.

Vasa recovery
Vasa recovery

11. Before the wreck could be raised, however, several tunnels had to be dug out right under it, it the mud underwater, don’t remember why exactly. This must have been a truly hellish job.

Gustav II Adolf
Gustav II Adolf

12. The guy in red is actually supposed to be King Gustav II Adolf the Great himself. Well he wasn’t called "the Great" at the time, but still. (That title was bestowed on him after his death, and he is the only Swedish king in history to be ever called "the Great").

Baltic Sea
Baltic Sea

13. A stylized map of the Baltic Sea of the period. I like how the civilization pretty much ends where Russia starts in the east.

Vasa cross-section
Vasa cross-section

14. The cross-section of the ship. It really looks kind of unstable.

Sinking
Sinking

15. And that’s how it probably looked when Vasa was about to capsize.

OH NOES
OH NOES

16. Gotta love the guy on the left.

Inquest protocols
Inquest protocols

17. A copy of the inquest protocols.

Vasa statues
Vasa statues

18. Replicas of some of the statues on the stern. The statues were originally painted in bright and even outright gaudy colors.

Paints
Paints

19. Paints which were used at the time, and what they were made of.

Malachite
Malachite

20. The green paint apparently came from malachite. Malachite stone is considered rather iconic of the Ural Mountains where I come from, so I like seeing it in unexpected places.

Vasa statues
Vasa statues

21. Close-up on some of the statues. The guy in the middle with worms apparently crawling into his facial orifices looks creepy.

Keel
Keel

22. Back to the ship itself, the thing to the left is its rudder.

Gun ports
Gun ports

23. Starboard gun ports.

Wood
Wood

24. Vasa really used up a lot of oak wood, enough for a small forest.

Vasa shipyard
Vasa shipyard

25. This is what Blasieholmen shipyard looked like in the 17th century. Vasa hull is in the middle.

Vasa crew
Vasa crew

26. Remains of most of the deceased crew members were found on the recovered Vasa wreck. These are some facial reconstructions. For some people, the location of their remains and their surviving possessions helped to make a good guess who they were and what they were doing at the moment of the sinking. Others are a mystery. The remains themselves show that most people aboard were malnourished and had many old injuries, like poorly-healed fractures.

Vasa crew remains
Vasa crew remains

27. You can actually see their skeletons themselves. This seems like a questionable idea, honestly. I’m not a prudish guy, but these people probably wouldn’t have enjoyed thousands of visitors looking at their remains every day.

Gun carriages
Gun carriages

28. Several of the gun carriages on display. Most of the cannons themselves, as you remember, were salvaged back in the 17th century. Some of the remaining ones are also exhibited here, but I seem to have forgotten to take a picture of them.

Backgammon
Backgammon

29. A lot of the crew possessions are on display as well, many also surprisingly well preserved, like these backgammon boards.

Coins
Coins

30. Some coins.

Contents of a seaman's chest
Contents of a seaman’s chest

31. Contents of a random seaman’s chest.

Seaman's chest
Seaman’s chest

32. And the chest itself.

Pottery
Pottery

33. Ceramic pottery, good as new.

Golden ring
Golden ring

34. A golden ring belonging to some officer, the only piece of jewelry found in the wreck.

More pottery
More pottery

35. My mom would have loved these plates!

Chamber pots
Chamber pots

36. And these are the chamber pots. Can’t sail without chamber pots.

Cross-section
Cross-section

37. Another cross-section, a lengthwise one. Shows some of the crew at work.

Cross-section
Cross-section

38.

Mess room
Mess room

39. A replica of the mess room.

Sail
Sail

40. Amazingly, even a part of one of the sails survived! Well that was the only sail that wasn’t hoisted at the moment of the sinking, but still.

Vasa
Vasa

41. Well that’s about it. The museum turned out to be much larger and more fun than we expected.

Djurgården bridge
Djurgården bridge

42. It was noon when we left the museum, and Stockholm no longer looked as deserted as it did in the morning hours. We wanted to have a good walk around before we left Stockholm, and I’ll leave that for the next part, soo, to be continued.

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