Alex Denny, in front of the Vasa.

On 24th November 2018, I joined a group of NAS members for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, hosted by the museum’s Director of Research, Dr Fred Hocker, in what is becoming a very popular annual event in NAS’ calendar.

Vasa, now housed in a vast purpose-built museum, was a Swedish warship constructed between 1626 and 1628 on the orders of the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, as his flagship and symbol of his kingdom’s naval power.  She was arguably the most powerfully armed warship of the time, able to fire the largest combined weight of shot simultaneously from the guns on one side (primarily consisting of 46, 24-pound, demi-cannons and other smaller guns). 

Vasa never saw combat. However, on her maiden voyage, less than 1.5km from Stockholm’s naval yard, she sank in 32m of water on 10 August 1628, immediately entering the history books as a great naval tragedy and folly. Contemporary historical accounts of her construction and sinking were recorded during an inquest into the disaster shortly after her loss.  Around 30 years later, most of the ship’s guns were recovered using a simple diving bell (1663-1665) and the wreck remained marked on some navigational charts long after she sank. In the 1950s she rose again, literally and figuratively, to global fame. Her exact location was rediscovered by archaeologist, Anders Franzén, in 1956 and she was recovered in 1961.

We arrived at the museum at 8am, two hours before it opens to the general public on a beautiful snowy morning.  Dr Hocker gave us a safety briefing before entering the main hall (apparently there were no fire exits on 17th century warships!). The museum is dominated by Vasa herself.  She is 69m in length 19m tall at the stern and, including the main mast, still stands over 52m tall. On the day she sank, the topgallant sail would have soared even higher to over 57m. In normal circumstances, members of the general public are not allowed access to the top deck or interior of the ship. I therefore feel incredibly lucky that we were personally guided through her interior by Dr Hocker and Åsa Egerquist, one of the museum’s carpenters working on the conservation and maintenance of the ship.

Walking through the decks of Vasa gave a real sense of what she must have been like to work and sail on in her brief lifetime.  We were able to see for ourselves the cramped interiors of the gun decks, as seamen slept between the guns, six abreast (this was spacious for the time!). We were also able to see and understand the action of the “whipstaff” steering mechanism, which the helmsman would have used to work the tiller, connected to the rudder below him.

These are just a couple of examples from what was an information packed walk through history on-board. Afterwards we were given a tour of the collection of artefacts, usually not on general display.  The highlight was the opportunity to smell the almond-like aroma of a spiced brown spirit, believed to be brandy, retrieved from the wreck in a still-sealed container.  Sadly the liquid is too precious to taste (and contaminated with lead!)

The sheer size of the Vasa Museum today is testament to the scale of her construction, but also to her remarkable state of preservation - which made it possible to reconstruct the vessel more-or-less as she appeared in 1628. Her underwater resilience is largely due to low salinity and constant low temperature of the water at her resting place, slowing decay and preventing damage by shipworm (Teredo Navalis) which thrives in saltier, warmer water.  Vasa’s continuing preservation is a major undertaking of the archaeologists and curators of the museum.  The museum’s lowest level has an exhibit which explains how Vasa was preserved by continually spraying the hull with polyethylene glycol (PEG).

Not only her timbers have been preserved, but much of the ship’s rigging, contents and even her sails survive in remarkable condition - with different drying and conservation techniques explained in detail. Of course, conservation techniques have improved over the years. Much of what was experimental when Vasa was raised is now better understood and has been refined.

For example, Åsa Egerquist, the carpenter accompanying us on the tour has spent the last seven years replacing the bolts which have held the ship together since she was raised and reconstructed in 1961 (the original 17th century bolts having largely rusted away). The 1961 bolts were rich in iron which continued to react and introduce impurities into the PEG-treated wood. 

The new bolts are lightweight alloy (reducing weight of the bolts on the hull) and corrosion resistant.  It is hoped that they will last for 150 years meaning less invasive preservation work is needed in future. Meeting Åsa and hearing about her work reminded me the work of archaeologists and curators is never done.  There is a challenging ongoing responsibility to conserve these finds for future generations.

I would like to thank Fred Hocker, Åsa Egerquis and everyone at the Vasa Museum for a fascinating insight into this wonderful wreck and for their generous welcome.

From left to right: Nick Reed, Bob Archell, Kees Post, Jane Maddocks, Claire Robinson, Jason Knapton, Therese Kearns, Carol Wood, Katherine Hutt, Sue Archell, Fred Hocker and Åsa Egerquis.

If you'd like to learn more about our heritage events, you can find more information on our website here. To see more photographs from our education programme, take a look through our Flickr albums here.

Edited by Charlotte Crumpler, NAS Public Engagement Officer

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