333 years underwater – Stockholm’s Vasa Museum

Sweden’s most visited tourist attraction is a museum with just one exhibit.  How does something so simple draw such large crowds?  Well, it’s one special artefact.  The Vasa Museum, situated on Stockholm’s Djurgården island, is home to the world’s only surviving, almost complete 17th century warship.  Visiting it is a truly unique experience that quite simply cannot be found anywhere else.

The story of the Vasa is one both of over ambition and too much caution, an unusual combination.  The ship, which sank shortly in to its maiden voyage on the 10th of August 1628, with the loss of 30 lives, was at the time the largest ever built.  Designed to hold 64 cannon, its sheer size made it unwieldy but not necessarily fatally so.  Over the decades since its discovery in the murky waters of Stockholm’s harbour, there have been on-going investigations in to the reasons for the Vasa’s capsize.  That it was just too heavy seemed a fair assumption.  Examination of the upper deck has revealed that, daunted by the prospect of supporting more guns than had ever been carried, the ship builders erred on the side of caution, reinforcing the deck with far more wood than was actually needed.  The result was a top heavy ship, even fully laden, liable to tip in rough water or windy conditions.

The weight of the Vasa was not the only mistake in its construction.  The detailed measurements taken by the archaeologists working on preserving the ship have found that it is asymmetrical.  This is not, in itself, unusual in something produced before the aids of modern manufacturing, and as a result it was common for alterations to be made to a vessel for months after it first set sail.  In the case of the Vasa the mis-measurements were significant.  Amongst the artefacts recovered from the ship are four rulers, two in Swedish feet (12 inches to the foot) and two in Amsterdam feet (11 inches to the foot).  It would seem that each craftsman working on the ship brought with him his own tools and the units of measurement were not always the same; a problem encountered on large scale projects even today, for example the loss of NASA’s Mars-Orbiter in 1999 which failed as a result of confusion over the use of English imperial and US metric units.

So human error led to the Vasa’s loss, and it was human endeavour that caused it to be found.  At various points in history the ship’s resting place has been marked on maps charting Stockholm’s harbour but, as time passed, and inaccuracies crept in to drafts based on copies of copies, its location was forgotten.  That was until 1956, when navy engineer and amateur archaeologist Anders Franzen, having studied the historic sources and armed with a home made coring device, pulled a sample of wood from the harbour floor.  Tests revealed a match for the presumed age of the timbers used in the Vasa’s construction and divers were sent down to investigate.

Diving conditions were difficult; the water cold, dark and thick with mud.  In limited visibility and with adrenalin flowing it is hard not to let your imagination run away with you.  I can only guess at how the divers felt as the structure of the Vasa began to emerge from the gloom, but I think it is a safe bet to assume that mixed with the excitement was a little bit of disbelief, a failure to adequately process.  That is certainly how I felt, standing in the dim, cavernous hall of the Vasa Museum, staring up at the towering ship and struggling to comprehend that before me was not only something almost 400 years old but that it had spent more than three centuries underwater.  Human brains are not designed to understand such things, if we could we would be in danger of imploding with the knowledge of our own transient insignificance.  Instead I spent a lot of time saying inane things such as ‘I can’t believe how well preserved it is’, ‘I can’t believe how big it is’, ‘I can’t believe how old it is’,  ‘It’s hard to believe it’s real’ and generally feeling rather overwhelmed.  Though slightly disconcerting, it is an experience I would highly recommend and certainly one you are unlikely to have again.

The practicalities:-

The island of Djurgården, where the Vasa Museum is located, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram (line 7N).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

The museum is open from 10 until 5  from 1st September to 31st May (with extended hours until 8pm on Wednesday) and from 8.30 until 6 from 1st June to 31st August.  Entry is free for 18s and under and at the time of writing in October 2018 student tickets cost SEK 110 which is roughly £9/US$12/€10.50 and adult tickets cost SEK 130, roughly £11/US$14/€12.

For more preserved wooden boats, this time of the Viking sort, read my post on the Roskilde Viking ship museum here

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