Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Importance of the "Vasa".
by Joy Saynor.

Although it is now eleven years since the 17th century Swedish warship, "Vasa," rose like a ghost ship from the waters of Stockholm harbour, it is only today that the full significance of its recovery is beginning to be appreciated. It must not be too readily assumed that the salvaging of a ship only 333 years old is of less importance than the recovery of a Viking longship, such as the one preserved at Osdberg in Norway, for strangely little was previously known concerning the construction and ornamentation of early 17th century Swedish vessels. Although fairly good records and models survive of English and Dutch craft, drawings were not used in Swedish yards -- the ship's "reckoning" provided a summary of its chief construction details and dimensions while for the rest the shipwright used his practical judgement.

It might be asked why we should be concerned with the niceties of Scandinavian shipbuilding. The answer is that Sweden was about to make a bid for European domination and that the warship embodied the imperial dream. Would the royal ship make use of the tried and tested designs of Britain and Holland? Predictably, the Vasa was built under the supervision of a Dutch shipwright, Henrik Hybertsson, but its salvage has shown that it most resembled a French ship, built in Holland in 1626.

The 700 carved and ornamented pieces of oak and pine recovered from the bed of Stockholm harbour (considered to be some 98% of the total decoration of the ship), as well as demonstrating Sweden's aggressive tendencies at that period, also represent a distinct stage in naval design. Prior to the 1620s, a large proportion of a ship's decoration had used painted motifs; by the 18th century, technological advance prohibited external ornamentation but during the 17th century, the finest wood sculptors were employed to project the nationalism then fashionable into newly-built prestige vessels. Very little of their work has survived; just as the Obsolete weaponry of the last war has been largely scrapped, so the great 17th ships which escaped shipwreck ended in the breakers yard.

For this reason, the Vasa's ornamentation, still with its traces of paint and golf leaf and preserved because the wood termite, the Teredo Navalis, disliked the lack of salt in the Baltic, is of especial importance. It ranged from Roman emperors and warriors to tritons and mermaids; from a 7-foot warrior and a great lion figuehead to turrets decorated with flowers and fruit. The stern bore the Swedish royal arms supported by lion figures. Inside the ship not only the captain's cabin but also many everyday objects were finely decorated.

Apart from the ship itself, a great deal has been learnt about the food and clothing of the sailor and of the working man of the early 17th century. The middle and upper classes wore and used expensive fabrics and materials but little has survived from "the short and simple annals of the poor"! The Vasa's seamen wore no uniform; the unfortunate trapped by a moving gun carriage was dressed like his compatriots ashore in a linen shirt, homespun jacket, woollen trousers and linen stockings. His meals were taken in earthenware bowls and wooden dishes, eaten with a wooden spoon and his own sheath knife. (The officers themselves only used pewter tableware). His possessions on board ship were stored in a chest or a barrel and included materials for shoe repairing and a clay pipe -- the latter, the earliest evidence of smoking yet found in Sweden. The rations of all ships of the period, consisting mainly of dried or salted meat and fish, were to be supplemented by fishing on the Vasa; a line, sinker and net floats were found inside the ship. In the galley, meals were to be cooked in a 45 gallon cauldron over an open fire.

The 1300 tons displacement of the Vasa has provided continuous employment since 1961 as the work of preservation and restoration proceeds. The hull still requires to be continually sprayed with polyethylene gycol and rot preventive salts. The totally destroyed poop has to be rebuilt from 16,000 parts. Six of the ten sails were found in a locker; the problems of their preservation can be appreciated. Swedish archaeologists, and scientists are optimistic that in time their labours will be rewarded with "a completely restored ship resplendant with all its magnificanet carvings."

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is open from 10 am to 8 pm in summer; 10 am to 5 pm in winter. Its postal address is Wasa Museum, S-115 27 Stockholm, Sweden.

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