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Vasa making her way into the dock at Beckholmen, on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm, with chief diver Per Edvin Fälting standing in the stern. The ship was so well preserved that it was able float on its own. Photo: Archives, the Swedish National Maritime MuseumsVasa making her way into the dock at Beckholmen, on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm, with chief diver Per Edvin Fälting standing in the stern. The ship was so well preserved that it was able float on its own. Photo: Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Vasa, from shipwreck to state of the art

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It’s the morning of April 24th 1961: expectant Stockholmers stand gathered on the quaysides. Children skip school and workplaces stand still. World radio and press are assembled and Swedish television makes a live broadcast – a unique event at this time. After 333 years on the sea bottom and several unsuccessful salvage attempts, the time has at last come. Sweden holds her breath. Vasa surfaces.

Vasa’s discoverer Anders Franzén. Photo Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Vasa’s discoverer Anders Franzén. Photo Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

In the 1960s society was abuzz with technological optimism, engineering feats were highly valued. But the salvaging of Vasa was not just a world first. It was also the realisation of one boy’s dream. Amateur archaeologist and discoverer Anders Franzén had spent several years searching for Vasa, a 17th century warship that sunk on her maiden voyage. But he had not tried the waters around Beckholmen until now. In 1956, off  Beckholmen, with the help of a homemade coring device, Franzén finally found the Vasa.

In 1956, off  Beckholmen, with the help of a homemade coring device, Franzén finally found the Vasa

The vessel, which was meant to be state of the art for its time, sank just 1,300 metres from the shipyard where she was built, resulting in the loss of around 30 lives. Efforts were made to retrieve her soon after she sunk, but it was all in vain. She was then salvaged for her cannons and remained on the sea bed for over 300 years.

The chief diver Per Edvin Fälting holding a human skull that has been salvaged. Photo: Anders Franzén.

The chief diver Per Edvin Fälting holding a human skull that has been salvaged. Photo: Anders Franzén.

Many ideas were put forward about how best to salvage Vasa, the one more creative than the other. Some suggested filling the ship with ping-pong balls. The air in the ping-pong balls would cause the hull to float to the surface. Others thought the ship should be filled with dry ice so it would freeze into a lump of ice. That would also make it float to the surface since ice is lighter than water. In the end, it was decided to use the well-proven salvage method employing wire cables and floating pontoons.

A model in the Vasa Museum showing Vasa’s salvage. Photo: Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

A model in the Vasa Museum showing Vasa’s salvage. Photo: Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

The salvage of Vasa was a historical moment. It was also the beginning of a success story. A gigantic project of experiment and analysis for archaeologists, conservators and researchers could now begin. After many years of intricate work, Sweden can be proud of a unique world treasure. There is no better preserved 17th century ship in the world.

Celebrating 50 years

The Vasa Museum is now celebrating 50 years since the successful salvage operation took place. It is Scandinavia’s most visited museum and annually attracts over a million visitors. Conservation and preservation work continues today, utilizing new techniques and new methods. An international research team is working continually to ensure that Vasa remains in as excellent a condition as possible both now and into the future.

The entire salvage operation was filmed in colour and parts of the documentary is showing in the Vasa Museum.

An archaeologist holding a find from one of Vasa’s lower decks, a gold ring – the only gold object that was found on board. Photo: Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

An archaeologist holding a find from one of Vasa’s lower decks, a gold ring – the only gold object that was found on board. Photo: Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.


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