Don’t forget to look up tonight. The times in Western Australia for watching the total lunar eclipse are beary social! 🙂 7:48pm to 11:11pm.
The eclipse will occur in the early evening, within an hour after sunset. The moon will be low to the eastern horizon at the start of the eclipse but will move higher in the sky and towards the northeast as the eclipse progresses.
Little bears are watching Agora (2009), a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition. At its centre is a woman who in the 4th century was a “natural philosopher” (4th century equivalent of “scientist”) , mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher, respected in Egypt, although women were not expected to be any of those things.
If you haven’t heard of the film, you are not alone. We only learned of its existence today! With almost no cinema distribution and with the sales of the DVD virtually non-existent, Agora has almost vanished without a trace, not unlike its main character. Then there are the people who apparently expect a film based on a historical character to be a documentary. Films are for entertainment, not for education. The film is ambitious, cerebral and complex and the story deals with intellectual values, mathematics, logic, reason… Not the most popular of topics at the best of times! And we know the ending before the film even starts. The only thing left to do is to dramatize the story.
Hypatia was the first well-documented female mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher. Her influence in ancient Alexandria, Egypt – at a time when opportunities for women were practically non-existent – was so great that Carl Sagan paid tribute to her in his book Cosmos. Born between the years 355 and 370 CE, Hypatia, collaborating with her father (the mathematician Theon) furthered the work of Ptolemy’s astronomy and a new version of Euclid’s Elements (the basic text in the history of geometry). She was an early proponent of scientific thought based on rational, sound evidence.
Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz who gives an outstanding performance) was born into the family business. Her father Theon (played by Michael Lonsdale) was the curator of the Library of Alexandria, which had as its mission “collecting all the world’s knowledge”. Scholars travelled there from across the ancient world, doing research and donating manuscripts. It was destroyed by Christians in 391 CE, and Agora takes place in the years surrounding that incalculable loss.
‘Agora’ was the name for public assembly places in ancient Greek city-states. The library was such an ‘agora’, and we see Hypatia teaching a class of young men who listen to her with open admiration. The film doesn’t make as much as you might expect about Hypatia’s gender; possibly the subjugation of women was so unconsciously and universally accepted that, in some sense, she was seen less as a woman than as a daughter teaching the lessons of her father.
The film proposes that Hypatia was working on the problem of whether the Earth or the Sun was the centre of the Universe, and this quest is central to the character as she is portrayed. It is a bold assertion, because we have none of her actual works to refer to. We only have references to what she wrote. But it really makes all the difference. If she was simply an upper class pagan woman who got caught on the wrong side of politics, then her death is just one of many tragedies. But if she was the first person to work out that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, with the Sun at the centre of the solar system, then her death potentially set back science for centuries.
The world that Hypatia was born into was one where there was a considerable background of theoretical and practical knowledge. She would have been well aware of the works of Eratosthenes (who, in 240 BCE, worked out the circumference of the Earth and was accurate within an incredible 1%!!) and Ptolemy (who managed to get just about everything wrong, but did it in style, and gave the world a highly sophisticated, very predictive and totally wrong model of the solar system that was accepted by everyone for centuries to come). She would have known that Aristarchus of Samos had proposed that it was in fact the Sun that was central and that the Earth and the planets rotated around it.
We will never know what Hypatia actually wrote as her works have been lost, but all the information needed to come up with the notion of elliptical orbits would have been available to her. She was also likely to be in a position to look at data generated over time in Alexandria. And it’s likely she would have been good at collecting additional data herself.
Two of her projects stand out. She reviewed the work of Appolonius on conics. This is the area of mathematics that deals with the mathematical properties of circles and ellipses. And she edited a new edition of Ptolemy’s Algamest.
She was also adept at instrument manufacture. She did work on astrolabes, used to take astronomical readings. She is also credited by many with inventing the hydrometer. This turns out to be a myth. Her association with the hydrometer is known from a letter written to her by a former student asking her to make one for him. He gives her some details of what it should look like and what it should do, but obviously is happy to take it for granted that she will understand the science well enough to be able to work out exactly how it should work from first principles.
The view of the world that has planets in elliptical orbits around a central sun is very different to what you get from Ptolemy. In the Ptolemaic universe, the rules governing behaviour in the heavens are different to those here on Earth. The Earth is central and different. Going back to Hypatia’s work on conics, an ellipse is just one of the geometries that can be derived from a cone. So can a parabola, which is the path a ball follows when you throw it. Put the Sun at the centre of the Solar System and suddenly you can use the same basic ideas to describe motion anywhere in it. Once elliptical orbits had been proposed in the 17th century, progress in studying motion followed quickly afterwards. In the film, this revolutionary possibility is represented by having Hypatia doing experiments dropping a sack from the mast of a moving ship.
We will never know exactly what she was doing in the years up to 391, but we do know that this was a watershed year. The Emperor Theodosius issued a decree making paganism illegal. The Christians were now in power and in a position to destroy paganism. Bishop Theophilus in Alexandria moved against the pagan temples. The central one in Alexandria was completely destroyed and a church built instead.
In sword-and-sandal epics, the Christians are without fail the good guys. Not here. Christians and pagans are equally blinded by the conviction that those who hold different beliefs deserve death. After the rise of the Christians, the factions grow even more militant; one group wears black robes and searches streets for dissenters, heretics and Jews. Christian writers have, of course, criticized the movie’s historical inaccuracies and its depiction of early Christians in an unflattering light. The anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers themselves. The Christians in the film depicted as ignorant were so by choice. The depiction in Agora of early Christians as `ignorant’ in the modern sense of that word is in keeping with the tradition which Christian writers themselves have left us as their legacy.
Neither the pagans nor Christians are pacifists. Both sides possess that peculiar certainty that their opponents must by definition be evil. Blood is shed. Foolishly believing they hold the upper hand, the pagans, led by Orestes, conduct a bloodletting, only to learn in a savage lesson that there are now more Christians than they imagined. In the film, this warfare culminates in the destruction of the library. It’s easy to imagine Hypatia racing with her students to rescue armloads of scrolls (as she does in the film), a few of which may literally have been responsible for our surviving texts from Aristotle and other Greeks.
If she worked out the Earth’s true place in the Solar System, that knowledge did not survive. With the Church taking control of all aspects of document management and maintaining this monopoly for centuries, investigating the Universe, and man’s position at the centre of it, was off the agenda.
Films about ideological strife frequently reassure modern audiences with a vision of progress in which ignorance is at least partly vanquished and enlightenment is allowed to prevail. Not this time. And 17 centuries after Hypatia’s death, the film’s epic questions, surrounding freedom of religion and science vs. faith, remain unanswered. In terms of fundamentalism, there has been very little progress. In reviving this tale from the ancient world, Alejandro Amenábar subtly invites his audience to remember the Taliban, the war on terror and the looting of Iraq’s national museum. Unlike most toga movies, it doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle, but real drama and ideas.
Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the city of Alexandria quickly grew into a centre of culture and learning for the ancient world. At its heart was the museum, a type of university, whose collection of more than a half-million scrolls was housed in the library of Alexandria.
Alexandria underwent a slow decline beginning in 48 BCE, when Julius Caesar conquered the city for Rome and accidentally burned down the library. (It was then rebuilt.) By 364, when the Roman Empire split and Alexandria became part of the eastern half, the city was beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and pagans. Further civil wars destroyed much of the library’s contents. The last remnants likely disappeared, along with the museum, in 391, when the archbishop Theophilus acted on orders from the Roman emperor to destroy all pagan temples. Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the last scrolls, and built a church on the site.
The last known member of the museum was the mathematician and astronomer Theon — Hypatia’s father.
Some of Theon’s writing has survived. His commentary (a copy of a classical work that incorporates explanatory notes) on Euclid’s Elements was the only known version of that cardinal work on geometry until the 19th century. But little is known about his and Hypatia’s family life. Even Hypatia’s date of birth is contested — scholars long held that she was born in 370 but modern historians believe 350 to be more likely. The identity of her mother is a complete mystery, and Hypatia may have had a brother, Epiphanius, though he may have been only Theon’s favourite pupil.
Theon taught mathematics and astronomy to his daughter, and she collaborated on some of his commentaries. She was a mathematician and astronomer in her own right, writing commentaries of her own and teaching a succession of students from her home. Letters from one of these students, Synesius, indicate that these lessons included how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomical calculator that would be used until the 19th century.
Beyond her father’s areas of expertise, Hypatia established herself as a philosopher in what is now known as the Neoplatonic school, a belief system in which everything emanates from the One. (Her student Synesius would become a bishop in the Christian church and incorporate Neoplatonic principles into the doctrine of the Trinity.) Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning [the robe of a scholar], the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle,” the philosopher Damascius wrote after her death.
Hypatia never married and likely led a celibate life, which possibly was in keeping with Plato’s ideas on the abolition of the family system. The Suda lexicon, a 10th century encyclopaedia of the Mediterranean world, describes her as being “exceedingly beautiful and fair of form… in speech articulate and logical, in her actions prudent and public-spirited, and the rest of the city gave her suitable welcome and accorded her special respect.”
Her admirers included Alexandria’s governor, Orestes. Her association with him would eventually lead to her death.
Theophilus, the archbishop who destroyed the last of Alexandria’s great Library, was succeeded in 412 by his nephew, Cyril, who continued his uncle’s tradition of hostilities toward other faiths. (One of his first actions was to close and plunder the churches belonging to the Novatian Christian sect.)
With Cyril the head of the main religious body of the city and Orestes in charge of the civil government, a fight began over who controlled Alexandria. Orestes was a Christian, but he did not want to cede power to the church. The struggle for power reached its peak following a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, when Cyril led a crowd that expelled all Jews from the city and looted their homes and temples. Orestes protested to the Roman government in Constantinople. When Orestes refused Cyril’s attempts at reconciliation, Cyril’s monks tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.
Hypatia, however, was an easier target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about a non-Christian philosophy, Neoplatonism, and she was less likely to be protected by guards than the now-prepared Orestes. A rumour spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. From there, Peter the Lector and his mob took action and Hypatia met her tragic end.
Cyril’s role in Hypatia’s death has never been clear. “Those whose affiliations lead them to venerate his memory exonerate him; anticlericals and their ilk delight in condemning the man,” Michael Deakin wrote in his 2007 book Hypatia of Alexandria.
Meanwhile, Hypatia has become a symbol for feminists, a martyr to pagans and atheists and a character in fiction. Voltaire used her to condemn the church and religion. The English clergyman Charles Kingsley made her the subject of a mid-Victorian romance. Carl Sagan paid tribute to her in his book Cosmos.
Neither paganism nor scholarship died in Alexandria with Hypatia, but they certainly took a blow. “Almost alone, virtually the last academic, she stood for intellectual values, for rigorous mathematics, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and the voice of temperance and moderation in civic life,” Deakin wrote. She may have been a victim of religious fanaticism, but Hypatia remains an inspiration even in modern times.
“Between four and five o’clock, the great new warship Vasa keeled over and sank.” A few short lines about a major disaster were written in a book on August 10, 1628. For a magnificent ship that sank on her very first voyage, this could have been the end. Instead, it was the beginning of an adventure that is still in progress. The Vasa was found almost intact, standing on the seabed, after three centuries. The ship was salvaged and it is on display at Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, one of Sweden’s most popular tourist destinations.
Stockholm, summer 1628. For three years, carpenters, pit-sawyers, smiths, ropemakers, glaziers, sailmakers, painters, boxmakers, woodcarvers and other specialists had worked on building the Navy’s new warship – the Vasa. She was a “royal ship”, the 17th century designation for the largest type of naval vessel. The Vasa was designed to be the foremost of Sweden’s war-ships, with a hull constructed from one thousand oaks, 64 large guns, masts more than fifty meters high and many hundred gilded and painted sculptures. The shipyard where the Vasa was built, Skeppsgården, was located on the island of Blasieholmen in the middle of Stockholm. In 1628, the Vasa was moored immediately below the Royal Castle. There, ballast was loaded, as well as the ammunition and guns required for the maiden voyage.
The new ship aroused the admiration and pride of Stockholmers, but intimidated the country’s enemies. We know that her construction was followed with interest abroad. One good source of information on the Vasa’s guns, for example, is a letter written by Erik Krabbe, the Danish Ambassador in Stockholm. Impressed, he reported that Vasa had 48 big guns for 24-pound ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars.
By Sunday August 10, everything was ready for the maiden voyage. The weather was fine and the wind light. On board were around a hundred crew members, but also women and children. This was to be a great ceremonial occasion, with pomp and circumstance, so the crew had been given permission to take their first families on the first voyage out through the archipelago.
Countless curious spectators gathered in the harbor. They had plenty of time to follow the ship’s departure. The wind was from the south-west and, for the first few hundred meters, Vasa had to be pulled along using anchors. At Tranbodarma, the present-day Slussen, Captain Söfring Hansson issued the order: “Set the foresail, foretop, maintop and mizzen!”
The sailors climbed the rig and set four of the Vasa’s ten sails. The guns fired a salute and slowly, serenely, Vasa set off on her first voyage.
In a letter to the King, the Council of the Realm described the subsequent course of events: “When the ship left the shelter of Tegelvikden, a stronger wind entered the sails and she immediately began to heel over hard to the left side; she righted herself slightly again until she approached Beckholmen, where she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom under sail, pennants and all.”
Struck by a powerful gust of wind, Vasa capsized and sank after a voyage of only 1,300 meters.
Admiral Erik Jönsson witnessed the terrifying seconds on board when water poured in through the gun ports and the ship began to sink. Jönsson was inside the ship, checking the guns: “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”
The Admiral became so “waterlogged and badly knocked about by the hatches” that he was near death for several days. Some fifty people are said to have followed Vasa into the deep.
Before continuing with the Vasa’s story, let us for a moment imagine what would have happened had the ship never sunk. As a warship, she was built for the purpose of warfare – the fact that she was the most heavily armed warship in the Baltic and perhaps of the day, with a total of 64 guns on board (including forty-eight large guns for 24-pounder ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars) attests to this. Had she managed to leave the harbour, had she arrived in Prussia, had she recuperated the King, and had she gone off to war, one of two things would have happened. Either she would have had a successful career spanning between 20 and 30 years, after which she would have been dismantled as was customary for warships of the day, or she would have been so heavily damaged during combat that she would have met a watery grave following a bloody battle, lost to the world forever. In either case, the Vasa would not have been here today, and the contemporary world would have been all the poorer for it. By sinking, the Vasa did modern times a favour, and as such her sinking can be seen as a (very) fortunate tragedy.
News of the disaster did not reach the Swedish King, who was then in Prussia, until two weeks later. He wrote to the Council of the Realm in Stockholm that “imprudence and negligence” must have been the cause, and that the guilty parties must be punished.
Why did Vasa sink?
Where you intoxicated? Had you failed to secure the guns properly? Questions and accusations echoed in the hall at the Royal Castle. Just twelve hours after the loss of Vasa, her Danish-born captain Söfring Hansson, stood before the Council of the Realm. He had been taken prisoner immediately afterwards and the report on his interrogation has survived to this day.
“You can cut me in a thousand pieces if all the guns were not secured,” he answered. “And before God Almighty I swear that no one on board was intoxicated.”
Söfring Hansson thus swore that he was innocent.
“It was just a small gust of wind, a mere breeze, that overturned the ship,” Söfring Hansson went on to relate. “The ship was too unsteady, although all the ballast was on board.”
Thus, Söfring Hansson placed the blame on the ship’s design – and, by the same token, the shipbuilder.
When the crew were later questioned, they said the same thing. No mistake was made on board. It was impossible to load more ballast. The guns were properly lashed down. It was a Sunday, many people had been to Communion and no member of the crew was drunk. Instead, the fault lay in the unstable construction of the ship: the keel was too small in relation to the hull, the rig and the artillery.
“The ship is top-heavy with her masts and yards, sails and guns,” they declared.
Shipmaster Jöran Matsson also revealed that Vasa’s stability had been tested before sailing. Thirty men had run back and forth across Vasa’s deck when she was moored at the quay. After three runs, they had to stop – otherwise, Vasa would have capsized. Present during the test was Admiral Klas Fleming, one of the most influential men in the Navy. The Admiral’s only comment, according to Jöran Matsson, was: “If only his Majesty were at home!”
Those responsible for Skeppsgården, where Vasa was built, were then questioned. These were shipbuilder Hein Jakobsson and Arent de Groot, the lessee of Skeppsgården. One complication was that the actual builder of Vasa, the Dutchman Henrik Hybertsson, had died the year before. However, Jakobsson and de Groot also swore their innocence. Vasa conformed to the dimensions approved by the King himself, they said. On board were a number of guns, as specified in the contract.
“Whose fault is it, then?” asked the interrogator.
“God only knows,” answered de Groot.
God and King, both equally infallible, were thus drawn into the case. The subsequent deliberations of the Council of the Realm on the issue of guilt are unknown to us. No guilty party was ever identified, and no one was punished for the disaster.
Can we today, 390 years later, identify the guilty party and explain why Vasa sank?
The accusation that the guns were not properly secured can be dismissed. When Vasa was salvaged in 1961, the gun carriages were still arrayed in neat rows, and the ropes were in place around the carriages’ wheel axles. Present-day technical calculations have also shown that Vasa is extremely top-heavy and requires only a moderate wind to overturn her. Thus, “a small gust of wind”, as the captain said during the interrogation, was enough.
Who, then, was at fault?
Admiral Fleming? He failed to prevent the ship’s departure after the stability test, although it was within his power to do so. Not enough backbone to do so since Vasa had already been completed and the King was waiting impatiently in Prussia.
King Gustavus II Adolphus? He was anxious to acquire a ship with as many guns as possible on board. He had also approved the ship’s dimensions and was keen to have it completed rapidly.
The shipbuilder? Henrik Hybertsson was a very experienced Dutch shipbuilder. He had previously built many good ships. Vasa was extremely well constructed and the shape did not differ from other naval vessels that sailed in the 17th century. All ships carrying many guns were tall and highly unstable. It was impossible to see that Vasa was top heavy.
The theoretical know-how of the period? 17th century shipbuilders did not have the capability to make construction drawings or mathematical calculations of stability. The only recourse of the shipbuilder was to a table of figures, the ship’s reckoning, which recorded certain ship measurements. The reckoning was often a well-kept secret – something a father passed on to his son. Thus, a new ship was often modelled on its predecessor.
Fred Hocker, an archaeologist at the Vasa Museum, has been trying to find some definitive answers. Hocker and his team spent three years measuring every single piece of the wood in the ship. “If we want to understand how the ship was built, that’s what it takes,” says Hocker.
Hocker’s meticulous measurements paid off. They gave him fresh insight into what made the Vasa unstable. For one thing, the ship was asymmetrical, more so than most ships of the day. There is more ship structure on the port side of the hull than on the starboard side, Unballasted, the ship would probably heel to port.
No wonder the ship tipped to the port side when the winds hit. But why was the ship so lopsided? While examining the ship, Hocker discovered four rulers the workmen had used. Those rulers were based on different standards of measurement at the time. Two were in Swedish feet, which were divided into twelve inches. The other two were in Amsterdam feet, which had eleven inches in a foot. So each carpenter had used his own system of measurement.
“When somebody tells him, make that thing four inches thick, his four inches is not going to be the same as the next guy’s four inches,” says Hocker. “And you can see those variations in the timbers, as well.”
But that wasn’t the only reason the ship sank. Hocker says the Vasa was also top-heavy. “The part of the ship that was above the water is too heavy compared to the part of the ship that’s in the water. [It] makes it too easy for it to heel over.”
People in the 17th century were aware of that fact, but they didn’t understand what made the ship top-heavy, or whom to blame for the poor design. Some historians and military architects have blamed the King.
They thought that he had interfered with the ship’s dimensions after the construction had begun. But Hocker’s measurements offered no evidence to support that theory. He uncovered a simpler cause.
“The deck structure is simply too heavy,” he says. “It’s heavier than it needs to be to carry the guns that Vasa was armed with.”
Why were the decks so heavy? Hocker studied historical documents and found that the shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson, had never built a ship with two gun decks or with so many guns. He thinks Hybertsson erred on the side of caution and made the decks heavier than they needed to be. In other words, as Hocker puts it, “the design was simply flawed from the beginning.”
The management world has a name for human problems of communication and management that cause projects to founder and fail – Vasa syndrome. The events of August 10, 1628 had such a big impact that the sinking is a case study business experts still read about.
“An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” write Kessler, Bierly and Gopalakrishnan. In the case of the Vasa, “there was an overemphasis on the ship’s elegance and firepower and reduced importance on its seaworthiness and stability,” they write, “which are more critical issues.” Although it was originally designed to carry 36 guns, it was sent to sea with twice that number. At the same time, the beautiful ornamentation contributed to its heaviness and instability, they write. These and a host of other factors contributed to Vasa’s sinking and provide a cautionary tale for those designing and testing new technologies.
Salvage attempts in the 17th century
After sinking, the masts (the only parts of the ship that were still visible above water) were removed in order not to interrupt ship traffic in the busy harbour, but no attempts were made to bring the ship to the surface as technology was not yet far enough advanced to undertake a project of this magnitude.
While Captain Söfring Hansson was still in captivity, the first wreck salvagers arrived at the site of the shipwreck. The Englishman Ian Bulmer was the first to arrive; only three days after the disaster, he was given the sole right of salvaging Vasa. But the Council of the Realm stipulated that no money would be paid until Bulmer had fulfilled his promises.
Bulmer failed, and Admiral Klas Fleming – the same man who interrupted the stability test – took over attempts to salvage the ship and save the many valuable guns. To assist him, he engaged Hans Olofsson from Karelia, who “could walk under water”. But Olofsson failed as well, and after a year of fruitless attempts Fleming wrote to the King: “This is a more onerous test than I could ever have foreseen.”
Fleming gave up, but many others were attracted by the valuable Vasa guns. In the decades after the shipwreck, numerous adventurers, treasure-seekers and inventors arrived in Stockholm. Hooks and anchors were fastened to the hull; they pulled and tugged, but all to no avail. The treasures of Vasa remained inaccessible right up to the 1660s, when Albrecht von Treileben, the Swede from Värmland, and the German Andreas Peckell began to take an interest in the 64 guns. Both men had extensive experience of salvaging wrecks, and their primary tool was a diving bell. The first diver to be lowered to Vasa was called Anders Amundsson. He reported that the previous salvagers had caused considerable damage to the ship: “It looks like a make-shift fence down there,” he said.
Under the leadership of von Treileben and Peckell, the salvage work commenced. In pitch-darkness, at a depth of thirty meters, the divers were to:
– loosen the guns, weighing one ton each, from their carriages;
– remove the guns through the gun ports;
– bring the guns up to the surface.
The succeeded, over fifty guns were lifted during the years 1664 and 1665.
An eyewitness account of the salvage operations has survived. Francesco Negri, an Italian priest who was on a short visit to Stockholm, observed the diving operations of 1663. He wrote in his diary: “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell.
“I asked him how long he would stay down there on the seabed. He answered ‘Half an hour’. But this was at the end of October and after quarter of an hour the bell was hoisted up, and the man was then shivering with cold although he was a strong, native Swede.
“I myself wanted to try the diving bell, but was advised to refrain since the water was so cold and there was a danger of falling ill in consequence.”
The achievement of the “men who could walk under water” was a remarkable one. These men included Abraham Eriksson, Anders Dykare, Johan Printz, Johan Bertilsson, Johan Wik and Lars Andersson, all from Goetheburg. By way of comparison, in the 1950s, it took a whole day for a deep sea diver with modern equipment to salvage one of Vasa’s remaining guns.
Discovery and salvage
On September 13, 1956, a notice in Expressen, the evening paper, announced: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years, a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”
It was a short notice about a major sensation. The “private person” was the 38-year-old engineer Anders Franzén. He was one of Sweden’s foremost experts on naval warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries and a specialist on wrecked naval vessels. He was also one of the few who both researched in archives and then went out on a boat to find the site of the wreck.
Franzén knew that the Baltic is unique. Here there is no shipworm, the tiny Teredo that destroys all wood in saltier seas. Wooden vessels that sink in the Baltic are therefore preserved for centuries, even millenia.
Historians know of twelve sunken warships from the 16th and 17th centuries, six of them not yet located. Between the cold brackish water protecting them from shipworm and the Swedish laws protecting them as national antiquities, chances look good of finding and benefiting from yet another treasure trove of history.
It was professor Nils Ahnlund, an authority on 17th century Sweden, who first aroused Franzén’s interest in Vasa. Professor Ahnlund did not know exactly where Vasa had sunk, since the data in the 17th century archives pointed to several different locations. Franzén set out to search the seabed of Stockholm harbour with a grapnel, a sounding line, maps and information from the archives.
After searching for several years, Franzén succeeded on August 25, 1956. His home-made core sampler, with its hollow punch at the tip, got stuck and came up containing a plug of blackened oak. A few days later, the diver Per Edvin Fälting went down and was able to confirm Franzén’s find. Over a crackling diver’s telephone, he reported: “I can’t see anything, since it’s pitch-dark here, but I can feel something big – the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s nother. There are two rows. It must be Vasa.”
A large, nationwide “Save the Vasa” campaign was launched, and money and materials were donated by foundations, individuals and companies. The Navy made staff and boats available and in autumn 1957 the divers began to dig, or rather flush out, tunnels beneath the ship. Their tool was a hosepipe with a special mouthpiece. Mud and gravel were washed away – a task requiring immense technical skills and even greater courage. The work was carried out at a depth of more than 30 meters and in total darkness. The tunnels were so narrow that the divers had to squirm through.
Work on the tunnels went on for two years without serious accidents. At the end of August 1959, it was time for the first lift. The Neptun Salvaging Company’s salvaging pontoons were placed above Vasa, cables were pulled through the six tunnels and the old ship was raised from the seabed without any problems. The hull did not give way, and Vasa was then lifted into shallower water in 16 stages. It was still too early to bring the ship up to the surface. The hull had to be made watertight and reinforced for the final lift. Again, it was the divers who performed this task. For two years, they were busy filling in the thousands of holes formed where iron bots had rusted away. The partially broken stern had to be reconstructed and all the gun ports fitted with new, watertight hatches.
On April 24, 1961, everything was ready for the lift. After 333 years on the seabed, Vasa broke the surface and a piece of untouched 17th century history came to light. When the railing was above the surface, powerful bilge pumps were started. By May 4 the ship was so free of water and mud that she was able to float and be towed into a dock at Beckholmen. The first people to board Vasa were Anders Franzén and Per Edvin Fälting.
Since 1961, Vasa has been gradually restored in its entirety. The destroyed portions of the ship, the main deck, the sterncastle, the bow of the ship and the fitments inside the ship had to be rebuilt. This work was undertaken by ship technicians, shipwrights, and museum staff, using the original timbers and parts of the structure. 98 per cent of the ship and 60 per cent of the sails are made up of original parts.
Vasa offers a window onto the past, illuminating the life of a 17th century sailor and the horrible scenes of a desperate, drowning crew. Teams of archaeologists have explored every nook and cranny of the veritable time-capsule, complete with 500 sculptures and such ordinary objects, as watches, games, forks, shoes, a bible, carpenter’s tools and Sweden’s oldest clay pipes. They have also uncovered remains from 25 of the 50 men and women who went down with the ship, including the skeleton of a sailor still carrying his leather money pouch.
The brackish water in the Stockholm archipelago didn’t provide perfect conditions just for the preservation of the shipwreck but also for everything – as well as everyone – inside. About 50 people perished in the sinking, and the remains of about 15 of those who died during the accident were so well preserved that some were found with their hair (and even their brains) still intact and with their shoes still on their feet. Tests done on these remains have been able to determine the kinds of diets that they had, which grants significant insight into the daily life of early 17th century Stockholm. Along with these remains, many personal belongings such as clothes, shoes, combs, sewing thread and smoking pipes were found, along with eating utensils, over 4000 coins, medical equipment and even a board game that one sailor brought on as an off-duty pastime. By studying these items, it is possible for archaeologists and anthropologists to piece together the lives that surrounded them, which helps us to better understand the conditions during this time and ultimately leads to better understand life as it is today.
Up until 1990, the Vasa Museum was housed in a basic aluminium building which slowly rusted with the 98% humidity need for the ship’s restoration. But in 1990, a new museum awaited: a modern building crowned by three masts, complete with cinemas, computer rooms, replicated captain’s quarters, sailors’ cabins and a cannon deck.
The Vasa was the centre of all activity at Skeppsgården, the Stockholm shipyard, for two years. Skeppsgården was not only a shipyard but also the main station for the naval forces in a country that was constantly armed for war. 400 people worked there.
The shipyard model shows the intensive activity in the spring of 1627. Raised on her bed of supports the Vasa is almost ready to be launched. Woodworkers of all sorts dominate the work. Visitors can make out sawyers, turners, platform makers and mast makers, carpenters, painters, sculptors, sail makers, rope makers, anchor smiths, blacksmiths, nail smiths, and a fine smith. The shipyard also employs a master glassworker, a tar-spreader and a nail bearer.
The construction of the Vasa required thousands of oak trees. Her rig used almost twelve kilometres of rope.
The model shows the construction of the Vasa at different stages.
A painted model of the Vasa (1:10) gives visitors an idea of how the ship might have looked as she sailed out in 1628.
The model was built by four model builders at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm. The work took 12,000 hours and the model is adorned with over 500 sculptures.