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The Salvage of Vasa in a New Light

Many people have the idea that the ship Vasa was long forgotten at the bottom of the sea for 333 years. And that Anders Franzén, when he fished up a piece of black oak in the mid-1950s, was the one who discovered Vasa. In a newly published book, Carl Olof Cederlund, professor emeritus of maritime archaeology, wants to provide a more nuanced picture.

When marine engineer Anders Franzén took the initiative to salvage the Vasa ship in the 1950s, it wasn’t the first time in modern history that this had happened. Franzén would have heard about the salvage that took place in the 1920s and have expected the wreck to be decayed, says Carl Olof Cederlund, who himself participated in Vasa’s excavation in 1961 as a young archaeologist.

Since then, Cederlund has continued research on Vasa in more recent times. For his PhD thesis in 1984, he immersed himself in stories of old Baltic Sea shipwrecks and put the subject of maritime archaeology on the map. In 1999, he became Sweden’s first professor in the subject.

Diving technology and raising the Vasa

In his newly published book, 'Om dykeriets historia' (On the History of Diving), Cederlund wishes to show that maritime archaeology evolved as a science in parallel with the development of diving technology in Sweden and Europe.

“In the book, I talk about older diving technologies that have a bearing on Vasa and maritime archaeology,” Cederlund says.

In 2012, Cederlund wrote an article about the unwritten chapter in the ship’s history discussing how he found various archival records from five previous salvage attempts of Vasa between the 1840s and 1920s. Information about where Vasa sank has probably been kept alive through oral traditions and a few other sources, like naval officers interested in the history of the navy as well as salvage contractors. Maps from the 1800s mark the site where Vasa sank.

A widow’s gift offers new insights

The book draws attention to naval officer Anton Ludvig Fahnehjelm’s career and the development of technology.

“Shortly after I wrote about Vasa’s various salvage attempts ten years ago, I found plenty of archival material at the Nordic Museum – and a diving helmet, given to the museum a hundred years earlier by Fahnehjelm’s son’s wife after her husband’s death,” he says.

Cederlund discovered detailed information about how Fahnehjelm planned to raise Vasa in the 1840s. Inspired by British contemporary diving technology, he developed a diving apparatus that became a precursor to heavier modern-day diving equipment. He even used it for several salvages on various shipwrecks.

The book contains beautiful illustrations of some quite imaginative diving equipment from the late Middle Ages onwards, including a drawing of metal detectors for underwater use from the 1840s.

Fahnehjelm, diving pioneer

Spurred by his great interest in Vasa and salvage technology, Fahnehjelm became one of the founders of the first diving company in Sweden, Dykeribolaget, in Kalmar. By the standards of his day he was radical, engaging in social issues in Stockholm at the time. 

In 1839, Fahnehjelm designed and introduced a diving apparatus in Sweden, a device whose technical design was basically the same as the equipment used more than one hundred years later when Vasa was salvaged. It came to replace the diving bells that were the widely used tools for diving in the past.

“In 1844, Fahnehjelm requested to salvage ‘pieces’ of Vasa – cannons believed to still be in the wreckage and which were considered much more valuable than the ship itself,” Cederlund  says.

Fahnehjelm was inspired by recent salvage operations for the British warship Royal George, which had sunk in the 1780s off the south coast of England. Blasting operations and divers were used to facilitate raising the ship.

Although the request from the 1840s to raise Vasa did not likely result in any salvages, it nevertheless became part of the development of diving technology and salvage operations.

Mr. Kreeft’s diving machine, printed in Leipzig in 1805. Das Deutsche Meeresmuseum, Stralsund.

The entire ship successfully salvaged

It was not until 1961 when Anders Franzén and others obtained the necessary financial resources to raise the entire ship. The salvage attracted a lot of public attention and airtime on TV, which certainly helped to make Vasa, the world’s best preserved 1600s ship, the national icon it is today.

Many of Vasa’s guns were salvaged as early as the 1600s by various contractors with the permission of the king. Today, three of guns recovered during the 1900s are owned by the Vasa Museum.

  • Cederlund’s new book, Om dykeriets historia, is available for purchase in the museum shop at Vrak and through the publisher. All images are taken from the book.