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Nautical Archaeology

Whole-ship Retrieval

Early excavations succeeded in raising only the contents of shipwrecks or portions of the ships. Recent excavations have focused on raising the entire ship, with its contents intact.

One such project was carried out under the leadership of Anders Franzén, with the support of the Swedish government. In the seventeenth century, the Swedish king Gustavus II Adolph (ruled 1611-1632) decided to improve Sweden's military capability by building a powerful naval fleet. The pride of this fleet was the Vasa, an enormous 1,400-ton vessel that was set to depart on its first voyage from Stockholm Harbor. No sooner had it set out from port than it sank, within full view of the king.

Franzén believed that the ship lay at the bottom of the coldwater harbor in an excellent state of preservation. He made several attempts to locate the vessel—one with sonar—all of which failed. Then he made a lucky discovery. He came across a letter from the Swedish Parliament to the king that described the ship's exact location.

Various plans to raise the vessel were discussed. Rescuers decided that the safest plan would be to run cables through tunnels dug by divers beneath the ship. The divers would then swim through the tunnels with the cables and attach them to pontoons on either side of the ship. The pontoons would be filled with water until their decks were even with the water's surface. When the water was pumped out of the pontoons, the Vasa would begin to rise from the bottom of the harbor.

This plan was tried and it worked. The process was repeated several times, and the Vasa was pumped out of the water. A floating hall was built around it. Enshrined in the hall, and still containing its centuries-old cargo, the Vasa was floated to a museum site, where it remains on view today. Among the items found inside the ship were casks containing the sailors' original food and ale, implements for daily use, and twelve skeletons, many of them with their clothing still on, undisturbed down to the coins in their pockets.

In the 1980s, another remarkable vessel was raised from the sea. This time researchers worked to rescue a sixteenth-century naval vessel, the Mary Rose. In a tragedy strikingly similar to that which befell the Vasa, King Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle as the pride of his fleet sank with its crew of 700 men on its way to battle France. The historian and archaeologist Alexander McKee believed that the Mary Rose was preserved in a deep bed of silt. He decided to raise the ship by attaching cables to a floating crane that lifted the ship out of the water. The ship was then continuously sprayed with water to keep it from drying out until it could be safely moved to shore. Medical equipment, pocket sundials, fishing gear, and leftover food from the ship broadened our knowledge of daily life in the sixteenth century.


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