On 25 August 1956, a small piece of black oak stuck in a coring device that had been dropped into Stockholm's harbour. It does not sound like much, but is by far one of the most important events in the modern history of Vasa.
In the early 1950s, Anders Franzén, a fuel engineer in the Swedish navy and amateur archaeologist with a great interest in Swedish naval history, started searching for the lost ships of the Swedish navy. One of those at the top of his list was Vasa. He spent his spare time at the National and Military Archives of Sweden in his search for clues and out on the water dragging the bottom for wrecks. In his search for Vasa, he also contacted Nils Ahnlund, a well-known professor of history, who had written an article for Svenska Dagbladet back in the 1920s about the sunken 17th-century ship. In the article, Ahnlund pointed out the location in Stockholm's harbour where he thought Vasa lay: on the south side of the main shipping channel at Tegelviken, just across from the island of Beckholmen.
In 1954, Anders Franzén started a low-tech but systematic search of Stockholm harbour with boats loaned by the navy. He dragged a grapnel behind the boat. When it caught on something, he lowered a specially-made tool, a gravity-powered coring device he had designed, into the water. It had a sharp cutting tube to cut out a sample of whatever the grapnel had snagged on. If wood came back in the coring device, this could indicate that an old ship lay on the sea bed.
As he searched along the southern shore, no wrecks turned up. What he found was "rusty iron stoves and ladies' bicycles, Christmas trees, dead cats and much else about which to keep silent", as he wrote in his account of the search. It became clear to him that he was looking in the wrong place.
A life-changing meeting
In autumn 1955, several things happened to point Franzén in the right direction. He dug deeper into the archives, finding sources that Ahnlund had not read, and which indicated that Vasa lay on the north side of the channel, near Beckholmen, not the south. He was also given a chart of the bottom in this area made that summer and autumn. The city of Stockholm was investigating the possibility of building a bridge, part of a planned eastern bypass, at the narrows between Tegelviken and Beckholmen, and had ordered a detailed survey of the bottom. The chart showed a prominent lump, 50 metres long and six metres clear of the bottom, in front of the Gustav V drydock on Beckholmen. When he asked for details, he was told it was blasting rubble from the construction of the dock in the 1920s.
That winter, he met Per Edvin Fälting, the navy's most experienced salvage diver, who had worked extensively in the harbour. Fälting told Franzén he knew that the lump did not originate from the Gustav V dock; that rubble had been dumped elsewhere. Might it be, after all, Vasa that lay on the sea bed 120 metres from Beckholmen?
Through the summer of 1956, Franzén and Fälting searched the turbid waters, using a new, lighter grapnel. On 25 August, old black oak caught in the coring device, in the location where the chart showed the big lump. They moved the boat 20 metres farther along and Franzén dropped the coring device again. Again, it came up with a piece of black; it was clear that something large and wooden lay on the sea bed. After three years of disappointments, had Vasa been found?
Was it a ship? Was it Vasa?
On the basis of the cores, Franzén and Fälting were able to persuade the navy to send a dive team to investigate. In early September, Fälting descended to the lightless depths and explored by touch. Walking across the bottom, he ran into a vertical wooden wall, and found at first that it had a row of square openings. Climbing up, he found another row. It was an old warship, with two gundecks. Although there was some debate in the newspapers, the historical sources listed only one such ship lost anywhere near Beckholmen. Vasa had been found at last.
But was it really lost?
Vasa had been part of local lore since its loss. It had seen a major diving project in the 1660s to recover the guns, and every history of the Swedish navy written afterwards mentioned the fiasco. The official chart of the harbor from the mid-29th century showed the wreck, and several divers claimed to have visited the ship in the 1840s and 1860s. A large diving operation was carried out on the ship in 1895-1896, and the navy dive school, located just a few hundred metres away on Kastellholmen, had used the site for training early in the 20th century. In 1920, the Olschanski salvage firm applied for permission to salvage wrecks between Tegelviken and Beckholmen, immediately after Professor Ahnlund and a naval officer, Lenny Stackell, had written articles for major newspapers announcing that the wreck of Vasa lay in this area. Ahnlund and Stackell were later colleagues of Franzén, so in a sense it is a little misleading to say that the wreck was lost or forgotten. Instead, we can think of Anders Franzén as the last, and most decisive, link in a chain stretching all the way back to 10 August 1628.
But of all of those people who knew of the ship's existence or location, none had done anything significant with that knowledge, and this is where Franzén made his most important contribution. He could envision more than dynamiting the wreck for its timber or salvaging the guns. He had the grand idea that the ship could be raised and made into the centrepiece of a major museum. He also had the persuasive skills to recruit the people and institutions necessary for such a gargantuan task. It is fair to say that without him, there would hardly be a Vasa Museum today.