Studies of the skeletal remains that were found during the excavation of Vasa give us more knowledge of the people who died on board and thereby a deeper understanding of Vasa and her time.
The skeletal remains of at least 17 and perhaps as many as 19 people were found during the excavation of Vasa. Most of these are men from the crew, but there are also women and a child. In studies of the bones, we are able to determine their height, age, diet, and medical history. DNA analysis is allowing us to identify relationships between them, and perhaps to say where they came from. We can even reconstruct the faces of some of the crew.
When Vasa sank, thirty of the people on board perished, mostly those who were below decks and could not escape. These included women and children, who were aboard either as guests for the day or were accompanying a crew member for a longer period – the Swedish navy allowed sailors have their wives on board when in home waters. During the salvage and excavation, the bones of at least 17 people were recovered. Some of these are nearly complete skeletons, in one case including hair, fingernails and even a complete brain, but others are only partial, due to disturbance of the wreck in the many salvage attempts over the years.
Most of the skeletons belong to adult men, the crew of the ship, but there are also two women and a small child. In addition to the traditional visual cataloguing and measurement of the bones, which reveal age, height and signs of diseases and injuries, we have measured different isotopes present in the bone, which can show what they ate and where they grew up. Since 2004, we have also carried out DNA analysis, which can show if any of the people are related to each other as well as less obvious aspects of their medical history. It may also be able to tell us where their families came from.
We do not know for certain the names of any of the people found by the archaeologists, since there is no record of the crew's names. When the skeletons were found, they were given letters to distinguish between them, but the osteologist who studied the bones thought that this was dehumanizing, so she expanded these into names; skeleton A became Adam, B became Beata, etc. We only know the name of one person who died in the wreck, Captain Hans Jonsson, who was a friend of King Gustav Adolf; we think he is probably the skeleton we call Johan, but it is not possible to prove it.
Shorter than today
The average height of the crewmen is 166 cm, with the tallest 176 cm and the shortest only 160 cm. This is much shorter than today, which is a result of a poor diet as children. The 1620s was the depth of the climatic event known as the Little Ice Age, when temperatures were much lower and growing seasons were much shorter, especially here in the North.
Malnutrition and other dietary deficiencies were common, and we can see evidence of this in the bones. Two of the people suffered from either anemia or chronic diarrhea, as shown by low copper and zinc values, and some of the skeletons show signs of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) suffered earlier in life, although none appear to be suffering from it when the ship sank. Scurvy was common in the winter in Sweden, due to the lack of fresh food.
Most of the people ate a balanced diet of meat and fish, but Filip was a vegetarian, with almost all of his protein from plants, which helps to explain his short stature and skinny build. This is probably because of his teeth: he had an extra set of front teeth in his lower jaw, which made it impossible for him to close his mouth entirely or to use his molars effectively to chew solid food. On average, the crewmen among the skeletons were well fed and in good health.
The people onboard
The adult men range in age from the late teens to the 50s or 60s, with most in their 20s and 30s. This is the sort of age range one would expect in a crew made up of conscripts, who were eligible for military service between the ages of 18 and 48.
The oldest is Johan, who we think was an officer rather than an ordinary seaman, based on his clothing and injuries. Petter/Petra, represented by a single arm bone, was a small child, probably less than eight years old. This is too young to be a ship's boy and so he or she is probably also a guest.
Many of the skeletons have healed injuries, suggesting that life in the 17th century was much more violent than today, with accidents more common. More than half of the people had broken bones earlier in their lives, even the women, and many had broken more than one. Johan had lost two toes from his right foot in a crushing accident – was he run over by a recoiling gun?
Adam had been hit in the face with a heavy object, which had broken his nose and cheekbone and crushed the sinus over one eye, which gave his face a lopsided appearance and probably caused him headaches. Filip, who may have been one of the ship's two lieutenants, had an old injury to both elbows, possibly from a fall, which would have made his arms stiff and sore.
Most of the skeletons had lost teeth, some quite recently before the ship sank, and many suffered from gum disease (from not brushing their teeth) but there is almost no evidence of tooth decay, probably because of the lack of sugar in their food.
The DNA analysis is its early stages, but it shows that all of the skeletons have DNA profiles which are common in Scandinavia, which one would expect from a crew of conscripts. Several have profiles more common today in Finland, which contributed sailors to the Swedish navy. The small child, Petter/Petra, has the same profile as one of the adult men, Cesar, and is most likely his brother/sister or nephew/niece. With further analysis of nuclear DNA, we may be able to identify such things as eye and hair color and the regional origin of their families.
Seven of the skulls are complete enough to allow the faces to be reconstructed. This is possible because the features we use to recognize people are largely defined by the shape of our skulls. The muscle, fat and skin on top of the skull are more or less the same thickness for everybody, so by building up these layers in clay on a cast of the skull, it is possible to get some idea of how a person looked.
Sculptor Oscar Nilsson, who is trained as both an artist and as an archaeologist, is one of the best in the world at this kind of work, and so he has been able to make lifelike reconstructions of six of the people on board when the ship sank: Adam, Beata, Filip, Gustav, Ivar and Johan. Some of the features, such as the shape of the ears and lips, the hairstyles, and the color of the eyes, are guesswork, but these are not the features we use to identify each other.
Based on modern forensic use of facial reconstruction to identify murder victims, there is on average a better than 60% chance that someone who knew Adam or one of the others in life would recognize him here.