Did a Woman Serve on the Crew of This Museum’s 17th-Century Swedish Warship? New DNA Research Says It’s Likely

The ship, Vasa, is currently housed at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

The 17th-century Swedish warship, Vasa, is decorated with gold statuettes and intricate designs. Photo: Macduff Everton via Getty Images.

It’s among the best preserved 17th-century ships and the discoveries keep coming. Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, was pulled from the Stockholm harbor in 1961 and has been a subject of research ever since.

The 226-foot-long ship was carrying 150 people, 30 of whom died when it keeled over. Their skeletal remains were initially buried in a naval ceremony before being exhumed as part of additional study for the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, which was custom-built to house the ship.


The Swedish warship Vasa, installed at the Vasa Museum. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images.

Water damage, poor handling, and the lack of identification numbers have meant the majority of the individuals remain unidentified—only one person was named in written sources. But scientists had long speculated a woman was among the supposedly all-male victims, based on the shape of a hip bone and the lack of Y-chromosomes in one set of remains. Now, this theory has been confirmed by a U.S. military laboratory which specializes in analyzing genetic material to identify the deceased.

Geneticists at Uppsala University have headed the investigation since 2004 and took the skeleton, known as G, to the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, which uses advanced next-generation sequencing capable of capturing DNA that has been damaged.

Vasa Museum

DNA research at the Vasa Museum. Photo: Vasa Museum.

“It is very difficult to extract DNA from bone which has been on the bottom of the sea for 333 years, but not impossible” Marie Allen, the lead geneticist on the project, said in a statement. “We took new samples from bones for which we had specific questions and we have been able to confirm that G was a woman, thanks to the new test.”

Women did not serve in the crews of Swedish navy in the 17th century, which has led researchers to believe that G was related to one of the seaman and had simply wanted to take part in the maiden voyage. Another possibility, though less likely, is that G was passing as a man.

The museum is considering giving G the name Gertrude, which was a common Swedish name in the 1620s.

Vasa Museum

The Vasa Museum. Photo: Vasa Museum.

Though part of the ship’s story is told through the more than 40,000 objects that were pulled from the water in 1958, Vasa Museum remains focused on understanding the lives of those on board. It is currently awaiting results from 14 other remains.

“We want to come as close to these people as we can,” Anna Maria Forssberg, a historian at the museum, said in a statement. “I am currently researching the wives of seamen, they are often forgotten even though they played an important role for the navy.”

Last year, Vasa’s long lost sister ship Applet was located in a strait off Vaxholm.

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