"G" from the Vasaship. 1628 AD

New DNA evidence: Gustav was Gertrude!

Back in 2006 I made six reconstructions for the Vasa museum in Stockholm, Sweden. One of them was the remains of a man called “Gustav” by the osteologists. From their report I learned that Gustav was a man in his mid 40`s and the shortest guy found on the ship, just over 160 cm. Hard work had caused him problems with his back. His skull looked rather masculine, with a squarish facial shape and rather heavy jaw and chin.

With this information I made a reconstruction of him. I was very pleased with the result: a man of hard work, with beard stubble and hair on his chest. But…there was a big surprise coming up, years later…

The warship Vasa ship was a fantastic piece of work. Very impressive in size and ornamented with colourful, scary sculptures of lions, warriors and much more. There was one minor problem though: it was a terrible ship to sail. In fact, she sank immediately on her maiden voyage on the 10th of August 1628 after sailing only 1 300 meters. Poor calculations on the balance of the ship, together with too many heavy cannons and a bit windy weather lead to the catastrophe. What a gigantic fiasco!

However, the ship was rediscovered in the 1950`s and brought up to the surface and salvaged in 1961. Today it can be seen at the Vasa museum. Every year about 1,5 million visitors go to the museum to admire and experience this gigantic, almost completely preserved wooden ship, almost 400 years old. What a gigantic success!

18 skeletons were found, and I had the privilege to reconstruct the faces on six of them. As already described, Gustav was one of them. Just last year, the skeletons were analysed with cutting edge DNA technique. This brought rather sensational news for our image of Gustav: he was not only found younger than previous beliefs, (from 45 years to now 25-30 years old), with a pale skin tone and really blonde hair. And he was a woman.

It was already a well known fact that women were allowed on board on this maiden voyage, but only married women (to the men on board).

So I had to start all over again. A new reconstruction, rebuilding the face from the skull but this time with female measurements and some alterations regarding the age, and with the knowledge about the colours of her eyes (blue), skin (pale) and hair (light blonde) from DNA.

Both my reconstructions will be on display at the museum as a reminder of what a game changer DNA technique can be for archaeology. Gustav became Gertrude.

I am not that surprised that the skeleton was interpreted by the osteologists as the remains of a man. In fact, I think the female version carries some rather androgynous features.

In addition to this story, in itself a fantastic one, the museum recently started to try matching clothes found on the ship with the skeletons. In Gertrude’s case a jacket was found in the context of her remains, and also a rather unique hat. Made in wool, designed to be very high in shape, and dyed in the clearest red colour. Not a hat you wear to blend in, or one you would use for your everyday life.

I was deeply touched when the hat was placed upon her head by the museum´s own textile expert Anna Silwerulv. It suddenly became so clear and vivid what a solemn event this voyage was. Gertrude was dressed up in her finest clothings. I felt like actually really seeing her, and being there, on the day of the 10th of August in the year of 1628, on board the Vasa. And isn’t it a bit…windy?

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.