Archaeologia Maris Baltici et Septentrionalis

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2009 | VASA orlop-deck survey

In March and April 2009 I grasped the opportunity to conduct a survey on VASA’s orlop-deck on invitation of  Dr. Fred Hocker. While not thematically related to my Ph.D. topic, it nevertheless presented a prime opportunity to hone skills in documentation methodology and to refine the understanding of such a complex structure of a ship. Thence two months I was to be the permanent resident on VASA’s trossdäck.

The orlop-deck (Trossdäck) is a very narrow deck located between the lower gun-deck and the hold. It was used for storage mainly, e.g. for sails and ropes.

The orlop-deck (Trossdäck) is a very narrow deck located between the lower gun-deck and the hold. It was used for storage mainly, e.g. for sails and ropes.

Upon my arrival on the 28.02. I was welcomed by Dr. Fred Hocker – the head of research at the Vasa Museum – who showed me the historic ice-breaker SANKT ERIK , which was to be my floating home for the following two months. After having introduced me to the museum’s staff and shown all units of the same, we went straight on to the first task and – of course – on board the VASA. From the start I was very much involved in the planning of the survey, starting with drafting and testing adequate context sheets, which needed to be designed to suit the recording of such a complex structure as a wholly preserved deck of a 17th century warship. Through this task I gained an impression of the importance of having a fairly exact concept of the structure from the start, as random measuring would lead astray. The structure was recorded by means of a tape-measure as well as a total station survey. Only with time I gained an intrinsic understanding of the construction and how the timbers were fitted and joined together. The use of crooked and of surprisingly rough worked timber rendered a make-shift impression of the way of assembly, which was a stark reminder of the distinctiveness of a shipbuilder’s mind in the early 17th century: Our present day eyes are more accustomed to conformity due to the manufacture of constructional elements in production lines, whereas the shipbuilder of the past sought to employ constructional elements “extracted” from the natural environment with – seemingly – as little effort as possible for its conversion.

Despite the shipwreck was conserved in PEG, most timbers have suffered shrinkage and joins have come apart. With the ambition to record the ship as closest to the original condition as possible, it was expedient to search for strategical datums which are likely to reflect more than less the original dimensions of the timbers. The finding of these datums became almost a real art, when several factors were accumulating. Whilst the survey naturally incorporated for the most part a tedious routine, i.e. the recording of  repetitive constructional features, I was confronted with the question how deviations from the rule – as small and insignificant as they might appear – ought to be treated and recorded and was induced to think about their possible significance. Fred provided some very insightful comments on diverse aspects of the construction, which helped me to develop an appreciation for details,  which I would have not perceived otherwise.

Although the wishful case of finding evidence in the structural properties of the orlop-deck that would lead to ground-breaking insights did not eventuate, I nevertheless gained some solid experiences. During my time at the Vasa Museum I accomplished the manual recording of the entire orlop-deck, the total station survey of the stern section (to be completed by SDU students the following year) and the writing of a manual, in which the problems encountered during the survey were articulated and recording strategies devised. These strategies were implemented also in July, where I helped Fred Hocker to teach students (view newsletter, p. 17) from the Maritime Studies Programme of the East Carolina University to implement the lower gun-deck survey. Apart from the  survey I also had the opportunity to test a Faro-arm, which seems to become the professional standard in recording complex 3-dimensional objects digitally, thus enhancing efficiency, accuracy and accessibility of data. This way of recording as well as the post-processing with Rhino software is especially advantageous for complicated objects like shipwrecks! I also participated at a meeting of the Rhino-users group, which happened to take place at the time of my internship and was hosted by the Vasa Museum. Here members from Scandinavia and the British Isles exchanged their practical experiences in the application of the software and devised a recording standard to make the data sets comparable and exchangeable: A glimpse into the future of maritime archaeology!

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