On the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1628, the Vasa, built by the Swedish to be one of the most powerful warships in the Baltic, set off from the palace docks in Stockholm.
The Vasa did not even make it one mile.
A strong gust of wind caused the 226-foot-long ship to keel over as water poured in through its open gun ports, which were on display for its maiden voyage.
About 150 people were believed to be on board when it sank; about 30 died.
Now, nearly 400 years later, advanced DNA testing is allowing researchers to learn more about the ship’s dead, including a woman known as “G,” whom researchers had long believed to be a man. They even named her “Gustav” in a museum display.
“It’s fascinating to get a sense of who they are as individuals, but also what they tell us about what the Swedish population was like 400 years ago,” said Fred Hocker, the director of the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, where the ship is now displayed in its entirety.
The Vasa’s resurrection began in 1958 and was completed in 1961 when the entire warship was lifted from the depths of Stockholm harbor.
Workers sprayed the ship with water, then applied the preserving agent polyethylene glycol over the course of 17 years and let it dry for another nine years. The mud from the seafloor, it turned out, had kept the ship in remarkable condition.
A handful of similar excavation projects of historic ships were underway around the same time, Dr. Hocker said. But the Vasa, he said, “is the most spectacular.”
“It’s a whole ship — it’s huge!” he said. “The Vasa established the mold for what maritime archaeology could be.”
The recovery included over 40,000 objects in and around the ship. However, the skeletal remains found inside the boat “posed something of an archaeological problem for us,” Dr. Hocker said.
The remains were initially given a Christian burial in a naval cemetery. Twenty-six years later, as the Vasa Museum was preparing to put the ship on display, the bones were exhumed for further study.
Because of water damage, improper handling and missing identification numbers, they were not in ideal condition.
Still, in 2004, the museum began working with genetics experts at Uppsala University in Sweden to do a baseline DNA study of the remains using mitochondrial DNA testing, which helps to link skeletons via maternal relationships but does not reveal granular details, like gender.
Researchers concluded that there were 15 “well-defined” adults and some bones that accounted for at least two other people, including a child under the age of 10. Mitochondrial DNA testing, however, could only take them so far.
That’s when Marie Allen, a professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, turned to Kimberly Andreaggi, a former student who was working at the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
“They had developed a panel that is very informative, it’s already developed and they tried it on difficult samples,” Dr. Allen said. “That’s the beauty of research — many times it’s much easier to collaborate and help each other in different projects than to reinvent the wheel all the time.”
The lab uses much more precise nuclear DNA testing to identify soldiers killed during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Cold War conflicts, but it has also sequenced the DNA from Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who was executed in 1918, and from remains of the U.S.S. Monitor, a Civil War-era warship.
In 2016, the lab developed a “next-generation sequencing method” that could capture and enrich human DNA that had been damaged or compromised, said Charla Marshall, chief of the lab’s emerging technologies section.
The first Vasa sample researchers tested was from G. Her name derived from a system in which researchers assigned a letter to remains corresponding to the order in which they were recovered.
While G’s sample was damaged, it was better preserved than remains the lab normally examines, Dr. Marshall said. After fully sequencing G’s DNA using four different methods, the lab was able to determine her sex.
Researchers struggled to get G’s full genetic makeup, in part because her bone structure was androgynous: Her facial bones looked “a little bit more male than female,” Dr. Hocker said, and her spine appeared to have “lived a life of very hard work.”
So why was G on the Vasa? Researchers can’t say for certain because there are no historical sources to reference, but they do have theories.
The Swedish Navy allowed sailors’ wives to live on warships while in home waters. G was found next to a male skeleton, as were two other female skeletons, which proved to be more easily identifiable because they were found with their garments.
“In the tragic moment of sinking, it’s not hard to imagine that husbands and wives found each other,” Dr. Hocker said.
There is also a chance, however highly unlikely, that G passed as a man on the ship, Dr. Hocker said.
“We only know about the cases where people were discovered,” he said of women who passed as men on warships. “We don’t know about any of the people who pulled it off and were never discovered.”
While the museum studies the clothing fragments found around G to answer that very question, it has commissioned a new female reconstruction of G that will be put on display next to the original male version.
The museum is also considering whether to rename G to Gertrud, a common G-name for women in Sweden in the 1620s, or go back to using letters to identify the skeletons.
It is waiting on similar genetic testing for 14 other remains. Eventually, Dr. Hocker said, additional DNA testing will provide intimate details about the crew found on the Vasa, down to whether they had freckles or wet or dry earwax.