When the Swedish warship Vasa sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in 1628, around 30 people died. Their watery grave remained undisturbed for 333 years, until the wreck was raised from the depths in 1961. Now, one of the almost 20 human skeletons recovered from the Vasa has not only a name but also a face.
Artist Oscar Nilsson drew on DNA and skeletal evidence to create a stunning facial reconstruction of a victim of the shipwreck. The young woman, newly dubbed Gertrude, had blue eyes, blonde hair and pale skin. She was around 25 to 30 years old when the Vasa sank just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, reports Live Science’s Laura Geggel.
“We need to understand history with not only our minds and intellect but also with our hearts,” Nilsson tells Smithsonian magazine. “Using both science and art in a facial reconstruction allows us to get a more total understanding of history, as we actually stand face to face with an individual seemingly full of life and human experiences.”
At the time it set sail, the Vasa was Sweden’s newest, most powerful ship. With its load of 10 sails, 64 cannons and 120 tons of ballast, the vessel weighed 1,200 tons, according to the Stockholm-based Vasa Museum, which has housed the wreck since 1990. Near the end of its construction, a supervising captain raised concerns that the vessel was off balance, but military officials disregarded his qualms, feeling pressure from the king to get the boat to sea. On the day of the Vasa’s first journey, thousands of Swedes watched from the shore as the ship left dock, sailed less than a mile and sank after encountering a strong gust of wind.
Researchers initially thought Gertrude’s skeleton, then known only as “G,” belonged to a man. (In 2006, they nicknamed it Gustav.) But more recent analyses shifted this speculation. Based on an examination of G’s pelvis, osteologists (bone scientists) posited the skeleton was a woman, according to a statement from Sweden’s Uppsala University. But it wasn’t until the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware analyzed the remains that researchers could be sure G was a woman. The team announced its findings in April.
Nilsson, a forensic artist who has completed more than a dozen facial reconstructions based on centuries-old human remains, first created a model of Gertrude’s skull in 2006, when researchers still thought she was a man, he writes in a Facebook post. He was eager to remake his design by drawing on the new DNA evidence.
Differentiating Gertrude’s face from Gustav’s proved challenging. As Nilsson tells Smithsonian, “She does show some typical male features, like a heavy jaw and prominent mastoid process, and some more indecisive and androgynous [characteristics].”
The size and surface of a skull’s mastoid process, a bony protrusion behind the ear cavity, influences the shape of its owner’s ears, Nilsson explains to Live Science. Gertrude had a large mastoid process, meaning she likely had big ears—a trait reflected in Nilsson’s reconstruction.
To craft the likeness, Nilsson started with a 3D-printed plastic model of Gertrude’s skull, as well as a CT scan taken for the 2006 reconstruction. He approximated how thick the tissue on Gertrude’s face would have been based on data from modern women of a similar age, weight and geographic location, reports Live Science. He then sculpted facial muscles from plasticine clay, layering them one by one onto the plastic skull.
The results of the DNA analysis guided Nilsson’s depiction of Gertrude’s hair, eye color and skin tone. An examination of her back bones, which suggest a life spent lifting heavy objects repeatedly, shaped his portrayal of her facial expression. As Nilsson tells Live Science, he set out to give Gertrude’s face “an impression of hard work” despite her relative youth.
Finally, Gertrude needed something to wear. Per Nilsson’s Facebook post, the Vasa Museum recently began matching pieces of clothing found in the shipwreck to the victims who may have worn them. A jacket was recovered near Gertrude’s remains, along with a woolen hat “designed to be very high in shape and dyed in the clearest red color,” the artist writes. Both were recreated for the reconstruction, and Nilsson says he was “deeply touched” when a curator placed the hat on the model’s head, reminding him of the solemnity of the Vasa’s first—and final—voyage.