State of degradation in archeological oak from the 17th century Vasa ship: substantial strength loss correlates with reduction in (holo)cellulose molecular weight.

PMID 22770224


In 1628, the Swedish warship Vasa capsized on her maiden voyage and sank in the Stockholm harbor. The ship was recovered in 1961 and, after polyethylene glycol (PEG) impregnation, it was displayed in the Vasa museum. Chemical investigations of the Vasa were undertaken in 2000, and extensive holocellulose degradation was reported at numerous locations in the hull. We have now studied the longitudinal tensile strength of Vasa oak as a function of distance from the surface. The PEG-content, wood density, and cellulose microfibril angle were determined. The molar mass distribution of holocellulose was determined as well as the acid and iron content. A good correlation was found between the tensile strength of the Vasa oak and the average molecular weight of the holocellulose, where the load-bearing cellulose microfibril is the critical constituent. The mean tensile strength is reduced by approximately 40%, and the most affected areas show a reduction of up to 80%. A methodology is developed where variations in density, cellulose microfibril angle, and PEG content are taken into account, so that cell wall effects can be evaluated in wood samples with different rate of impregnation and morphologies.