Woman who died in deadly Vasa warship's wreck 400 years ago reconstructed in lifelike detail

We see the reconstruction of a woman's face and upper torso. She has pale skin, blonde hair and a solemn expression. She wears a tall bright red hat, a gray jacket and a white blouse with a collar.
The new reconstruction shows Gertrude wearing a gray jacket and red hat, as pieces of these items were found by her skeleton on the Vasa shipwreck in Sweden. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

When researchers raised the Vasa — a 17th-century Swedish warship that sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage — in the 1960s, they recovered nearly 20 skeletons. Scientists determined that one of those skeletons, dubbed G, was a male they called Gustav.

Earlier this year, a genetic analysis determined that G wasn't male but female. Now, a new reconstruction of G, whose new nickname is Gertrude, reveals her likeness before the deadly 1628 shipwreck.

According to the new genetic analysis, "she was about 25-30 years of age when she died, her eyes were blue, her hair blonde and her skin pale," Oscar Nilsson, a Sweden-based forensic artist who created the reconstruction, told Live Science in an email. 

Forensic artist Oscar Nilsson layered plasticine clay on a 3D vinyl printed skull to create Gertrude's reconstruction.  (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

Nilsson had crafted a reconstruction of Gustav in 2006 and was surprised when he learned that G was female, but he was glad he could help correct the record with a new reconstruction for the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. 

G's sex suggests that she was married, he noted. "From written sources we know that only married women, and married to a man on board the ship, were allowed on board this maiden voyage."

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Nilsson still had the CT (computed tomography) scan and a 3D plastic print of G's skull from the 2006 reconstruction, and he built on this by determining Gertrude's tissue thickness, which he pulled from a chart of modern Scandinavian and North European women who were roughly the same age and weight as Gertrude.

The size of Gertrude's mastoid process indicated that she had larger than usual ears. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

These tissue measurements informed the height of the pegs he placed on the replica skull, which he then used as a guide as he layered muscles made out of plasticine clay on her head. Scientific techniques guided the size and shape of the nose, eyes and mouth. "The ears are more speculative, but relies a lot on the size and surface of the mastoid process located behind the ears," Nilsson said. "A big mastoid process means a big ear. And in Gertrude's case, she certainly has prominent mastoid processes."

This 2006 reconstruction of G's skeleton shows Gustav, a 45-year-old man. (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

Although he was "careful of trying to give her an expression as close to Gustav's as possible," the two reconstructions have a few differences. Previously, Nilsson had tipped Gustav's nose downward, but a new cranial analysis resulted in a more typical nose for Gertrude. Plus, Gustav was thought to be 45 years old. Because Gertrude is younger, "I provided her with more volume in her lips," he said.

Despite her youth, Gertrude probably lived a hard life; a skeletal analysis of her back indicates that she lifted heavy objects repeatedly. "So just being 25-30, her face must give an impression of hard work," he said. 

As such, Nilsson crafted her face to show a woman marked by strenuous work but with an awareness of the tragic event that marked her end. 

The skeleton of G, who was previously called Gustav until a genetic analysis revealed the absence of a Y chromosome, which almost all men carry. G's new nickname is Gertrude.  (Image credit: Oscar Nilsson)

Nilsson worked with Anna Silwerulv, a textile expert at the Vasa Museum, to dress the reconstruction with a dark gray jacket and hat, as pieces of these items were found by her remains. A microscopic analysis indicated the hat was bright red. "And the original design was striking: a very high hat, reminding [us] of the traditional festive dressing of the Swedish peasantry, and the Samic ones as well," Nilsson said. (The Sami are Indigenous people in Sweden.) 

Gertrude's seriousness was "further enhanced when Anna and I put the bright red tall hat on Gertrude's head." But as to what Gertrude is thinking about in this reconstruction, "I leave that to all visitors to the museum," Nilsson said.

Gertrude went on display at the Vasa Museum on June 28 and will be the main attraction when the museum's new "Face to Face" exhibition opens in about a year.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.