The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
Raising the Wreck - The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Part 2
After the Vasa sank, the upper parts of her three masts with their rigging were still visible which must have made for a somewhat eerie sight.
I was suprised to learn that attempts to raise the Vasa were made immediately after she went down. The unfortunate captain Söfring Hansson was tasked with coordinating the effort. He likely was grateful for the chance to sort the mess before King Gustav Adolf came visiting in a mood as foul as the letters he had written. "Sorry, your Majesty, she got a bit wet, but we'll give her a brush up and she'll be as good as new, I promise," would have sounded nicer than pointing at the slanted mast tops in the harbour. "There she lies."
The hull of the ship
Salvaging technology in the 17th century worked like this: Two ships, often just hulks, were placed on both sides of the sunken ship. A number of ropes were sent down and hooked to the ship with the help of special anchors. I could not find details about the process but it may have involved freedivers - we'll later see that those could reach the ground where the Vasa lay. The hulks were then filled with as much water as was safe for them to hold so they would lie deep in the water, the ropes tightened and the water pumped out. When the hulks or ships rose again, they would take the sunken ship up with them. The process was repeated until the wreck could have been transported to shallower waters and then further until she was fully raised above water level. At this early stage, the timber of the Vasa was not yet waterlogged, so the method might have worked.
The first attempt was made by the English engineer Ian Bulmer who succeeded in righting the ship which had sunk sideways; an important first step. But it turned out the Vasa got stuck deeper in the mud by the process, which would cause problems. Mud sucks and increased the weight that pulled on the ship to a point that could not be overcome by 17th century technology. Bulmer's successors, first a Dutch and later a Scottish engineer (1), had no more luck in lifting the Vasa, though they used the largest warships of the fleet for leverage and had extra strong anchors forged to attach to the wreck. In 1640, she was counted as lost.
The main mast with the crow's nest
But some parts could still be salvaged. The top- and topgallant yards and crow’s nests had already been taken down in fall 1628, so they would not be harmed by the ice. Since King Gustav Adolf came back to Stockholm as late as December, the only part still visible were the bare tops of the masts. Later parts of the cordage and spars were brought up; those were valuable goods that could be reused. Some of the decorative figures were also saved.
Some 300 years later, the mud filled parts of the ship turned out to have one advantage; it preserved organic material which is normally lost to decay.
Even more valuable were the cannons which were recovered with the help of a diving bell in 1663-65. The greatest disadvantage of freediving is the short time people can actually work under water because of the way down and back up (in case of the Vasa that was about 30 metres). The time would never be enough to deal with the heavy and unwieldy guns.
Reconstructed crow’s nest
A diving bell is weighted so that the air compresses when the bell is let down, and the divers can go back in and take a fresh lungful several times before the bell has to be lifted, thus strechting the working time under water considerably (2). In the Baltic Sea, the cold proved more of a problem; the divers had to go up and get warm again after 15-20 minutes.
The idea of a diving bell goes back to Aristotle, but the technology was refined only in the 17th century. The bell used with the Vasa was a so-called wet bell with an open bottom of about 130 cm height. A small leaden bench – more or less an extended clapper - was attached so it stuck out 50 cm below the bell, where the diver could sit on the way up and down with his head and shoulders in the air bubble. The bell was moved by several men with help of a simple crane. The diver could also bring objects to the surface, though in case of the cannons, ropes were attached to bring them up without use of the bell (see below).
The restored weather deck, seen from the aft
Albrecht of Treileben was a nobleman from Brandenburg in Germany who had participated in the Thirty Years War as officer in the Swedish army. He later traveled around Europe and took up scientific studies. In the 1650ies Treileben and his German associate Andreas Peckell established a diving crew with divers from Sweden and Finland in Gothenburg which successfully salvaged parts of another ship in presence of the Lord High Steward Per Brahe. Treileben applied to King Karl X Gustav for the right to salvage parts of the Vasa (3) in 1658, but it would take until the regency of Brahe (for the underage Karl XI; 4) for Treileben to get the commission (1603).
The Italian priest, natural scientist, and traveler Francesco Negri (1624 -1698) left an eyewitness account of the salvaging in his travelogue of a journey to the north that led him as far as the North Cape, the Viaggio Settentrionale. We owe him the description of the bell and some information he obtained from one of the divers. Visibility under water was acceptable, the diver said; the air in the bell would have been enough for half an hour, but the cold was the greatest problem albeit the divers wore special suits of oiled leather.
The cannons were decorated as well - the three remaining cannons salvaged in the 20th century
The weather deck was dismantled in parts to get at the cannons of the upper gun deck, but salvaging the ones from the lower gun deck proved more tricky. The team used big gripper tongs maneouvered by ropes from the crane that also worked the diving bell. The diver would fix the claws of the tong to the shaft of the cannon. The ropes leading to the surface put pressure on the thong, the claws tightened, and the cannon could be dragged out of its port, probably with some guidance by the divers. It seemed to have been a pretty smooth process since the gun ports show very little damage. Pity they didn’t use the same method for the upper gun deck.
The work was overshadowed by a big quarrel between Treileben and his associate Peckell. Treileben had Peckell forcefully emitted from the docks and kept all his tools. Treileben obviously wanted to be the only one to gain the financial win, and because he had friends in the Royal Council, he thought he’d get away with it. But Peckell managed to get a trial which condemned Treileben to pay Peckell his share and reparation for the confiscated tools (5).
The guns were sold to Lübeck and Hamburg (6), the main markets for cannons. Some of them were then sold to the Danish army which was at war with Sweden - yet again - during the Scanian War (1675-79). Denmark wanted Scania back, which it had to cede to Sweden in the Treaty of Roskilde in 1160. Sweden lost at sea, Denmark at land, and in the end nothing much changed (7).
The decorated quarterdeck seen from the side
The Baltic Sea has one advantage: the water is too brackish for the nasty naval ship worm Teredo navalis (8) to thrive, therefore wood survives pretty well. But nevertheless, the wreck of the Vasa was subjected to erosion and decomposition during the more than 300 years it lay in Stockholm’s harbor. Fortunately, the hull was held together by wooden nails and thus remained intact, contrary to the thousands of iron bolts that fixed most exterior structures like the beakhead, the quarter galleries, and the decorative figures. Those eroded pretty fast so that the parts fell into the mud – which proved a good thing since the mud conserved the timber so well that traces of the original colours and gilding can still be found.
The surface of the hull eroded to some extent, but never so badly that the wreck was in danger of collapsing. The worst damage here was done by the recovering of the cannons on the upper deck. Treileben also salvaged some 30 cartloads of timber which likely included the - still missing - figures, intact planks and parts of the standing rigging. In the 19th century, at least one ship anchored above the Vasa; the anchor destroyed part of the quarterdeck.
Model of the raising: first step after the cables had been affixed
The Vasa was never entirely forgotten, but since there was no way to raise the ship before new technologies were developed in the 1950ies, she gained little interest. That changed when the Vasa was rediscovered in August 1956 by the engineer and wreck researcher Anders Franzén and the diver Per Edvin Fälting. The navy, the National Maritime Museum, and the Neptune salvage company worked together in the huge undertaking of raising her.
The method was not so very different from the one used in 1628, but instead of hooks and anchors, six steel cables were put under the ship. Tunnels were cut through the clay with the help of high pressure water jets; a dangerous work for the divers involved since the tunnels were always in danger of collapsing, or the ship might shift her position. Plus diving suits in the 1950ies looked more like space suits, including the big helmet and external air / oxygene support by a hose - surely not as pratical as modern ones. But not accidents happened during the 1300 dives necessary to dig the tunnels and fix the cables.
The cables were connected to lifting pontoons on both sides of the ship. Those work like the hulks or ships used in earlier times, but they are more powerful. The first lift was attempted in August 1959. No one knew if the hull of the ship would hold together under the pressure of getting her out of the sucking mud, but it held. The Vasa was lifted in 18 steps - each gained a meter - from 32 metres (105 foot) to 16 (52 foot) metres and transported to shallower water where it was safer for the divers to prepare her for the final lifts.
A diving suit from the 1950ies
The last lift, when the structure of the hull woud no longer be supported by water, was the most tricky one. The divers cleaned out mud and debris to lighten the ship, and made the hull watertight. All holes caused by the rusted iron bolts which had fallen out were plugged, and the gun ports covered with temporary lids. The cables were replanted with even stronger ones, and the final lifts were done by hydraulic lifting pontoons.
The last steps began in April 1961, and on April 24th, the Vasa broke the surface again after 333 years. In addition to the lifting, underwater pumps were used to get the remaining water out. In early May, she was towed close to the dry dock on Beckholmen and then floated on her own keel for the first time in more than 300 years to enter the dock proper - a bit deep in the water and leaning to port, but float she did.
The Vasa was set up on a concrete pontoon, the hull supported by beams, and the water pumped out of the dock. The ship still rests on the same pontoon today after it had been towed to the new museum complete with its pontoon. The part of the museum where the keel and lower hull sit had been flooded for that purpose.
Model of the raising: final step
A building was erected over the ship, but it left little space between the hull and the walk for the visitors. I've been there in 1980 during my fist visit in Sweden and I was fascinated by the Vasa even though it took a fair bit of imagination to envision her in full splendour. The new museum which opened 1990 is gives a much better impression of the ship.
Several loose parts had already been brought up during the preparations for the raising of the Vasa, and from 1963-67, the ground was systematically checked for more remains. The amount of finds on site and inside the ship amounts to 4,000 pieces. Fitting those back to their proper place on the ship proved a nice jigsaw puzzle, since there are no plans or drawings of the Vasa. Today, 95% of the wood are original timber. Loose finds like possessions of sailors and such are displayed in vitrines.
Quarterdeck decorations, closeup of the Swedish coat of arms
The wood needed preservation once it came in contact with air again. The wreck was sprayed with polyethylene glycol for 17 years (1962-79) until the last bit of water had been replaced so the timber woud not shrink and crack. But it turned out that the structure of the wood has nevertheless weakened during the long stay under water. The problems became visible in the 1990ies. One of the culprits turned out to be the highly corrosive iron, so all iron bolts used to reaffix the parts that had fallen off - like most of the quarterdeck and the bowsprit - since the 1960ies were replaced by stainless steel bolts. To deal with the slight shifting of the hull, adjustable steel wedges were set up to support the ship and further support structures are researched. The temperature and humidity are constantly checked and kept on a level of 18-20°C, relative humidity of 51-59 RF and UV filtered, dim light - a compromise for what is best for the ship and comfortable for visitors. Smaller, removable wooden parts are additionally treated with freeze drying under vacuum.
Restored upper deck, seen from aft
The Vasa is displayed as she would appear in winter storage with the three lower masts stepped and rigged. The topmast and topgallant mast as well as the upper rigging have been lost, but the new museum shows a stylised image of them outside so you can get an idea of the full hight of the ship's 52 metres. One of the few parts of timber that are not original is the mizzenmast (the original could never be found); it consists of wood left outside to season for several years.
The ropes used to rig the ship amount to 4 kilometres. The ship had four sails set when she sank, the remaining six were found in the storage rooms and could be preserved. The smallest is 32 square metres; so it would take too much space to display her with several sails set, and there's no wind in the museum hall to billow them prettily anyway. But the Vasa is impressive even without sails. I'm glad I had the chance to revisit her in 2012.
Another shot of the museum with the stylized masts
1) Willem de Besche and Alexander Forbes, respectively.
2) In modern variants, oxygen is pumped into the bell which further prolongs the time for divers to remain under water.
3) Those rights were held by Alexander Forbes at the time.
4) For the geneaology fans: Karl XI’s mother was another member of the Hostein-Gottorp family, Hedwig Eleonora. She shared in the regency with Brahe.
5) The whole process is well documented in the Royal archives. Peckell actually got more than he asked for since he only claimed the share for the time he actually worked on the site, but he got the share of the entire endeavor. Treileben had overstretched his welcome with his influential friends.
6) I wonder why they were not reused in Sweden, but the contract with Treileben meant that the Swedish government would have to buy them. There may not have been enough money.
7) The Scanian War was basically an aftermath of the Second Northern War (1658-1160). But Scania was only one battlefield during that time. France, Sweden and England were fighting the Netherlands, Brandenburg and House Austria-Hapsburg on a larger scale in the Franco-Dutch War (1672-78).
8) Teredo navalis is actually a marine bivalve mollusc, not a worm. Since the salinity of the Baltic Sea, which started out as proglacial lake 12,000 years ago, increases due to its connection with the North Sea, teredo navalis has started to create havoc in its western parts as well.
Fred Hocker, Vasa. Stockholm, 2011
Lorelei Randall, Dykarklockan – en resa i tid och rum. Online publication of the KTH Undervattensteknik, 1998
The Vasa Museum's website.
The Ship that Never Sailed - The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Part 1
Well, she did sail some 1,300 metres before she sank on her maiden voyage in August 1628, but that doesn't really count. It was bad news for King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden who commissioned the Vasa, and a worse fate for the 30 people who drowned, but it turned out a good thing for historians, since the wreck could be salvaged in 1961 and gives us a fine example of a warship in the early 17th century.
Today, the Vasa is housed in a new museum in Stockholm which I visited in 2012. The light is dim, the timber of the ship darkened in the process of conservation, and photographing - no flash allowed - proved a bit tricky, but I managed to get enough decent shots for a blogpost or two.
The Vasa (seen from the bow) in her new home, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm
When Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, scion of the Vasa dynasty, became king in 1611, he inherited no less than three wars: with Denmark, Poland, and Russia - a result of the Swedish attempts to expand their power in the Baltic Sea. Plus a cousin who wanted his throne. No wonder the young king (born 1594) needed warships.
The dynastic tangle this time involves mostly Sweden, Germany and Poland. Gustav Adolf's grandfather and founder of the dynasty, Gustav Vasa, had married three times and produced a bunch of sons who became king after him in turn. One of these was Johann III who married Katharina Jagiellonka of the ruling house in Poland (1). Their son was Sigismund King of Poland and some time King of Sweden (1592-1599). Another son was Karl Duke of Södermanland, acting regent since 1599 and king since 1604. He was married to Christina of Holstein-Gottorp (a Danish-German house residing in the palace in Schleswig); the parents of Gustav Adolf.
The stern with the richly decorated raised quarterdeck. The figures had once been brightly painted
Sigismund had been brought up a Catholic and was married to a Hapsburg princess to boot, and the Lutherian Swedish nobility was not keen on having a Catholic king who spent most of his time in Poland anyway. So they told him to go packing - not without fighting a battle first (2) - and Karl became king as Karl IX. When he died in 1611, Gustav Adolf took the throne, aged but seventeen. Sigismund still insisted on his right to the Swedish throne, but he had enough problems in Poland and never posed a real danger for the young king.
The war between Poland and Sweden was about the possession of Livonia (basically what is today Latvia and Estonia). It flamed up several times between 1600 and the Armistice of Altmark in 1629 where Sweden gained part of Livonia, including the important trade town of Riga with its toll income, and a share in the toll of Gdansk, though the town itself remained in Polish possession.
The war with Russia - at times a three sided affair with Poland involved as well - about the possession of Novgorod (a town that had grown rich as member of the Hanseatic League) and southern Finland, ended with a peace treaty and Swedish gain: the Peace of Stolbovo (1617) cut Russia off the Baltic Sea and forced it to trade through harbours mostly controlled by Sweden, which got 20,000 rubles in war indeminity as well, though Russia kept Novgorod.
The hull seen from the stern
The war with Denmark went less well. Denmark controlled the traffic through the Sound between the Baltic and North Sea, and thus the trade routes to England and the Dutch Republic. To avoid their tolls, Karl IX of Sweden tried to establish a northern land route through Lapland to Tromsø and gain access to the North Sea from there. As a result Denmark, which claimed Lapland as well, declared war and conquered Kalmar in 1611.
When Gustav Adolf ascended the throne, he personally led some raids across the Danish border, but Christian IV of Denmark managed to conquer the fortress of Älvsborg (today Gothenburg), the last Swedish hold in the west. But other countries did not want to see Denmark's power growing too strong, and it was King James I of England who pushed the parties to the negotiation table in Knäred in 1613. Lapland came back under Danish control while Sweden would be fred of the Sound toll, though it had to ransom the important harbours of Kalmar and Älvsborg. No wonder Gustav Adolf was keen on getting money.
Sailing right at you with her impressive bowsprit
But Gustav Adolf was not done with wars. In 1618, a war had started on the continent that would become known as the Thirty Years War. It was about religion as well as politics, a Catholic/Imperial league against a Protestant/anti-Imperial union (3). When the Catholic armies began to push deep into Protestant territories in northern Germany, and the emperor Ferdinand II declared the Edict of Restitution (4), Gustav Adolf was worried not only about those sharing his faith, but also about a possible danger of Imperial Hapsburg influence at the Baltic Sea coast. Nor did he like the alliance between his cousin once removed Sigismund of Poland and Sigismund's Hapsburg relations-by-marriage. So Gustav Adolf supported his former enemy and fellow Protestant Christian IV King of Denmark who had taken heavy losses agains the Imperial generals Wallenstein and Tilly. When Wallenstein laid siege to the important coastal town Stralsund, both Gustav Adolf and Christian sent relief troops by sea and forced Wallenstein to abandon the siege (1628).
Closeup of the quarterdeck with its ornaments; in the middle the arms of House Vasa
The rest of the story is well known. In July 1630, Gustav Adolf landed with an army of 13,000 men on the Usedom peninsula and swept through Germany, defeated general Tilly at Breitenfeld, and continued all the way to Munich with an ever increasing army. The emperor Ferdinand II of Hapsburg was obliged to recall Wallenstein whom he had sent into early retirement just a few months before. Wallenstein forced the Swedish-Protestant army to engage in battle at Lützen. King Gustav Adolf, leading his men in person as usual, fell to the bullets of some mercenaries on November 6, 1632. His chancellor Axel Oxenstierna acted as regent for the king's daughter (5). Sweden continued to be involved in the war on German soil which would last another sixteen years until 1648.
Upper deck with parts of the rigging
One ship that would not join in the relief of Stralsund was the unfortunate Vasa. It was a bright Sunday with little wind on August 10, 1628. The Vasa had been rigged; ballast, cannons and ammunition stored, and some 150 crew members taken onboard. Three hundred soldiers were supposed to join later. All gunports (she carried 64 cannons on two gun decks) had been opened.
After the ship had been warped into the waters of the Slussen, four of her ten sails were set. Onlookers ringed the quays and shorelines, a salute was fired, and the Vasa set off for her maiden voyage. But when she reached the lee of the Södermalm Cliffs, a sudden down drought, common in these waters, caught her and she heeled to port. She had been prone to instability to begin with, so she rose but slowly. A second gust made her heel again and now the lower gunports took water. The Vasa sank after having sailed but 1300 metres. Most of the people onboard could save themselves by swimming or clinging to the rigging that was still over the waterline. But 30 unlucky ones inside the ship died; 16 of their skeletons would be found more than 300 years later.
Seen from the bow, with the forecastle deck to the left
The Vasa was one of four ships King Gustav Adolf had commissioned in 1625. He chose the Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his brother Arendt de Groot, who was responsible for the financial part. Henrik was an experienced shipwright and had already worked for Karl IX of Sweden, but he had never built a ship with two gun decks before. At that time, there were no plans and drawings; a shipwright used proportions, rules of thumbs, and his own experience. Unfortunately, Henrik Hybertsson became ill and died in spring 1627. His assistant Hein Jakobsson and his widow Margareta took over.
In January 1628, Gustav Adolf visited the wharf at Skeppsgården. Obviously, no one was aware of any problems with the ship's stability at that point.
Model of the Skeppsgården wharf
Material for the ship came from a number of places: timber - more than a thousand oak trees - from Sweden and Poland (6), iron from Sweden, sail cloth from Holland, tar from Finland, hemp from Latvia. The cannons were cast in Stockholm. They would cost more money than the hundreds of painted and gilded wooden sculptures created in the workshop of Mårten Redtmer that adorned the ship.
A model of the ship with the original colours (zoomed in)
The Vasa was an impressive ship. Her length - including the bowsprit - was 69 metres, the height of the quarterdeck 19,5 metres, the height from keel to the top of the main mast 52 metres. The ship was only 11,7 metres wide at maximum point, though, and the hold for the ballast stones was rather shallow according to Dutch habit. The ten sails would make for 1,275 square metres. The gun decks were supported by half a metres thick beams that added to the weight above the water line.
The bowsprit with a lion decoration
Sea warfare was about to change and cannons became more important. During the centuries before, the aim was to enter an enemy's ship and capture her in hand-to-hand combat; more or less a land battle at sea. This is why there were still 300 soldiers to go with the Vasa, though some of them may have been artillery specialists. There were also stands for musketeers and mounted crossbows on the high decks which would be more useful at closer range.
In the time to come, ships would pass each other and fire with cannons, trying to sink the enemy's ships.
48 of the Vasa's cannons were 24pounders, the rest somewhat smaller. There is some discussion whether they were indeed intended as weapons or more as a means to intimidate an enemy.
Replica of part of a cannon deck in the musem
The first hints at bad stability occured when Captain Söfring Hansson showed the vice admiral Klas Fleming, who acted as contact to the king, that thirty men running to and fro on the upper deck could make the ship sway so badly she'd capsize at the quay. The admiral was overheard to have said he wished the king was there. But he did not act upon his suspicions, and neither did Captain Hansson. The Swedish fleet had lost several ships to a storm in autumn 1625, and the pressure to replace them was great (7). King Gustav Adolf sent letters from Prussia where he fought the Polish, urging to get the ship ready to sail, and obviously no one dared to delay any further.
Upper deck with rigging
(From this angle you can see how slender the ship is compared to its height.)
Of course, King Gustav Adolf was furious when news of the disaster reached him, and demanded that the guilty ones should be punished. An inquest before a tribunal of members of the privy council and admiralty was set up. Captain Hansson swore that the ballast had been properly stowed, the cannons fixed, the crew sober (which was confirmed by the surviving crew members), and blamed the disaster on the shipwright (8). Vice Admiral Fleming said he was no sailor but responsible for the soldiers and did not understand the true measure of the problem, though his remark about wishing the king to have seen the test performed by the captain was repeated by witnesses during the trial. Shipwright Hein Jakobbson, who had taken over from Henrik Hybertsson, said that he had followed the plans of his master, even widened the ship some 40 cm, but that was all he could do to improve her stability. And the king had approved the plans of his master. In the end, no one was found guilty and the blame was laid on the dead Hybertsson. His widow had to sell her shares the wharf due to financial troubles.
(A post about the salvage of the ship can be found here.)
The new Vasa Museum,
the masts standing out above the building show their original height
1) I'll leave it to Kasia to sort out the Polish geneaologies. :-)
2) Stångebro, 1598.
3) The whole matter is too complicated to cover here. The fault lines were not always along religion; for example Catholic France under Richelieu supported the Protestant confederation because it did not want the Spanish-Austrian Hapsburg dynasty to gain even more power, and the Calvinists and Lutherans were at odds more than once.
4) The Edict of Restitution from 1629 restored all lands and possessions secularized after 1555 (Peace of Augsburg that gave the princes the right to decide on the religion in their territories) to the Catholic Church, which meant a vast gain in land and power. Several archbishoprics and about 500 monasteries had to be returned.
5) Gustav Adolf was married to Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. Their daughter Christina, born 1626, would become Queen of Sweden (1632-1645); she was the last of the Vasa dynasty.
6) Since Sweden was at war with Poland at the time, the timber was traded via Amsterdam.
7) The king then asked for two medium sized ships to be built first, but at the time the timber for the Vasa had already been cut and prepared, so Hybertsson continued with her construction.
8) Though the captain should have kept the lower gunports locked since he knew how unstable the Vasa was. That obviously was never addressed. It also would likely have led to problems later when the lower gunports were opened at some point.
Fred Hocker, Vasa. Stockholm, 2011
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
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- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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