A short holiday in Denmark a couple of months ago presented an opportunity to tick off one of the places on my ‘bucket list’. Staying in Copenhagen, it was just a quick train ride westward to the old city of Roskilde, home of the Viking Ship Museum.
The museum was opened in 1969 to house the remains of five Viking-Age ships that had been retrieved from the waters of Roskilde Fjord seven years earlier. They are commonly known as the Skuldelev Ships, having been found not far off the coastal village of Skuldelev, some 20 kilometres north of Roskilde. The five vessels had been scuttled – sunk deliberately – in the late 11th century. Their drowned hulls, weighed down with boulders, had formed a barrier across a narrow channel called the Peberrenden. In those days, Roskilde was a thriving market town, one of the most important settlements in Scandinavia and the main centre of Danish royal power. Its fjord gave access to the straits and seaways between Denmark and Sweden and ultimately to the Atlantic and Baltic trade-routes. But easy access left the town vulnerable to attack, hence the need for a barrier to restrict the approach of an enemy fleet. The barrier also enabled Roskilde’s rulers to exercise a measure of control over all ship-movements in the fjord.
After the end of the Viking Age, Roskilde continued to flourish. Its cathedral became a favoured resting-place for Danish monarchs throughout the medieval period and on into modern times. Many of the royal tombs are very impressive, an example being the sarcophagus and effigy of Queen Margrethe who died in 1412 (shown below). King Sweyn Estridsson, during whose reign the Peberrenden ship-barrier was made, is also interred in the cathedral. He died in 1076 and is often regarded as Denmark’s last true Viking monarch.
With the passage of time, the sunken ships in the Peberrenden channel began to disintegrate, dwindling to an underwater ridge of stones. Crews of fishing vessels plying the waters of the channel claimed to be able to see the ridge below the surface, but its origin and purpose were eventually forgotten. According to later folklore, the ridge was all that remained of a single ship that been scuttled in the early 15th century at the command of Queen Margrethe. This belief persisted until the late 1950s when archaeologists discovered that the ridge not only contained several ships but that it was created in the Viking Age.
The task of bringing the fragile remnants of the Skuldelev vessels out of the water posed a significant archaeological and logistical challenge. The difficulties were overcome by driving iron sheets into the floor of the fjord to create a sealed area that could then be drained, allowing the waterlogged remains to be excavated. Needless to say, the work was delicate and painstaking. It involved the careful retrieval of thousands of timber fragments from what was essentially a mound of stones. The fragments were despatched to the Danish National Museum’s conservation department where they were treated with a special synthetic wax to prevent them from drying out too rapidly.
The Skuldelev ships represent five different types of Viking-era vessel: two trading-ships, a fishing boat and two longships. They are numbered 1 to 6, in a sequence that omits ‘4’ (the reason for the omission is given below).
Skuldelev 1: ocean-going trader
Sixteen metres long and with a crew of 6 to 8, this ship was designed to carry trade-goods on voyages out on the open sea. It had decks fore and aft, with a space in the middle to serve as a cargo hold. Analysis of the wood indicates that the vessel was built in Sogn Fjord in western Norway sometime around the year 1030. Some two-thirds of it have survived. One of the planks, from near the prow, shows evidence of having been pierced by an arrow.
Skuldelev 2: great longship
At thirty metres long and nearly four metres wide, this is the largest of the five Skuldelev vessels. It is a classic Viking warship of the kind familiar to modern eyes from movies and TV dramas. The size of its huge sail has been calculated at approximately 120 square metres, giving a potential top speed of 20 knots (i.e. 23 miles per hour). Even today, with barely a quarter of its planks and timbers surviving, its sleek outline indicates that this was a fast and deadly craft. When not travelling under sail it would have been propelled by as many as 60 oars. It had a crew of 70 or 80 warriors who would have been commanded by a lord, perhaps a famous raiding-hero whose deeds were celebrated in song or saga. Unlike the other Skuldelev ships it was not built in Scandinavia but in Ireland, its wood coming from oak trees felled in the vicinity of Dublin in 1042.
Skuldelev 3: coastal trader
With a crew of no more than 5 or 6 and a length of only 14 metres, this ship plied the coastal waters off Denmark and would have been used for transporting a small cargo. Roughly three-quarters of it survives, the wooden fragments telling us that it was built in Denmark from local oak. Under sail it could have averaged a speed of 4 knots, but five oar-holes show that it could be propelled for short distances in the absence of a breeze.
This is a kind of ‘ghost’ ship, having been mis-identified as a separate vessel before archaeologists realised that it was actually part of the great longship Skuldelev 2.
Skuldelev 5: small longship
This compact war-vessel was built in the Roskilde area c.1030, its makers re-using planks from other ships. Its crew of 30 may have been local farmers who were required to provide their own longship when summoned for military service by a lord or king. The places where they fixed their shields are still visible along the uppermost planks. In calm weather they would have hauled the 26 oars, this craft being one of the smaller types of longship with only 13 rowing benches.
Skuldelev 6: fishing boat
Originating in the same part of western Norway as Skuldelev 1, and built at around the same time, this small vessel of just over 11 metres in length is thought to have been used mainly for fishing before being converted to carry cargo. ‘Fishing’ can here be interpreted in its broadest sense, for the crew may have targeted seals and whales as well as fish. The main hunting grounds during this phase of the vessel’s life would have been deep Norwegian fjords rather than the open sea.
Viking ship design
The typical Viking ship was ‘clinker-built’, a method of hull construction using overlapping planks secured with nails. The overlap was meant to make the hull watertight, without the need for caulking with a sealant such as tar. Viking vessels were light and flexible, able to move in harmony with the waves, and this gave them the advantage of speed. Cross-beams and other structural timbers ensured that the hull kept its shape. A mast for the sail, a side-rudder, rowing benches and holes for the oars completed the design.
Since the early 1980s, the programme of research at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde has included full-size reconstruction projects. Visitors to the museum may be lucky enough to see this work being undertaken in the adjacent boatyard. In keeping with the idea of ‘living history’, the modern shipwrights use Viking tools and techniques, in so far as these are known. Much is still unknown about how things were done a thousand years ago, so the task of reconstruction is a good way to recover this lost knowledge, as is taking the newly built vessels on sea trials in the fjord or out on distant waters. Reconstructed versions of the five Skuldelev ships can be seen in the harbour adjoining the museum.
The images below give an idea of the stunning displays that await visitors to the Viking Ship Museum. I definitely recommend this place as a ‘must see’ for anyone making a trip to Denmark. Having visited once, in winter, I am all the more eager to return in summertime when the replica Viking ships and other reconstructions of medieval Scandinavian craft are moored in the museum’s harbour. Excursions take passengers out into the fjord where they can get an authentic taste of what it was like to make a sea-voyage in the Middle Ages.
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[The photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling]
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