Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Vikings Come to London

It's time for a field trip to London to see the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the British Museum. At its center is the biggest Viking ship in the world: a true dragonship.

I was lucky enough to see the ship last November at the "Vikings!" exhibition of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Named Roskilde 6, the dragonship was discovered when the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark dredged its harbor area to build a restaurant and more exhibition space. I remember going to lunch with Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, former curator of the museum, when I was researching my book The Far Traveler in 2006. "Right under this restaurant we found another longship!" he exclaimed. "It stretched from this bush, almost to the edge of that building."

It was sleek and predatory, seven meters longer than the longest longship they had found in the 1950s, in the nearby Skuldelev harbor, for which the Viking Ship Museum was created. Those ships are now conserved and displayed in the museum's exhibition galleries, while replicas float at the dock outside. The biggest is named Havhingsten, or Sea Stallion, the replica of a 30-meter-long dragonship built in Glendalough, Ireland in 1042.

Roskilde 6 is 37 meters long. It was built near Oslo Fjord in 1025, according to tree-ring analysis, and carried 80 to 100 rowers. At one point, it traveled into the Baltic Sea, where it saw hard usage: A hole in the hull had to be patched. It was a king's ship, said Crumlin-Pedersen. "It’s of a very fine quality of craftmanship.

"It’s interesting," he continued. "Through these ship finds you can distinguish between different status levels, from ships of discount quality, to the Irish ship of standard quality, to the Roskilde ship of highest quality."

When it was made, King Olaf II (later known as Olaf the Saint) and Canute the Great, king of England and Denmark, were contesting the Norwegian throne. Roskilde 6 could have been built for either king.

"Ship finds," Crumlin-Pedersen added, "may lead you many places. I like to use the ship find as a lens through which to study the society. For years I’ve been in contact with sport divers, telling them the importance of protecting what’s lying on the seabed, trying to tell them that the great stories lie in the rotten timbers, not the gold coins."

Only 20 percent of Roskilde 6 is left--enough to make out its length and width (one tenth its length, of 3.7 meters). To preserve it took 15 years, according to the catalogue for the "Vikings!" exhibit at the National Museum of Denmark, "including 48 hours of vacuum freeze-drying in nine processes and more than 8,000 working hours in the conservation laboratory."

First the pieces were photographed and recorded, and all the parts numbered, while the "rotten timbers" lay on the harbor floor. Next the wreckage was transfered to water tanks at Roskilde and kept wet during cleaning "with water and paint brushes," to reveal traces of tool marks or carvings. Then it went to the National Museum's laboratories in Brede, north of Copenhagen, where the water in the wood was replaced with polyethylene glycol through the combination of freeze-drying and vacuum-processing.

Kristiane Straetkvern, who led the conservation team, writes, "The surviving parts of the wreck consisted of around 200 pieces and most of them were broken in many places. … The final part of the conservation process was to glue the broken pieces together." Then to design the support structure. "All the planks were provided with individual stainless steel supports. To ensure a safe move from one exhibition to the next, the timbers are packed in 35 boxes with individually designed crates."

The stand--looking like the silver skeleton of a Viking ship--snaps together like a children's toy. Says Tom Williams of the British Museum, "This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right."

In Copenhagen, Roskilde 6 filled the hall from end to end, with the rest of the "Vikings!" exhibition organized around it. A wall-sized screen projected a slow-moving fjord scene. Standing on the raised "dock" beside the ship, you watched the scenery pass as if you were rowing on the ship. A thunderstorm approached; lightning struck. I expected to see Vikings frantically bailing--but it wasn't that real.

In January, Roskilde 6 "sailed" again to London, where it is the centerpiece of the "Vikings: Life and Legend" exhibition, running March 6 to June 22 at the British Museum. Photos courtesy of the British Museum, The National Museum of Denmark, and Kate Driscoll (of Crumlin-Pedersen).

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. Very interesting...definitely worthy of a field trip.


    I don't know if you have visited Robin Wood's blog, but he has done and is doing great work..

    1. Thanks for the tip, Craig, this is a really cool project.

  3. I really enjoy your writing. I found you via a google search on Ragnar Lothbrook after watching season 1 of Vikings. Thank you for educating me about so much more! Your work is quite meaningful and your posts and photos are wonderful.