Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

News of the terrible stormsurge that almost washed away the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, earlier this month, brought up memories of my visit there in 2006, when I was researching my book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

Before then, when I imagined a Viking ship, I thought of the Gokstad ship, which I'm gazing at here in a photo from 1984. Found in the late 1800s in a burial mound in southern Norway, the Gokstad ship has the spareness and elegance of line that seem to me the epitome of a Viking ship. I’m not alone: closeups of its hull, head on, are reproduced on everything from magazine covers to Christmas ornaments as the emblem of the Vikings.

So I was disappointed at first to learn that the ship Gudrid the Far-Traveler sailed on to Vinland in North America did not look like this. Hers was a knarr, a cargo ship, like the replica Saga Siglar that sailed with copies of the Gokstad and Oseberg ships down the coast of North America in 1991. From the Ellis Island ferry, I had watched the three Viking ships sail into New York Harbor, side by side. In my notebook I wrote:  "Saga Siglar is so squat and tubby compared to the others. It’s as if someone cut her too short."

Saga Siglar (the name means "Saga Sailor") was based on a ship recovered from the seabottom near Skuldelev, Denmark, by Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, whom I met in 2006 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Tall, fair, white-haired, and smartly dressed in sailor's white, Crumlin-Pedersen had recently retired from the museum that housed his accomplishments: scraps of five Viking ships in five different styles, from a fishing boat to a dragonship, and a dock full of replicas made to their patterns. Nine more ships—found sunk in the museum's own harbor when they were expanding their exhibit space—were then in various stages of processing. One, the largest by far, a slim dragonship that carried up to 40 pairs of oars, is now the centerpiece of the Viking exhibition that just closed in Copenhagen and will be opening in London in the spring.
Photo by Katrin Driscoll
With a childlike smile and a courtly bashfulness, Crumlin-Pedersen explained to me how he knew that the tubby model was what the sagas meant by a knarr. "It’s because of the nickname for women in the Icelandic sagas: Knarrarbringu. 'Knarr breast.' Look at it from the front. It comes right up like this—" He pantomimed a woman's tight waist and heavy breasts.

"The replica ships going to Vinland should not be based on Gokstad," he continued, more seriously, "they should be based on this knarr, on Skuldelev 1. Gokstad is a combined sailing and rowing vessel, for a large crew. Skuldelev 1 is definitely a cargo ship. There's only a few oars for turning the ship in the wind or in harbor—it's a pure sailing vessel. Six men, working day and night, could handle it. On the other hand, you could have any number of people on board. You could move a farm with livestock and goods—but you wouldn't take more than one farm. Maybe to go to Vinland you would have wanted a vessel slightly larger than Skuldelev 1, but it would have been this same type of vessel."

The five Skuldelev ships had been scuttled at the head of the fjord to keep raiders from the Danish royal residence at Roskilde. Legend had it that they dated from Queen Margarethe's reign in the 1400s. But when parts of the barricade were removed by fishermen in the 1950s, to clear a deeper passage for their motorboats, Crumlin-Pedersen thought the bits he saw were Viking work. Trained as a maritime engineer, he signed on as a deep-sea diver to map out the wrecks, then, after a stint in the Navy, was hired by the Danish National Museum as a ship archaeologist. The Skuldelev site would be his training ground.

"Underwater archaeology was only just starting then," he told me as we toured the docks and warehouses and hands-on exhibits outside of the museum proper. "I went to the first conferences in Italy and London, and my colleagues tried to convince me that I should come to the warm, clear water of the Mediterranean, not stay in the cold, muddy water here. I insisted in exploring the potential here. It turned out to be very rich.

Photo by Katrin Driscoll

"We had thought the site was so damaged we could do no harm," he continued. "We had no experience. We could start there and continue on to more important sites. The first year we cleared the passage and found not one, but two ships. The next year, it was not two but four. The next year it was not four but six." (Later they would learn that ships number 4 and 6 were parts of a single widely-scattered vessel.)

"So we built a coffer dam. Sometimes it's a good thing to come from another education. As an engineer, I could come up with ideas and principles for the retrieving of ships that have become standards all over the world."

The coffer dam drained the fjord around the site. Then the problem was to lift the shattered wood out of the mud, while keeping it from drying out and disintegrating. "You keep the wood in water all the time until it can be treated with polyethylene glycol," Crumlin-Pedersen explained. A type of plastic, polyethelene glycol crystallizes within the wood cells. This plasticized wood can then be heated and gently pressed back into shape. "That brings out the lines of the boat."

Those lines are so various, just among the replica ships afloat in Roskilde harbor, that it's hard to say they’re all "Viking ships." The tubby knarr, 52 feet long and a buxom 16 feet wide, is docked beside the dragonship Havhingsten ("The Sea Stallion"), 98 feet long but a slender 12 feet wide. A smaller cargo ship, a byrding of more "elegant" proportions, carried only four-and-a-half tons of cargo to the bigger knarr's 24 tons, while a smaller warship, called a snekke or "snake," could only handle 30 warriors to Sea Stallion's 80.

Photo by Katrin Driscoll

And then there's the toy-sized fishing boat, 37 feet long by 8 feet wide, on which Crumlin-Pedersen signed me up as an oarsman when a German TV personality wanted to take a Sunday-morning ride. Nicely maneuverable in the narrow harbor (even with a raw crew brand-new to the oars), it seemed precariously low to the waves once the sail was up. Yet when they compared the pattern of the tree-rings in the original ship's pine timbers to wood samples from throughout the Viking world, they found a perfect match with the wood of the Urnes Stave Church in Sognefjord, Norway; the ship had been built there and had sailed the 500 miles to Roskilde at least once. By the time it was sunk to blockade the fjord, it had been patched in several places and refitted to be a small cargo ship, the rowlocks taken off and an extra strake added to give it a little more height.

All five Skuldelev ship types, Crumlin-Pedersen believes, developed after 900 out of the basic Gokstad style. "The development of cargo vessels seems to be a very late one in Scandinavia," he explained over a lunch of pickled herring and brown bread in the museum’s dockside restaurant (right under which, he pointed out, another longship had been found, 20 feet longer than Sea Stallion). "They didn’t have proper cargo vessels until the 10th century. I think that's because it was too dangerous to go out with a load of valuable cargo without a sufficient number of people to protect your goods. The Gokstad ship was capable of carrying eight to 10 tons of cargo, but also a sufficient crew to defend it. Then in the 10th to 11th centuries, we have the development of cargo ships and the transformation of warships into ships that couldn't carry cargo. I see that as a sign of royal control of the sea. It was one of the main jobs of the king, to keep trade safe."

The cargo ships got tubbier (and more practical), the warships got longer and sleeker and swifter; the principal of their design, according to Crumlin-Pedersen, being the "sporting element": fierce competition among royal Viking crews. One of these late longships is 11 times longer than it is wide and made from enormous oak trees, each thin plank over 32 feet long. "For the really royal ships, the shipbuilder had access to trees no one else could touch," Crumlin-Pedersen told me. "Such a ship as this is an amazing machine!" Racing such a royal ship, he said, must have been the sporting experience of a lifetime.

To read about the Viking Ship Museum's battle with the stormsurge, and see some spectacular photos, go to the museum's website, here:

There's also a film about the storm, here:

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

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