Long Ships of the Vikings


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In September 1997 Danish archaeologists discovered a Viking longship in the mud of Roskilde harbor, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Copenhagen. The discovery was the kind of serendipitous event that earned Viking Leif Eriksson the appellation "Leif the Lucky." Lying unsuspected next to the world-renowned Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde, the longship came to light during dredging operations to expand the harbor for the museum's fleet of historic ship replicas According to Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, former head of the museum, the longship must have been sunk by a storm centuries ago, then hidden by silt. Tree-ring dating of its oak planks showed that the ship had been built about A.D. 1025 during the reign of King Canute the Great who united Denmark, Norway, southern Sweden and England in a Viking empire.

With its immense length of 35 meters, the Roskilde longship surpasses all previous longship finds. By doing so, the ship also refuted skeptical modern scholars who judged these leviathans, described in Norse sagas, to be as mythical as the dragon whose name they bore. (Longships became known generally as dragons.) The sagas had been accurate in their accounts of "great ships," the largest class of Viking warship.

The passage of a millennium has not dimmed the pride Scandinavians feel for the Viking longships. Their vital role in seaborne raiding, which is the meaning of the Norse term viking, assures them a prominent place in medieval history. Fleets of these long, narrow ships attacked coasts from Northumberland to North Africa, carried pioneers to the British Isles and Normandy, and made the Vikings the dominant sea power in Europe from about A.D. 800 to 1100, the Viking Age.

Although finds of various Viking ships and boats have been made since 1751--most spectacularly in the royal burial mounds at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway--the classic longship itself proved elusive until 1935, when Danish archaeologists excavated a chieftain's burial mound at Ladby. Only the shadow of a ship remained, with dark-stained soil revealing the form of the hull. Iron spirals marked the crest of the dragon's head at the prow, and seven long rows of iron rivets on either side still followed the lines of the vanished planks. The Ladby ship was much narrower than the celebrated Norwegian ships and looked quite unseaworthy: 20.6 meters long, only 3.2 wide amidships and a mere meter from the keel to the top plank. Critics dismissed as implausible the accounts in the sagas of much larger longships with the same extreme proportions.

Actual timbers of a longship were located in 1953 in Hedeby harbor, site of a prosperous Viking emporium on the German border. Although the ship was not raised, public interest ran so high that the diver who discovered it made a radio broadcast underwater; his fascinated audience included 18-year-old Ole Crumlin-Pederson. By age 22, he had embarked on a series of finds that exploded the timid theories of the skeptics and ultimately involved him in the retrieval and study of every longship discovered since Ladby.
Peaceful burial mounds had yielded prior finds, but Crumlin-Pedersen specialized in disaster sites. Between 1957 and 1962 he was co-director of the team that recovered two longships and three other Viking ships from a blockade in a channel near Skuldelev, where desperate Danish townsfolk in the 11th century had deliberately sunk the ships to create a barricade against invaders. The bigger of the two Skuldelev longships, measuring 29 meters, met its end after making at least one successful voyage across the North Sea: its wood was Irish oak, cut about 1060 near the Viking stronghold of Dublin. Both ships in fact showed many seasons of wear, evidence that longships were more seaworthy than some scholars had thought.
In 1979 Crumlin-Pedersen fulfilled a dream of his youth by leading the excavation of the Hedeby longship. It proved to have perished as a fire ship, a vessel intentionally set ablaze as an offensive weapon, during an attack on the town in about 1000. Here, too, the wood was remarkable: local oak cut from 300-year-old trees in lengths exceeding 10 meters without a knot or blemish.

Scientific American