Think you’ve got the Vikings pegged? With their long blonde hair, horned helmets and sensational sagas? Well, contrary to popular belief (and the iconic TV series!) it wasn’t all about vengeful voyages for those sexy Scandinavians. The Vikings were dedicated democrats, seafaring statesmen, master mariners, fearsome fishermen, talented tradesmen, and adept agriculturalists, more likely to brandish scythes, than swords.
For millennia, people and the sea have been interconnected. The Vikings were no different. In 1070, just a few short years after the last Viking ruler, Harald Hardrada, invaded England in 1066, five Viking ships were filled with stones and deliberately sunk at Skuldelev, in the Roskilde Fjord.
The ships, now known as the Skuldelev ships, are thought to have reached the end of their useful life. Rather than burn them, the ships were scuttled in a narrow, shallow part of the channel, in an effort to block the channel and prevent invaders from reaching Roskilde, the then capital. Today we would call this recycling. Then it was attempt to make the most of available resources, and it seems the block ships worked.
In 1962, after almost 900 years underwater, the Skuldelev ships were rediscovered. A collection of warships, coastal traders and cargo boats, the importance of the Skuldelev finds is impossible to overstate. Without them, our understanding of Viking shipbuilding, seafaring and long distance trade would be non-existent. Reading about it in the sagas is one thing, seeing it for real is entirely another…
The ships are now in display at the Viking Ship Museum (Vikingeskibsmuseet in Danish), Denmark’s national museum for ships, seafaring and maritime crafts in prehistoric and medieval times. That rare combination of traditional museum, archaeological park, experimental archaeology centre, and maritime training college, the museum is a place where craftsmen, academics and seamen work together in order to discover more about our maritime cultural heritage.
The result is that all five of the Skuldelev ships have been painstakingly reconstructed (some twice!) using tools also reconstructed on the basis of archaeological tool finds. Every tool is authentic to the period, and every tool mark is as it was on the original vessel. Even the rope is authentic. Reconstructed hemp rope is used in the rigging, wool in the square sails, and pine tar and blubber on the hulls.
You can watch the shipwrights at work, building a reconstruction in the in the boatyard and have a go yourself. I turned my hand to some adzing, dabbled in a bit of blacksmithing, fabricated some fibres, ropes and withies, then moved on to tying some traditional knots. I’m still working on the knots…
My visit to the museum didn’t end with the ship finds, or for that matter, the boatyard. The climax for me was the sailing. If you go sailing (and you must!), visit between May and September, and come prepared. It can be cold, wet and windy, but it’s very definitely the best fun you will have with your clothes on! Oh, and ask for Kraka Fyr, the original Skuldelev 6 reconstruction, she is my favourite.
On this, the 10th anniversary of my very first visit, I can wholeheartedly say the Viking Ship Museum is a must do. Not a must do, maybe one day, but a must do today. There is nowhere like it anywhere else on the planet. The landscape is legendary, the people are perfect, the experience is extraordinary, and the ships are spectacular. Why else would I keep going back, time and time again??
The Viking Ship Museum, Vikingeskibsmuseet, is located at Vindeboder 12, DK-4000 Roskilde. You can telephone the Museum on +45 46 300 200, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or pay a virtual visit at vikingeskibsmuseet.dk.
Where to stay? On site, of course! The Danhostel Roskilde is co-located with the museum. It’s the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been too, has incredible views across the fjord and some of the best Nordic food on offer. Its part of the experience, and one not to be missed. Go there! And stop off at Leijre on your way. You know you want to..!
Photographs by yours truly and courtesy the Viking Ship Museum.