Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Vikings - the Danish Ships.

Havhingsten, Vikingeskibsmuseet.
The importance of the ships in Denmarks history is not easy to exaggerate. The Danish kingdom and its achievements in Viking Age depended on well-built ships and good seamanship. The contact to other countries and places depended upon ships, no matter whether they were friendly or hostile contacts to other parts of Scandinavia, to the Baltics or to the Christian countries to the west. Denmark had a land border to the Saxons in the south, but when they went out to attack their neighbours, their army was usually supported by a fleet.  

The earliest Danish coins depict ships, both trade- and warships, while most contemporary literature count the ships as a matter of course. There are rarely details about sea voyages or information about the ships. When the travels are described it is only said that missionaries, tradesmen and others went from Dorestad to Denmark or from Hedeby to Birka - no mention of the ship at all. One exception is Ansgar's first voyage to Denmark where he and his companion got a ship from the archbishop of Cologne and discovered they had to share rooms with the Danish king. 

The contemporary texts give barely information about the size of the vessels, the names of the ship types are known to us from poetry and a few runic inscriptions, but it is almost impossible to decide the difference between a skeith, a snekkja and a knarr. The scalds might have used these words randomly. From the 1000s a seagoing tradeship is called a knarr, but since this word in the early poetry was used for a warship, a knarr was possibly just a seagoing ship, whatever it was used for trade or war.

Bayeux tapestry, Viking ship
The only descriptions of the ships and the fleets are written in contemporary literature, like the Scald-poems of tribute and in Encomium Emmae, written in the 1040s to Cnut the Great's queen. The knowledge of the ships from the period is high however, since there were made many important archaeological discoveries. Some ships were found in burials/graves, but the ships or ship-parts found in the Scandinavian waters and in the Baltic are even more valuable. The most important discovery was made in Roskilde fjord at Skuldelev, where five ships, apparently from the late Viking Age, deliberately had been sunk to block a shipping passage, called Peberrenden.

By help of dendrochronology and other scientific dating methods the archaeologists have established a pattern of development for the Scandinavian ships. Even lesser ship-parts can be dated. The finds are so numerous and so clear that there is now a safe and precise knowledge about the development of the art of ship-building. The recovery of these ships has given a more versatile image of the shipping of the Vikings.

There were various boats for various purposes, the simplest was the oak, a canoe hollowed from a log. This type of boat was created long before our time and was still used in Danish lakes and rivers only a hundred years ago. The Vikings built also small barges, one was found at Egernsund in Flensborg fjord, it was 7 m long and 1,9 m broad and is dated to the end of the 1000s. But their larger vessels, both trade- and warships, are more wellknown. Small freightships, less than 20 m long, were found  near Larvik in Norway, in the Gøtaelv (river) in Sweden and at Skuldelev, and at the same place were found two warships. The rest of a warship was found in a pretty gravehill at the shore of Kerteminde fjord  (the Ladby ship ). The wood in the Ladbygrave had rottened, but the shape of the ship was clearly drawn in a pattern formed by the iron-nails, which kept the ship planks together. In the sea were important finds of individual ship-parts, like a 2,8 m long side-roar, which was fished up from Kattegat and a 3,8 m long mast-part in Mariager fjord . Many ship parts, both used and new, were found at the island Falster in a shipyard from the 1000s, where the old ships apparently were repaired.

Havhingsten, Vikingeskibsmuseet
The Skuldelev ships.
The times were harsh and violent in the late 1000s, and the Vikings built a system of blockage in Roskilde fjord as a protection against hostile navy attacks on the town Roskilde, which then was the capital of Denmark. The five ships in the hall of the Vikingship Museum origin from a blockage of Peberrenden at Skuldelev ab. 20 km north of Roskilde. The ships were excavated in 1962. An iron pile wall was framed down around the blockage in order to drain it. In less than four months the ships were dug out and brought up in thousands of pieces. After this came a huge work of preservation and collecting the pieces into the five puzzles, which represent the Viking ships. The finding includes five different ship types, which collectively give a unique impression of the shipbuilding and craftmanship of the Viking Age. 

Skuldelev 1 (Havskibet)
Skuldelev 1, wikipedia
Wreck 1 is a heavy, seagoing cargo ship, maybe the type knarr. The ship was built in heavy pine planks at Sognefjorden in West Norway and was later repaired with oak in several stages, both in Oslofjorden and in East Danmark. The ship had a deck both fore and aft, and an open cargo room midships.
The ship and cargo might have been owned by a magnate/chieftain, who went on trade with his entourage or owned by merchants, who in commmunity were sailing the ship and do some trading in the marketplaces. The crew was 6-8 men. Havskibet could sail overall in the North Sea and the Baltic and on the North Atlantic. In favorable wind it was able to keep an average speed of ab. 5-7 knob. The Vikingship Museum's  reconstruction of Skuldelev 1 is in the Museum harbour.

Skuldelev 2, (the big longship)
Skuldelev 2, wikipedia
Wreck 2 is a seagoing warship, maybe of the type skeid. Staffed with 65-70 warriors it belonged to the big chieftain-ships which are being praised in scaldsongs and Sagas.
The ship is built in oak, the analyze of the timber has shown that the ship was built in the Dublin-area ab. year 1042. The Vikings came to Ireland in the 800s, and they established several fortified bases along the Irish coast. The bases later developed into cities with Dublin being the most important. The Vikings lived here as merchants, mercenaries and shipbuilders.
The long narrow shape of this ship gave it a good speed potential. 60 oars secured the progress of the ship even without wind. Havhingsten fra Glendalough, the Vikingship Museum's reconstruction of Skuldelev 2, has reached an average speed of 2,5 knob with every second oar staffed. Under sails the Havhingsten has reached a top speed of 12 knob. Havhingsten fra Glendalough ( The Sea Stallion of Glendalough) is in the Museum harbour. 

   Skuldelev 3 (Kystfareren / The Coastal Trader)
Skuldelev 3, wikipedia

Wreck 3 is a small, elegant freight and travel-ship, maybe the type byrding. The ship was built in Danish oak. It had a deck of loose planks fore and aft, and midship was an open cargo-room with room for 4 tons cargo.  The crew was 5-8 men.
The ship was useful when the farmer and his entourage had to go to markets or meet at The Thing. It was well suited for sailing in the Danish waters and in the Baltics. The wind was its most inmportant driving force, but during maneuvres and in short distances in no wind the oars could be used. In favorable wind the ship could keep an average speed of 4-5 knob. Roar Ege, the Vikingship Museum's reconstruction of Skuldelev 3 has been sailing with a top speed of 8,5 knob. Roar Ege in the Museum harbour,

Skuldelev 5, (the small longship). 

Skuldelev 5, wikipedia
Wreck 5 is a lesser warship, maybe the type snekke. The ship is built in Danish oak, ash and pine, partly from re-used wood from other ships. With 13 pair of oars and a staff of ab. 30 warriors it belonged to the 13-sesserne, the smallest longships in a war fleet. Along the upper strake are still seen parts of where the shields were placed, and upon the 6th plank starboard is seen a carved decoration. The ship was ideal for sailing in the Danish waters and in the short, choppy waves of the Baltic. The average speed on longer trips was 6-7 knob in a favorable wind, and the top speed probably double. Helge Ask,  the Vikingship Museum's reconstruction of Skuldelev 5 is in the Museum  harbour.

Skuldelev 6, (the fishing boat)
Skuldelev 6, wikipedia
Wreck 6 is a combined row- and sailboat, probably built for fishing and catch. The boat was built in Sognefjorden in Norway in pine planks. It was later enheightened with a plank in each side in order to transport fish or other products, or persons. In the rebuild the original oar-plan was removed and the oar-number reduced. The rebuild probably meant that the boat was more used as a freightship than a fishing boat and with a smaller crew. Before the boat  was used as a part of the blocking at Skuldelev it was repaired in the bottom with oak-planks. Kraka Fyr,  the Vikingship Museum's reconstruction of Skuldelev 6 is in the Museum harbour.


The small warship from Skuldelev (nr.5) was 18 m long and was intended to be driven by 12 pair of oars. The big longship (nr. 2) is not so well-kept that it is possible to tell the oar-places, but it was apparently 28 m long and with probably 20 pair of oars, maybe more. 

A few very large ships from the 1000s might have been built for kings and other chiefs, but they are always mentioned as something very special. An ordinary warship had probably ab. 20 pair of oars, corresponding to the staffing of the warships in the Middle Ages, which usually had a crew of 42 men. 

Below three photos from the Vikingship Museum in Roskilde: grethe bachmann 2001.

The Skuldelev ships were products of a long boatbuilding tradition in Scandinavia and the Baltics. There is only a little difference between the Danish ships and the ships from the Slavic areas. The basic construction consisted of keel and bow. When a ship-timber had made these, the shape of the vessel was largely determined. A ship could usually not be longer than the straight trunk of an oak.
Both the sailing and the landing wore out the slender ships. The small warship from Skuldelev had been repaired with planks from another ship. Finds from the ship yard at the island Falster illustrated, how the old ships were broken up in order to re-use well-kept timber. But the keels were not suitable for re-use, since they had been worn out from the eternal pulling on land. The effort the Vikings did to re-use ship-parts and to repair the ships show how valuable the ships were. They represented a big investment. A reconstruction of the trade ship Skuldelev 3, which was built with the use of the tool-types and methods from the Viking period, took 15.000 working hours. Skilled workers were probably able to do it in the half time or at least lesser time, but even this was a big effort.

A well-functioning seagoing vessel from the Viking Age could handle very rough weather conditions. This was demonstrated dramatically when a reconstruction of the big trade ship from Skuldelev came safe through wind gusts of 35 m/sec at the coast of Greenland. Lesser sea seaworthy ships would have been shipwrecked - and many Viking ships probably did. 

 The Five Skuldelev Ships Vikingeskibsmuseet Roskilde

 Archaeology in Europe/Havhingsten fra Glendalough

Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarkshistorie, bind 3, Peter Sawyer, Da Danmark blev Danmark , 700-1050;
Johannes Brøndsted, Vikingerne, V. Materiel kultur, Skibe,  Gyldendal 1960.


Carolyn said...

Happy New Year! beautiful blog as always - you keep educating me ;)

I love the bird fodder!

Thyra said...

Hello Caroly thank you, and the same to you a happy, happy New Year!!
I love the fodder too before the birds get it. Some of it are those cinnamon-Danish. I don't know if you can buy them in the US - but they taste good and the smell of cinnamon-Danish in the morning is just heavenly. I'm sure the birds like them too!
Grethe ´) .......and I'm now going to watch Poirot on TV!! Mysterious Murder..........

Gerry Snape said...

I love this post Grethe...I will come back to it tomorrow as I'm really putting off ther moment of climbing the stairs and going to bed you ever do that?...I get caught here at the blogland!! But I want to read it as I suspect that my family have this in their DNA and would love some day to get that tested!!! until then ...I keep reading!

Wanda..... said...

What a magnificent header photo, Grethe! It goes so well with your post. I think I have mentioned before how the stories of the Vikings and their ships really held my attention as a child. Such a rich and interesting history....and cinnamon Danish is 'very' popular here!☺

stardust said...

While reading, I imagined the Vikings in old times. I do love the new header photo in which tremendous big waves and very small people in comparison. The whirling lacy waves are powerful and beautiful at the same time.

To take over Wanda’s words, Danish breads are very popular here in Japan including cinnamon Danish. Have a happy and healthy year ahead, Grethe, with lots of smiles.


Thyra said...

Hej Gerry, maybe it will once day be easier to examine the DNA so that we can find out some history about our families. I think it is SO exciting.

I know what you mean about putting off the moment in the evening. I often discover that the clock has passed midnight, sometimes later if there is something I want to read! And I don't want to sleep late either! Day and night could easily have 48 hours instead of 24 for my sake. There is enough to do.............
Grethe `)

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda. The day of the photo was an October storm and the sea was roaring so I couldn't hear my own voice. And that's serious! Hmmm!
The history about the Vikings get more and more complex the more I dig down into it. And the scientists find out more and more because of the advanced methods.

I think I'll have a cinnamon Danish today. Saturday is the only day where I'm "allowed" to have a cake for my coffee!
Have a nice day!
Grethe ´)

Thyra said...

Hello Yoko, thank you so much for your good wishes for a happy new year - and with lots of smiles. A smile is the shortest distance between people.

I'm fascinated with the sea and the power of the sea. I love to go to the sea every day and I would not like to live in the midst of a land area with no access to waters.

It seems that the cinnamon Danish is wellknown. Let's have one today across the US, Europe and Japan!!

Grethe ´)

Kittie Howard said...

Your header is gorgeous, Grethe. In a way, you also captured the sound you mentioned above. Great job!

Your posts are always magnificent, but this one reaches a new high. I was enthralled. The Vikings were amazing. When we attended that Reunion in Copenhagen/Oslo some years ago, there was a lecture at a museum in Oslo about these ships. Really intricate ship building. I imagine Vikings were blond and rugged and lusty.

Thyra said...

Hej Kittie! Lovely to see you back!

They were also redhaired! I imagine those Irish girls with that gorgeous red hair might have some Viking blood. I've always wished to have such a wonderful red hair!!
See you!
Grethe ´)