Think you’ve got the Vikings pegged? With their long blonde hair, horned helmets and sensational sagas?
Well, contrary to popular belief – and the recent History series! – it wasn’t all about vengeful voyages for those sexy Scandinavians. Like many maritime cultures that straddled land and sea, the Vikings were seafaring statesmen, master mariners, fearsome fishermen, trained tradesman and fantastic farmers. They were much more likely to brandish scythes, than swords.
For millennia, people and the sea have been interconnected. The Vikings were no different. In 1070 CE, shortly after the last Viking ruler Harald Hardrada invaded England, five Viking ships were filled with stones and sunk at Skuldelev in the Roskilde fjord.
The five Viking ships, now known as the Skuldelev ships, had reached the end of their useful life. Rather than being burnt, they were sunk in a narrow, shallow part of the channel to prevent invaders from reaching Roskilde, the then capital. Today we would call this recycling. Then it was an attempt to make the most of available resources, and it seems the blockships worked. Several subsequent invasion attempts were thwarted by their sinking.
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 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, Denmark’s National Museum for ships, seafaring, and maritime technology in prehistoric and medieval times. Vikingeskibsmuseet (in Danish) is a place very close to my heart. A unique combination of traditional indoor and open-air museum, activity centre, archaeology park, and maritime training college, it is that most rare of magical maritime spaces. A place where archaeologists, museologists, and master craftsman come together. A place to protect, preserve and promote Denmark’s significant seafaring heritage.
All five of the Skuldelev ships have been painstakingly reconstructed using reconstructed Viking-age tools. The reconstructions don’t stop there. Even the rope is authentic. Replica hemp rope is used in the rigging, and wool in the square sails, while pine tar and porpoise blubber were used on the hulls. In the boatyard, you can see the shipwrights at work, and try your hand at ancient shipwrightry. I turned my hand to some adzing, dabbled in a bit of blacksmithing in the forge, fabricated some fibres, ropes and withies, then tried some traditional knots.
My visit to the Museum didn’t end with the ship finds, or for that matter, the boatyard. The climax for me was 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 can have with your clothes on! Oh, and ask for Kraka Fyr, the original Skuldelev 6 reconstruction, she is my favourite.
I have nothing but love and affection for this place. I would live there if I could! The landscape is legendary, the people are perfect, the experience is extraordinary, and the ships are spectacular.
On this, the 15th anniversary of my very first visit, I can wholeheartedly say the Viking Ship Museum is most definitely a ‘must-do’ – today! There is nowhere like it anywhere else on the planet. Why else would I keep going back, time and time again??
The Viking Ship Museum is located at Vindeboder 12, DK-4000 Roskilde. You can telephone the Museum on +45 46 300 200, send an email to [email protected] 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. It is a part of the experience absolutely not to be missed. Go there. And stop off at Leijre on your way. I promise you will not regret it.
Image © Viking Ship Museum