Now in its second year, the painstaking reconstruction of the Viking ship Skuldelev 5 has just restarted for the year and can be followed until October in person and through the project’s Instagram page and website.
Based at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, built around the five Viking ships uncovered at the nearby Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the initiative provides family-friendly entertainment at the boatyard while the team is working out in the open.
Over time, it will also reveal deeper secrets into how these vessels were built. Reconstruction is expected to last four years.
The Skuldelev ships were deliberately sunk just north of Roskilde in 1070 in order to block the passage of the Peberrenden waterway and defend against potential invasion.
Each different in character and purpose, the vessels have given up a wealth of information from several points of view.
Capital of Denmark from the 11th century until 1443, Roskilde was a vital trading center during the Viking era for routes over land and sea. Founded by Harald Bluetooth in the 980s, it was made a bishopric by King Cnut nearly four decades later.
Built on Bluetooth’s original church, the 13th-century cathedral at Roskilde, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, gives tourists an additional reason to visit, but the key draw is the Viking Ship Museum.
All five Skuldelev ships are on display in the Viking Ship Hall at the Museum after being excavated, raised, documented, conserved, and pieced together.
Old and new wood
Back in 1962, it was originally thought that six boats had been discovered, but they turned out to be five.
During the Viking Age, different ship types were developed for specific purposes. Large cargo vessels were used for trade voyages on the open seas.
Long, narrow warships were equipped with many oars and a single square sail, designed for the swift conveyance of soldiers. Small, maneuverable fishing boats plied fjords, rivers, and inland waterways.
The best-preserved of the Roskilde ships is Skuldelev 3, constructed locally in Denmark around 1040, with 75% of the original on view. Skuldelev 5 was also made here around 1030, a small warship that would have seen service in shallow Danish waters.
The ships on display at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum. Photo: Roskilde Viking Ship Museum
It has proven to be something of an exception compared to its bedfellows, as it appears to have been built from the outset with a mix of new and reused timber.
A thousand years ago, planks were taken from another ship and adjusted to be reused for Skuldelev 5. One bears carved decoration of Ringerike style.
The hull also contains a wider range of wood species than otherwise typically found in Danish ships of the time, primarily oak but also with pine and ash as part of the planking material. The quality is generally lower than that used for its contemporaries.
The ship would have been in service for about 30 years, with many repairs along the way. It was then towed out to Roskilde Fjord, filled with stones, and scuttled to form part of the barrier system.
To investigate questions arising from its original construction – such as why old and new wood? – a full-scale rebuild was ordered, which began in the summer of 2022.
This exercise in experimental archaeology is a niche method of research that requires a range of expertise from historians, natural scientists, blacksmiths, weavers, and sailmakers, among many others. Each brings a different skill to the table and shares their knowledge and experience with the others.
Boat builders are particularly in demand, of course. This spring, 200-year-old oak logs weighing some seven tons were transported to the boatyard. This summer, they will be split with traditional methods thought to have been used centuries ago.
The oaks come from the forests around the Vallø Estate on Denmark’s East coast. They were planted in the early 1800s with the specific aim of ensuring wood for future ships.
By the end of the 1700s, almost all the forest in Denmark was gone, and, at the same time, Denmark had lost most of its fleet to the English after the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807. A far-sighted strategy and replacement program for forestry was put in place.
The Vallø Estate is one of the few places in Denmark where you can still find these old oaks, with new ones being planted each year.
Throughout the summer, the public will be able to see oaks dating back several hundreds of years being split in half, then quarters, eighths, and so on, by using the same kinds of wedges and large hammers as wielded by Vikings in the early 1000s.
Visitors can also see the original craft, of course, exhibited in the Ship Hall, beside the boatyard.
Viking Ship Museum, Vindeboder 12, 4000 Roskilde Denmark. Open daily 10am-4pm.
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