Lars Bill, the Head of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation, is the successful Project Manager of Saga Asia 2023, overseeing the voyage of a replica of the Norse trading ship Saga Farmann from its base at Tønsberg in Norway to Istanbul. 

But, as Lars explains in the third of our extensive three-part interview with him for The Viking Herald, the ship's epic odyssey through Europe is only the start of the story. 

As of the end of October, the Saga Farmann crew was preparing to depart from the Rahmi M. Koç Museum at the Hasköy Dockyard, where it has been exhibited since August, to resume their journey and sail back onto the Sea of Marmara

From there, she will head around the Mediterranean, fulfilling her mission to promote Viking heritage across Europe and beyond. It's a mission that is also a personal journey for Lars, now 55, who was taken to see a Viking ship reconstruction at Roskilde in his native Denmark as a small boy.

It's a story that begins with a visionary priest who was based at Lars' home of the last 25 years, Tønsberg in Norway. 

This is where the Saga Farmann project was conceived and the ship constructed. It's also where the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation has ambitious plans to create a long-lasting legacy. 

"I've just been elected as the chairman of the board for the foundation," Lars Bill tells The Viking Herald, "taking over from the previous chairman who was retiring. And I'm eager to take the foundation further." 

Utilizing advanced techniques such as 3D scans and detailed historical analysis, the construction of Saga Farmann offered new insights into the design and seafaring capabilities of Viking ships like the Oseberg. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

The visionary priest and the shipbuilder 

"The foundation was established in 2005. Before then, there was an old priest in Tønsberg. He didn't have a traditional church; instead, he organized places where people could find peace and talk to God." 

 "He did this all over Norway, and in Tønsberg, he conducted these sessions on the pier in the city center, surrounded by restaurants." 

"He discovered a warehouse, 200 to 300 years old, on the pier, on the waterfront. People could just walk in there for five minutes, find peace, and talk to God."

"He was a very special guy. He had a particular idea about the Oseberg ship, found just outside our city, Tønsberg. Back then, it was considered merely a burial ship." 

"And he thought that was quite strange, as the Oseberg ship was only 14 years old when it was buried in 834; it had been built in 820." 

"He thought that if a burial ship was built and not used until 14 years later, it must have been used in the meantime." 

"However, in the late 1980s, Danish people built a reconstruction of the Oseberg ship, as it stands in the museum, and they sailed it." 

"But it went down with a BBC film crew on board – they had a contract to film the ship on her maiden voyage."

"They sailed back and forth a few times, then the captain said, 'This is not really working, I don't want to sail her anymore,' but the BBC said, 'Just one more time for the cameras.'" 

"At that time, they went quite fast at a speed of ten knots. It tilted a little and started to sink into the sea, then it went down, straight down, in only 30 seconds. With a cameraman on board, so we have everything on film."

"From that day, people said, 'No, the Oseberg ship was just a burial ship, it could not have sailed' – because it's a very, very beautiful ship, with all the carvings."

"This made some kind of sense, but the Tønsberg priest contacted one of our main boatbuilders and asked him, 'Do you think they could be wrong about the Oseberg ship?' So the boatbuilder started to investigate." 

"They did some measuring and realized there might be something to it. At the same time, entirely unconnected, the museum in Oslo, where the original ship is, decided to do a 3D scan."

"As part of that process, they removed all the ship's floorboards so you could see the hull all the way inside." 

"For the first time in a hundred years, you could see what was going on under the floorboards during the 3D scanning." 

"They started to examine it, took pictures, and discovered that some pieces had been cut, bent, and broken to make the ship look as it does today."

Then, they began to make a cardboard model. 

"If you take all the planks, scale them down to one-tenth or one-twentieth of the original size, and cut them out precisely, the pieces become bendable, like the original boards." 

"You can stick them together with needles, and you can create the hull. And when you do that, it reveals the actual form of the original hull." 

"It's a process that's now used in Roskilde in Denmark for the reconstruction of all the Viking ships they found there." 

"We worked with them; they were a part of the project at the time."

"So, at some point during this process, the Tønsberg team realized they needed funding and sponsors, some kind of foundation, to do this." 

"Therefore, the priest, boatbuilder, and others created the New Oseberg Ship Foundation. They secured the funding and embarked on the mission to build a new Oseberg ship, an archaeological reconstruction." 

"This was a task that had not been done before because the previous one was built according to what you see in the museum, but that might have been put together incorrectly." 

Throughout its voyages, the Saga Farmann offers a unique hands-on experience, allowing crew and visitors alike to immerse themselves in the day-to-day life and seafaring skills of the Vikings. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

An even keel 

"They discovered, from old pictures taken when they were assembling the original Oseberg ship, that they had encountered problems." 

"They couldn't get the stern to fit with the rest of the ship; something was wrong; they were missing a piece." 

"So they assembled it as best they could, cutting parts as needed. When they made the cardboard model, they realized that the keel needed to be curved, and then everything fit together perfectly." 

"When you see it in the museum in Oslo, you notice it's displayed with a straight keel. But the actual Viking ship was built with a curved keel." 

"They referred back to the documentation from when the one in the museum was built, and the person who set it up admitted he had had problems with the keel." 

"He had to steam it three times to get it straight. And now we know that he shouldn't have steamed it. You always start with the keel, and he knew nothing about the rest." 

"At that time, in the early 1900s, they were still building wooden boats for sailing, based on the heritage of the Viking ships, but with a straight keel." 

"So he thought, 'Okay, we have a heritage from the Viking Age, it has a straight keel, we start with a straight keel.'"

"He did as well as he could – but in the end, three years later, he couldn't get the ends to meet." 

The Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation's success in building Viking ships is a result of collaboration between skilled boatbuilders, the University of Oslo's scientific insights, and the expertise of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Strong foundations 

"That was the basis of the foundation, set up in 2005. Then, in 2010, they began building the Oseberg ship." 

"It took two years and two days, and they launched it in 2012."

"I entered the picture in late 2010. The reason for that is a bit corny. My elder brother built Viking ships in his late teens." 

 "Once, when he was looking after me, he put me on the back of his motorbike and took me to Roskilde, where they built Viking ships." 

"And many years later, when I was about 30 and had moved to Norway, I heard about this Viking project in Tønsberg. I just had to join."

"Around the same time, my brother also came to Norway, independently from me." 

"He was appointed as a professor at the university in Oslo, with responsibility for the original Viking ships in Norway, including the Oseberg ship, as he's an archaeologist." 

"He's now the link between the original Viking ships in Norway and the reconstruction team in Roskilde." 

"If we build a ship within the foundation, it's a three-way process. The foundation raises the money and has the boatbuilders." 

"The University of Oslo has the original ships, so they can provide us with the science, information, measurements, and 3D scans, and we can gain access to the original material." 

"Then, the people at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, based on all the information we get from the University of Oslo, create the models. We get all the drawings back, and we build the ships."

"We did that with the Oseberg ship first and then with the ship that's now in Istanbul. Currently, we're building a third ship, the Gokstad ship, in the same way."

"We are at plank level six or seven coming up from the keel, so it's starting to look like a ship. And the Gokstad ship is even bigger than the Oseberg ship. We also built a small medieval ship a few years ago."

"So now, the foundation is not just for building the Oseberg ship, which was its original mission, but also for building Viking ships and caring for Viking heritage." 

"We changed our name a few years ago to the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation. We're also building other findings from the grave, such as the Oseberg bed and the Oseberg chariot." 

Future plans of the foundation include building a Viking center in Tønsberg, backed by municipal support and funding, to serve as a hub for constructing and showcasing Viking ships, including the ambitious Roskilde 6 project. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

The longest Viking ship ever found 

"I have always said I want the foundation to continue building ships. We still have another to build because there are four ships in Norway, and we have built three of them so far." 

"They also found in Denmark a shipwreck called Roskilde 6, 35 meters long, the longest Viking ship ever found. We know that it was originally built in Norway."

"We think it would be great if this one was rebuilt in Norway. But it won't be until a few years from now because we first need to finalize the Gokstad ship." 

"And after that, probably around this Christmas, we hope to get municipal approval to build our own Viking center where we build ships here in Tønsberg." 

"It's actually the municipality that's pushing the process." 

"They want this approval to come through so we can start building this handicraft center, showcasing the Viking heritage where we're actually building the ships." 

"So, that's a big step for the foundation, to be at that location." 

"We've got an architecture competition in place, and we've secured quite a lot of the funding needed to build it." 

"We have to construct it within the next three to five years as we finalize the Gokstad ship. After that, we can begin discussions about whether we can start to build the Roskilde ship." 

The Saga Farmann project, beyond its historical significance, has become a gathering point for sailing enthusiasts worldwide, eager to partake in the foundation's mission of reviving Viking seafaring traditions. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Exploring new horizons 

"With Saga Farmann, we're still in the dreaming stage. We don't know exactly what will happen yet, but within the project group, we are saying that we really don't want to go home." 

"We're finally in nice waters, with nice winds and temperatures, so there's no need to go back unless we have to. Why not stay a while?" 

To learn more about the specifications of the original Klåstad, a Viking cargo and trading ship discovered in Norway in the late 1800s, and its replica created in Tønsberg, see The Viking Herald article.

"First of all, the foundation's mission is to promote our Viking heritage, and there's no better way to promote Viking heritage than by sailing around in a Viking ship in Europe." 

"We promote it much better and fulfill our mission by doing that in the Mediterranean than in a harbor in Tønsberg." 

"We have other ships back here; we have all the activities going on, so this fulfills the mission better, I think. Sailing around as long as we can is one thing." 

"The other is that it's really nice to be down there, and it allows us to expand our guilds on the ship and include international sailors from all around Europe, from Czechia, Turkey, Germany, France…" 

"We already have people from all over the world as part of the guild, and they can actually be on board, sailing around out there." 

"This year has been hectic. We had to do 3,500 kilometers, get to Istanbul, and have all these expectations, and it was really stressful." 

"We hope we can sail around in the next few years and meet people with less stressful voyages."

"Let people be engaged in what the Vikings did, and try and be part of it, without this stressful pace that we had through Europe, because it was a little tough." 

"But, on the other hand, we've done the hard part; the ship is ready, and it works. We've got all the infrastructure on board: toilets, a kitchen, sleeping areas, and safety gear." 

"So, the cost of sailing the ship is now just down to maintenance, harbor fees, and food, more or less, and that's much easier." 

"We had to raise a million Norwegian kroner (approx EUR 85,000) to get the ship ready. We managed it, but now we can do things much cheaper." 

The Saga Farmann team, inspired by historical connections and ongoing explorations, aspires to extend their voyages to Africa, hoping to add another continent to their route under the proposed Saga Africa 2025 initiative. Photo: Courtesy of the Oseberg Viking Heritage Foundation

Dreams of Africa 

"And if we get more sponsors, it allows us to do much more next time. One of the things we would like to do is go to Africa." 

"First of all, because there are rumors that Vikings were actually in Africa, and if we've done Saga Asia 2023 [Igor – please hyperlink to part 1], why not Saga Africa 2025? Then we get another continent on the route." 

"When we're done in the Mediterranean, we want to navigate through France, either all the way to Brest or in the area south of the English Channel." 

"Alternatively, we could travel through the Seine, pass through Paris, and reach the English Channel that way."

"Then we need to assess if we, the crew, not the ship, are capable of sailing around the British Isles." 

"It's rough waters, but we would really like to explore Ireland, England, and Scotland. It's all old Viking territory, teeming with sites to see and experiences to be a part of."

"But, as the project manager and responsible for the entire fleet, it's crucial that we can do it safely. We might establish some kind of partnership." 

"We have good contacts with some whisky distilleries in Scotland. If we take that route, we'll need such sponsors to ensure we get the funding required for additional safety measures." 

"That's a plan for a few years from now." 

"Next year, we have to sail during the holidays in Norway since the main part of the crew is from there." 

"We'll probably sail out from Istanbul around early to mid-June, maybe, until the end of August. During that period, we'll be somewhere between Istanbul and the Mediterranean." 

"Our website will cover next year's voyages as soon as we have the details."

"I think we'll sail around the Mediterranean for another two or three years before we consider returning. We still have these dreams. But we've come a long way thanks to our dreams." 

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