No more is this evident than in the Hjortspring Boat, one of Europe's oldest plank-built vessels.

40 years is better late than never

The island of Als, lying just off the eastern coast of Jutland, in Denmark, is one of many islands scattered throughout the Baltic Sea. 

However, what separates this island from many is the fertility of the ground below. It was once famous, up until the mid-20th century CE, as providing many a fruit for Danish households for the island was covered in orchards. 

However, it wasn't just tree roots that lay beneath this richly fertile part of Denmark.

Since the 1880s, construction work had gone on draining peat bogs throughout the island of Als. A bog is a sort of swampy marshland that conserves dead plant material. For the shrewd Danish businessperson, it was much cheaper to buy than farmland, especially in the late 19th century. 

Digging in and around a particular bog, Hjortspring Mose, had uncovered a small cache of weapons and even remnants of an ancient boat, but no one seemed to care much.

That was until one day, almost four decades later, in 1921, when conservator Gustav Rosenberg, from Denmark's National Museum, arrived on the scene at the Hjortspring Mose. 

What he discovered lying there was perhaps one of Denmark's most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Big boat, big deal?

Though workers had been uncovering remnants of weapons and a boat, Rosenberg set about doing a proper archaeological survey. 

A little more than a year later, Rosenberg and his team uncovered a wealth of (literal) hidden treasure. 

More than 14 meters of a wooden ship were uncovered, remnants of a clinker-built war canoe with a capacity built to carry 24 people. The boat, over 19 meters in total length, was believed to have been built sometime during the early Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE), with an approximate date of construction of 350 BCE.

Not only were these the remnants of the oldest wooden plank boat in Scandinavia, but they also almost mirrored petroglyph images of ships from the earlier Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700 – 500 BCE). For its size, the boat only weighed some 530 kilograms – light enough to be literally carried overland by its crew.

The boat also serves as a sort of prototype for the much-feared longships that plied the waters around Northern Europe and beyond during the Viking Age.

Its lightweight nature and its clinker-built construction would, over the centuries, be refined and finetuned until their final perfection by the end of the 8th century CE. 

The Hjortspring boat was a sort of naval "missing link" that showed historians how the ancient peoples of Scandinavia progressed from simple canoes to the more advanced boats of the later Nordic Iron Age.

The rock carvings of boats in Tanum, Tanumshede, Sweden. Photo: designium / Shutterstock

What else lay beneath?

Aside from the remnants of the boat, a large cache of weapons was discovered in the peaty bog. 

Over 160 different types of shields were uncovered, mostly believed to have been Celtic in design, over 160 different spearheads (most made of iron but some made of animal bones like antlers), and 11 iron swords.

What else was discovered along with the boat and weapons may explain how they ended up at the bottom of a peaty bog. Two of the swords had been bent in what later 20th-century historians and academics believed were part of an elaborate ritual. 

This ritual may have been a "votive offering" - the deposit of goods in what was deemed a sacred place. This theory has been further reinforced by the discovery of ritualistically slaughtered animals, including a disemboweled horse, two dogs, and a lamb.

The island's strategic location, along with its rich fertile soil, has seen human presence here for thousands of years. Still, there has been a no more impressive discovery of the historical legacy of this island than the Hjortspring boat.

A devastating end for Rosenberg and the archaeological community

There is a sad coda for the man, perhaps more than any other, that helped bring the Hjortspring Boat to the world's attention. 

On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, resulting in an occupation that would last for more than five years. 

Although much has been made about the miraculous escape of most Danish Jews during the German occupation (resulting in 99% of the prewar population surviving the Holocaust), some 120 Danish Jews died during the Holocaust.

On May 16, 1944, Gustav Rosenberg was one of 2,500 Jews transported on a train from Magdeburg to Auschwitz Concentration Camp and thus, tragically, one of the 120 Danish Jews that did not survive the Holocaust. 

The historical and archaeological community worldwide lost, with his pointless and senseless murder, a brilliant mind and a key figure in the history of Danish archaeology.

The Hjortspring Boat has a sister boat, the Tilia Alsie, constructed in 1991. 

For more information on both boats, how they were constructed, and the history behind each of them, visit the National Museum of Denmark's website here

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