In July 1962, after several years of planning and preparation, 5 Viking ships were raised from the Roskilde fjord and transported to the National Museum's conservation workshop. 

These ships, which today reside in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, were pivotal in the understanding of Viking-era maritime construction, skill, and strategy.

Found at the bottom of a fjord

Over the course of 4 months, from July 1962, a team of Danish archaeologists excavated the remains of 5 Viking ships at the bottom of the Roskilde fjord near the town of Skuldelev. The team had spent several years preparing for this moment with meticulous planning, minor dives, and careful collaboration with Denmark's National Museum

On July 6, 1962, water pumps were switched on, and over the course of 4 months, five majestic Viking ships – smashed into thousands of pieces – were painstakingly excavated and then transported for conservation.

The whole excavation was deemed a modern miracle as the procedure involved lowering the water level tens of centimeters at a time until Viking ship material was spotted. The draining would stop, the pieces removed as well as other debris (sand, stones, etc.) then the draining continued until more pieces were found. 

Over a month, the water level was reduced by 1.7 meters, and an artificial island emerged with an area of over 2.500 m² (some 26910 ft²). What made matters even harder was that the team also had to constantly spray the recovered materials with water so as to not dry them out. This was somewhat helped by the fact that the Danish summer of 1962 was unusually rainy and wet!

By October 17, 1962, the excavation was complete, and the team had uncovered the remains of 5 Viking Ships, an unprecedented find for the study of the Viking period in Denmark.

Five different ships, five different stories

Away from the media limelight and international headlines, the next stage – led by the National Museum of Denmark – was to both piece together (literally and figuratively) the five ships. Each of the ships (numbered Skuldelev #1, #2, #3, #5, and #6) had a particular purpose and story to tell of its own.

Skuldelev 1 – This was believed to have been a large ocean-going cargo ship constructed in Sognefjord in the west of Norway. The wood used in its construction – pine  - was perfect for its purpose of bearing great loads and entering the harsh and brutal waters of the North Atlantic. It is unclear whether this ship was owned by a member of the local elite or, perhaps, by a group of budding medieval merchants pooling their resources together.

Skuldelev 2 – This warship provides a fascinating insight into the interconnectedness of the Viking world as tree ring analysis has shown it was constructed in Dublin in the middle of the 11th century CE. This was built as a troop carrier (it could hold about 65 – 70 warriors), and its long, narrow built, and great sail, allowed it to sail at a great speed.

Skuldelev 3 – The best preserved of the 5 Viking ships, this was a small trading ship used to ply goods in the (relatively) calm seas surrounding Denmark. It could hold approximately 4 tons (0.9 tonnes) and is built of oak sourced in Denmark.

Skuldelev 5 – This was not only a small longship but also, unlike the others, was made from both new and recycled materials. It was believed to have been repaired a few years before it ended up at the bottom of the Roskilde fjord, and there appear to be signs of carved decorations along the sides.

Skuldelev 6 – The second ship to have been constructed in Sognefjord. This one was originally built as a fishing vessel to ply the waters off western Norway but appears to have been modified to allow it to transport goods more than fish.

The only question that remains is how did they all end up layered on top of each other, almost stacked, in a narrow stretch of the Roskilde fjord?

The "Skuldelev 3" Viking ship, photographed in the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 2019. Photo: Diego Grandi / Shutterstock

What the ships tell us about the Viking societies in Denmark

To understand just how and why the ships ended up at the bottom of the shallow waters of the Roskilde fjord, we must cast our minds back almost a millennium to the end of the 11th century CE.

The "Viking Age" is supposed to have ended on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 CE with William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, winning the battle, the day, and the crown of England. However, history is never quite that neat or perfect. Whilst the Normans were conquering and subjugating the Anglo-Saxons of England, the now slowly emerging Viking societies in Denmark and Norway (both nominal kingdoms) saw significant conflict throughout the 1060s CE.

The source of this conflict was raiding. While history often focuses on the raiding element of Vikings to non-Viking societies, there is little general knowledge of the fact that the Vikings raided similar societies too. Viking raiders, from Norway, sailed down through the Skagerrak (the sea separating Norway from Denmark) and into the calmer waters of the Roskilde fjord. 

During this era, Roskilde was not only an important trading town – a hub of sea and overland routes situated between the Frankish and Germans realms to the south and the Scandinavian Peninsula and Baltic Sea to the north – but was also the capital of Denmark. The area around Roskilde had become such a lucrative prize for Norwegian raiders that by the end of the 11th century, there was a need for some defensive measures to be enacted.

Following heavy Norwegian raiding, in the 1060s, it is assumed that 3 of the ships (Skuldelev #1, #3, and #5) were filled with stones and used to form a protective barrier. This barrier was one of many that ensured ships could only sail into the Roskilde fjord in specific channels. The following decade saw the scuttling of the two other ships (Skuledelev #2 and #6) in order to bolster this barrier from raiding ships.

Why would Norwegian Vikings raid Denmark?

The king of Denmark at this period, Sweyn II, had an ongoing feud with two Norwegian kings. His reign, from 1047 – 1072 CE, coincided with the reigns of Magnus the Good and the famous Harald Hardrada. Magnus was the illegitimate son of King Olaf II (later to be Norway's patron saint and national icon) and fled to Denmark when Olaf was dethroned in 1028 CE. Seven years later, Magnus returned to Norway triumphantly to be crowned King of Norway, and he added the throne of Denmark 7 years after this too. He had united the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway.

His personal union of these two kingdoms would not last long, as he died in 1047 CE. The union dissolved, and Harald Hadrada won the throne in Norway whilst Sweyn seized the Danish throne. Harald was unwilling to let go of the Danish throne his father had won and began to sack and raid the coastal regions of Denmark. 

A stamp printed in Denmark showing the Skuldelev 1 ship on the Roskilde Fjord and showcasing the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, circa 2004. Photo: Boris15 / Shutterstock

The next decade saw significant raids, from Norway, until what Harald hoped to be a decisive naval battle at Niså in 1062 CE. Despite a Norwegian victory, many Danes (including Sweyn) escaped to fight another day. Harald eventually gave up his claim to the Danish throne shortly before sailing to England in 1064 CE.

It was then due to the political fragmentation of power and the machinations of the rulers that led to this insecure environment along Danish coastal regions. This insecurity led to the 5 Skuldelev ships being scuttled to form a defensive measure and barrier from Norwegian raiders and, after Harald dropped his claims to the Danish throne, pirates and other raiders in general.

Where can you see the five ships today?

Thanks to the efforts of the team of archaeologists some six decades ago, the world has been gifted more insight into the skills of Viking-era shipbuilders and sailors. 

Reconstructions of these five clinker-built boats, as well as the originals, take pride of place at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. The ships are taken out and sailed on the fjord every summer – just like they were a millennium ago.

For more information on the Viking Ship Museum, visit the website here, whilst more information on Viking-era digs can be found here.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde restores ships but also creates replicas for research purposes. Photo: Sonja Mair / Shutterstock

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