In 1997, Danish archaeologists discovered a Vikings longship in the mud of Roskilde harbor, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Copenhagen. This longship is the largest yet discovered, and it can only be viewed as a lucky coincidence that it was discovered as part of the expansion of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
It is believed that this Viking longship must have been sunk during a storm centuries ago. It was then hidden by silt. Dating the tree rings the oak planks shows that the ship was built about A.D. 1025 during the reign of King Canute the Great who united Denmark, Norway, southern Sweden and parts of England in a Viking empire.
With a length of 35 meters, the longship is larger than all previous longships that we have found. The ship refuted skeptical modern scholars who had believed the very large longships described in Norse sagas were mythical and that the Vikings had not built longships of the size described. The sagas in fact, were accurate in their description of "great ships," the largest class of Viking warship.
The vital role of the longship in seaborne raiding gives them a prominent place in medieval history. Viking fleets made the Vikings the dominant sea power in Europe from about A.D. 800 to 1100, the Viking Age.
Since 1751, researchers, archeologists, and amateurs have made some striking finds – in particular the royal burial mounds at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway. However, no classic longship was located in Denmark until 1935, when Danish archaeologists excavated a chieftain's burial mound at Ladby. Although the wood of the longship had disappeared, the dark-stained soil revealed the form of the hull. Iron spirals marked the crest of the dragon's head at the prow, and seven long rows of iron rivets on either side still followed the lines of the vanished planks. The Ladby grave-ship was much narrower than the celebrated Norwegian ships and appeared to be unseaworthy. It was 20.6 meters long, and only 3.2 wide amidships and a mere meter from the keel to the top plank. This led researcher to dismiss as implausible the saga accounts of much larger longships with the same extreme proportions.
In 1953, the actual timbers of a longship were located in Hedeby harbor, which had been the site of a large Viking settlement near the German border. The longship was not raised at that time, but its discovery led to an increase of research and examination of all possible longship evidence.
Previous finds had largely come from burial mounds, but Ole Crumlin-Pedersen concentrated on the information to be learned in disaster sites. From 1957 to 1962 he was co-director of a team that recovered two longships and three other Viking ships from the blockade of the channel at Skuldelev. It is believed that the ships were sunk by townspeople in the 11th century to create a barricade against invaders. The bigger of the two Skuldelev longships, measuring 29 meters, met its end after making at least one successful voyage across the North Sea: its wood was Irish oak, cut about 1060 near the Viking stronghold of Dublin. This suggests the existence of a major shipyard near Dublin. Both ships in fact showed many seasons of wear, evidence that longships were more seaworthy than some scholars had thought.
In 1979 Crumlin-Pedersen led the excavation of the Hedeby longship. It proved to have perished as a fire ship, a vessel intentionally set ablaze as an offensive weapon, during an attack on the town in about 1000. The wood proved remarkable: local oak cut from 300-year-old trees in lengths exceeding 10 meters without a knot or blemish.
Evolution of the Longboat Design
The five Viking longships which have been discovered since 1935 show the full range of the type. Small levy vessels of up to 20 rowing benches (the Ladby ship and the smaller of the 2 Skuldelev warships) were maintained by local communities for royal service, to answer the call whenever the king sent around the symbolic war arrow.
Standard warships…, longships of up to 30 rowing benches (Hedeby and the big Skuldelev warship) were the pride of Viking earls and kings, displaying craftsmanship of superb quality.
The "great ships" of more than 30 rowing benches (Roskilde) appear only in the dynastic wars of the late Viking Age.
These finds show that Viking shipwrights, in their search for the ultimate raiding machine, created an extreme design. The length-to-breadth ratio, greater than 6:1, combined with a shallow draft to allow the longships to land on any beach and to enter virtually any waterway in Europe. Speed was clearly a goal whether under oars or sail. The shipwrights achieved strength through resilience and lightness. They pared the planking to a thickness of two centimeters--a finger's breadth--and trimmed all excess wood from the rib frames.
The longship's merging of design, structure and material represents 6000 years of development.
The primeval ancestors of the longship appear to be dugout canoes of the Stone Age. The earliest of these have been found at many coastal sites in Denmark and date to 5000 B.C.
Using flint tools, boatwrights hewed logs of soft, durable linden wood to an even thickness of two centimeters. The shell itself provided structural integrity. These canoes reached lengths of 10 meters and may have been used at sea for cod fishing, whaling and even warfare. Some canoes later served as coffins…, a tradition that survived with the Viking grave ships.
About 3000 B.C., boatbuilders in Denmark began to bore a row of holes along the upper edges of their dugout canoes. They could then secure the lower edge of a plank, with matching holes, to the top of the dugout with cords of sinew or fiber. The resulting overlap marked the birth of the distinctive northern European construction technique known as lapstrake, a strake being a line of planking. The added plank improved seaworthiness by increasing the extended dugout's "freeboard," the distance between the waterline and the hull's top. Axes of Danish flint found far to the north in Norway and Sweden bear witness to the adventures of these Stone Age voyagers.