Wednesday 27 December 2017

The Viking Ships of Roskilde, Denmark

One of the great things about Copenhagen is that the 48 hour travel card available to tourists can be used on Denmark's suburban railways. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to jump on a train and take a day trip out to Roskilde which is a town whose identity is firmly set in the Viking era.

The Quay at Roskilde
 The vast Roskilde Fjord offers protected access to the North Sea and easy passage to Norway and the British Isles beyond. In ancient times Roskilde was a bustling trading settlement. Nowadays it is a thriving tourist destination drawing visitors to its' impressive cathedral and the internationally acclaimed Viking Museum. The walk from the station to the quayside is about a mile down a shopping street and then through a waterside park.

The Prow of a Viking Longship c1050 AD
In the 10th Century five Viking ships were deliberately sunk across one of the deep water channels leading down into Roskilde from the open sea to the north. They were a disparate selection ranging from a small cargo ship through to a full length 36 metre fighting long boat. The remains of the ship are in a concrete structure on the shore of the Roskilde Fjord adjacent to a small harbour filled with reconstructed ancient ships, some of which take tourists out onto the water.

Reconstructed Viking Ship on Roskilde Fjord
I found myself thinking about why the ships were sunk in the particular channel that they were found in. The answer lies in a calculation of speed, visibility and readiness; the speed with which an intruder could reach Roskilde town, the extent to which the presence of the intruder could be signalled to the townsfolk and finally how quickly the townsfolk could mobilise for action - women & children to safety and men armed and ready to fight. Obviously the seaways needed to be kept open for local traffic so the contemporary defensive tactics entailed forcing intruders down particular passages, delaying them where necessary, in order to allow the townsfolk to prepare for battle.

Permanent Block and Floating Barrages
The map above shows the routes through Roskilde Fjord in light grey. Roskilde is off the map at the bottom and the spot where the Viking ships were discovered in modern times is shown as Peberrenden. The actual site of the Viking ship block is known as Skuldelev hence the finds being known as the Skuldelev Ships. The shortest route is blocked thus forcing ships to take a longer route - giving time for mobilisation of the defence on receipt of a warning by fire beacon.

Roskilde Viking Museum
As one might imagine only the skeletons of the 1,000 year old ships remain. This does not detract from their impact though. Whilst the museum building is not a pretty sight from the landward side, it does have a water facing glass wall which shows off the ships to maximum effect. The picture above shows the largest ship along with a scale model.