25 July 2015

Viking Ship Museum - Roskilde, Denmark

This week, I feature a visit to the a truly fascinating museum and shipyard in Denmark. I selected the construction of the Gislinge Boat to show you. There are many other projects to view on the museum site should you have an interest.

My wife and I have visited this museum in Roskilde, Denmark, where you can watch men actually build everything from small boats to ships using age old tools and methods of construction from the medieval Vikings.

There are numerous links on the site to the museum's many building projects.

I am a huge fan of the Viking Ship Museum and I hope you enjoy your visit. 

We begin with an excerpt from my third novel on the Greenland Vikings, Assimilation, An Axe of Iron Novel. I thought you might enjoy a scene from my historical fiction novel that covers ship construction at Halfdansfjord before going to the Viking Ship Museum where you will be treated to the real experts in the field of Norse ship building. Shameless self-promotion you say? You betcha'! (Ed.)
Timber to build the two ships had been accumulated over the past summer, selected by all the same men that were now building the ships, and skidded to the landing beach building site with teams of horses. The same hot water rivulet that ran through Thorvard’s tanning pond ran into the bay next to the shipyard. Easily dammed, the rivulet became a pond large enough to keep all the timber save the masts and yards from drying out.
All the hull pieces assembled were of green timbers – live trees – and they must be kept green until use during the winter; the pond accomplished this end. Hardwoods and even soft woods like pine and fir were easier to work while green. Oak and ash became so hard and dense when cured that they defied the sharpest blade.
Standing, live trees were picked for their natural shapes. Naturally shaped timbers were much stronger than cut timbers, and finishing them to their final shape took less effort. Straight, curved, forked, and almost every other shape likely to be required to shape the desired structural members were selected. Oak, ash, and birch hardwoods for the keel, mast fish, gunwale planks, and stems of the hull, as well as the ribs, knees, thwarts and other internal structural members had already been roughly shaped while green, before being put in the pond in the fall. The workmen retrieved them from the pond as they were needed.
Four straight-grained fir logs, two long thick ones for the ships and two short thin ones for the boats, were cradled side by side while men wielded axes and adzes to shape and smooth them. The sail yards, to which the wadmal sails would be attached, received the same treatment. Like most of the other parts for the ships these timbers had been selected and cut during the summer, skidded to the building site, and barked to facilitate curing until they could be finished later. Unlike all the other structural members, the masts and yards were allowed to cure until dry.
The ships’ planking, a mix of curved or straight knot-free pine and fir logs had also been harvested over the summer, and kept green in the pond. Workmen staked the logs so they would not roll and began splitting each lengthwise along the grain into thin, wedge shaped planks. Other workers propped and wedged these planks into small tree forks that had been tamped tightly into holes during the summer and now stood solidly upright in the frozen ground. With the thin edge up, each plank was wedged into place in the fork, smoothed, and cut to the desired thickness with a short-handled, T-shaped side axe with a long thin blade designed for that purpose. The resulting shaped plank, thicker at the top than the bottom was stacked in the shallows of the steaming hot water pond to keep them pliable until their eventual use by the crews planking the two ships. Had the hot water pond not been available, each wet plank would have had to be laboriously heated over the coals of a long fire pit until the wood was hot enough to be pulled and bent into position along the sides of the ship.
The thickest of the planks were those that ran from the keel upward to the waterline. From the waterline to the gunwale plank at the top of the hull the planks were progressively thinner in each run until about half the thickness of those from the keel to the waterline. The gunwale plank, at the top of the hull, and the plank in the area of the oar locks were of ash. When dry, ash was one of the hardest and toughest woods available, fully capable of withstanding the stress and wear at those two sites of the ship’s hull.
Wood scraps and chips from these efforts were fed into a fire that kept a cauldron of pine pitch suspended from a tripod bubbling. This aromatic mixture would be reduced by boiling until it became the black pine tar necessary to seal all the various hull members as they were joined together. A pile of pine pitch blocks, collected and cast while pine sap still freely flowed were handily piled nearby. They would be added to the cauldron as necessary to ensure sufficient pine pitch for the work at hand. The fire also provided a place for the men to thaw out from time-to-time.
Prior to the storm, the long keels had both been set across short log blocks and braced securely in place. Stem and stern posts carved out of properly shaped curved timbers by the stem master were now securely nailed in position at each end of the keels, and propped upright at the desired angle. Both the bow stem post and stern stem post were incised at the proper angle to accept the ends of each plank of the ship.
Beginning at the very bottom of the bow stem post, where it joins the long keel, the garboard plank, the first plank attached to the keel on both sides, was carefully nailed into position along its bottom edge. The angle established by this plank, outward from the keel on each side, determined the final shape of the ship as each succeeding run of planks were riveted in place to the preceding run. The garboard plank’s placement was vital to ensure the ship’s sides in cross section were identical and that she was watertight.
Equally spaced holes had been augered along the bottom edge of the thin planks before they were positioned along the keel to accept the long iron spikes that would be driven through and into the keel. In positions where the long iron spikes could not be safely driven in without splitting the keel, hardwood pegs, or treenails, slightly thicker than the hole they were driven into were used. These pegs would later swell as they soaked up water, making an even tighter bond.
When each garboard plank was in position on the keel, the graceful outward flow of the hull was established by the shape of the keel itself. In cross section the keel was cut in the shape of a T with the ends of the crosspiece at the top angled upward about thirty degrees from level. The keel shape created a shelf on which to mount the first plank. The bottom, vertical portion of the T-shaped keel, became the bearing surface of the completed hull when the ship would later be beached. The keel also facilitated the ships ability, in company with the huge steerboard, to hold the desired course without sideslip in the water from the pressure of the wind on the sail. The keel‘s shape created the outflowing curve of the bottom planks and relatively flat bottom of the completed ship.
Each of the several planks on each side of the ship was of differing lengths. An adjustable gauge, with an inset iron scribe point, gouged a channel an equal distance from the bottom edge of each plank. Spaced equidistant just above this channel, and marked at the same time the channel was cut and by the same gauge, holes were augered. These holes became a guide to auger holes through the top of the preceding plank run to which the new plank would be joined with iron rivets and roves. The channel would receive the tarred caulking twine. The edges of each plank were beveled so as to flow onto the plank to which it was joined. Each plank was clamped in place to the outside of the plank it was joining with long, hinged wooden clamps that were placed over the two planks being joined. Then a wedge was driven between the upper jaws of the clamp, firmly gripping the joined edges of the two planks together for riveting.
The ends, where they joined the preceding plank on the same level were carefully scarfed before mounting, creating a beveled scarf joint that was tarred, caulked, and riveted together, creating a continuous plank run from end-to-end along each side of the ship. As planks joined the preceding run along the bottom, the two bearing surfaces received liberal daubs of pine tar from the bubbling cauldron; twisted wadmal caulking twine was pressed into the channel, making the joints watertight when riveted.
After holes had been augered through the joined planks, men working in teams – one outside the hull, and one inside – riveted the edges tightly together with iron nails and roves provided by the smithies. These essential iron parts were actually a pointed square nail with a large head, tapered along its length to the point, long enough for the job at hand, and a flat washer with a center hole punched large enough to accommodate the nail. The nails were used by themselves whenever attachment of a structural member did not completely pierce through the two being joined. When the nail tip went all the way through the wood, as it did on the scarf and edge joints of the planks, a rove was added on the inside of the plank to protect the wood from the clinched nail point. The two together, nail and rove were called a rivet.
The nails were driven through the predrilled holes along the edge of the plank being mounted from the outside, and the man inside placed the rove over the nail’s point and clinched it over with his hammerhead. The man on the outside of the hull held the head of his hammer against the nail head as resistance against the tendency of the clinching forces to push the nail back out of the hole. This force from both directions during the clinch pulled the plank edges tightly together against the pine tar and caulking twine, effectively sealing the joint.

 Excerpt, Assimilation, An Axe of Iron Novel
J. A. Hunsinger, © 2015, All Rights Reserved


Viking Ship Museum Roskilde, Denmark

The hull takes shape

18 July 2015

Viking beaters: Scots and Irish may have settled Iceland a century before Norsemen

This article from Ancient-Origins is an interesting take on old information. While realizing that field archaeologists need something to do, assuming they get the funds somewhere, I would prefer they make new discoveries.
It has been known for a very long time that monks/clergy/ hermits, or someone, from the general area of the present day British Isles, established themselves on Iceland during the 9th century, perhaps. Some where still there when the first Norse arrived in the latter portion of the 9th century.
The statement in the third paragraph, "Iceland was one of the last island groups on Earth to be settled by people, should certainly give the reader pause, because the author's contention is not even close.
The Polynesians were still busily inhabiting the Pacific Ocean Basin islands in the late 13th century. Additionally, the advent of the Mini-Ice Age in the 12th century caused massive human relocation throughout the northern hemisphere. The last remnants of the Greenland Norse vacated Greenland during this period as well, never to be heard from again.
So, draw your own conclusions about the contentions the authors have made here. Perhaps somebody, somewhere, settled on another island on this watery planet after Iceland was intially settled. (Ed.)


3 JUNE, 2015 - 23:53 ANCIENT-ORIGINS

Remarkably similar carvings and simple cross sculptures mark special sites or places once sacred, spanning a zone stretching from the Irish and Scottish coasts to Iceland. We can look to Skellig Michael, which rises from the sea 12km off the southwest Irish coast; to Aird a’Mhòrain on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist; to the Isle of Noss, Shetland; and to Heimaklettur cliff face in Iceland’s Westman Islands.
Also in southern Iceland, a number of the 200 man-made caves found there are marked by similar rock-cut sculpture. And these dark remote places suggest a different answer to a puzzle that we thought we had solved a long time ago.
Iceland was one of the last island groups on Earth to be settled by people. As you might expect, the late-ninth-century settlement by Viking-Age Scandinavians has long been of keen interest to the local people. These artificial caves suggest that we should re-think our traditional histories. The Viking arrival may indeed have been pre-dated by Celtic-speaking people from Scotland and Ireland in around AD 800.
Crosses mark the spot

Iceland cross carving. Credit: Kristján Ahronson

Our search for answers to these questions took Dr Tõnno Jonuks and myself to the Westman Islands, which lie a few kilometres south west of the Icelandic mainland. We found our way up the Heimaklettur cliff on Heimaey, the largest of the islands, on the hunt for one of these enigmatic cross sculptures.
And we found what we were looking for: a large cross carved into a small alcove on the otherwise exposed cliff face – similar to other rock-cut crosses in some of the 200 artificial caves clustered around farms in southern Iceland. Then to our surprise, two more crosses, along a high ledge overlooking the harbour and the bustling fishing town of Heimaey – all of them key exhibits towards the team’s imminent discoveries.

Isle of Heimaey. Thomas QuineCC BY-SA
These contributed to research focused on Seljaland, which is nearby on the mainland and now appears to be Iceland’s earliest dated settlement, at around AD 800. What we were also able to reveal was that the 24 large cross sculptures inside the Seljaland caves (and also found elsewhere in southern Iceland) are related to early medieval sculpture in Britain and Ireland.
Islands off the west coast of Scotland have long been known as a core area for the early medieval monastic communities that produced these simple cross sculptures - and each sculpture is thought to result from an impulse of religious devotion. What has been unclear is the nature and extent of their settlements beyond the Gaelic-speaking world.
The flowering of Gaelic monasticism is well established for the early medieval period, with individuals and monastic foundations of the “Irish school” penetrating large areas of Europe and accounts of north Atlantic travels and settlements. So too is the religious impulse to seek a “desert” or wilderness in the ocean. But we had been left wondering whether this impulse took these communities to Iceland before the Old Norse-speaking Vikings that later came to dominate this Atlantic zone.
How we made our discovery
Working with world-leading Edinburgh illustrators and analysts Ian G Scott and Ian Fisher, we found striking stylistic similarities in Iceland with the early medieval sculpture of the western Highlands and islands of Scotland. This area includes the important monastery of Iona in Argyll, as well as extreme locales for Scotland’s early Christian communities, such as at St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Isle (off Arran in the Firth of Clyde) and at isolated north Atlantic places such as the tiny island of North Rona (north of Lewis).

Map of Iceland showing the location of Seljaland in the South. (Google Maps)

Seljaland’s caves are remarkable in their own right for their concentration of sculpture and because they have been dug out of the rock, forming part of a poorly understood yet distinctively Icelandic phenomenon. We were able to accurately date one of these caves by finding construction waste from where it had been excavated from the Icelandic rock. Myself and Dr Kate Smith of Exeter University related this waste material to layers of volcanic airfall, ash layers that have been dated by international teams of researchers with remarkable precision and are a powerful dating tool for this part of the world. And we developed new methods to study the surface of volcanic ash layers that helped us to better understand the processes by which people cleared and managed that woodland, and contributed to creating the pastoral landscape that we recognise today. Again, these human activities can be accurately dated and chime with the our other lines of investigation.

Seljalandshellar cave in the Westman Islands. Credit: Kristjan Ahronson

What were the challenges for early life, and how and when did people set about transforming the forested landscape into the grasslands needed for sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses? Were pigs especially useful for clearing woodland, or perhaps fire? Did pioneer-life present special opportunities, and how did this relate to life back home? And finally, how did this early phase relate to the large-scale Scandinavian Viking settlement that followed 100 years later? These are just some of the questions to be answered now that we can say that Iceland’s human habitation story is not quite what we previously believed.
Featured image: Excerpt from folio 47v of Harley MS 2278. The scene depicts Hinguar and Hubba setting out to avenge their father, Lothbrok. (Wikimedia Commons)
The article ‘Viking beaters: Scots and Irish may have settled Iceland a century before Norsemen’ was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

12 July 2015

Viking Trading or Raiding?

This is a short article on a find in Norway from April of this year. The interesting aspect, besides another rusty sword, of this find is that an x-ray examination of the shield boss that was found with the sword is that the erstwhile owner of the wooden shield had a stash under the shield's boss . Of course all that remains of the shield is the boss and the hidden stash. The team thinks this stash may be the first of its kind. (Ed.)


Viking Trading or Raiding?


Monday, April 06, 2015

10-century Viking sword

Last year, the discovery of an ax head on a mountaintop overlooking Norway’s Trondheim Fjord led archaeologists to a tenth-century Viking grave. Though they found no remains, the team recovered a sword and a shield boss. The discovery seemed routine, until the boss was X-rayed. “We could see there was stuff in there,” says archaeologist Ingrid Ystgaard of the Norwegian University Science and Technology’s Museum of Natural History and Archaeology.

It turned out to contain a leather purse holding Islamic silver coins that were minted in what is now Iraq, along with agates and a small lead weight. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Ystgaard. “It’s extremely rare to find coins in Viking burials, and so far as I know, none have ever been found in a shield boss.”  

Ystgaard points out that Vikings were known to travel as far as Constantinople, and the agates and coins could have been obtained through either trading or raiding. Extensive marks on the sword and shield boss show that they had been used in combat, but the lead weight secreted inside suggests the warrior may have at least occasionally played the role of merchant. “It’s a good reminder that they were not just raiders,” says Ystgaard. “This man was likely a classic trader-warrior of the Viking Age.”

Viking shield boss containing remains of a leather purse

(Photos courtesy Åge Hojem/NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology)

06 July 2015

Cryptic symbols may hold key to Glenshee’s Viking-age past

I have featured a short article on the recovery of the most perfect spindle whorl I have ever seen; it looks new.

Basically part of hand spinning tools, a spindle whorl adds the necessary weight to a drop spindle to maintain the spin that collects the carded wool, twists it into yarn that is collected in a skein. This skein of twisted wool, fur, or hair, yarn was then used by the weavers to make clothing and the wadmal sails of the Viking ships.

A picture is always worth a thousand words, so I include a YouTube Video to delight and enlighten you. (Ed.)


Cryptic symbols may hold key to Glenshee’s Viking-age past

By RICHARD BURDGE, 26 June 2015 12.17pm.

The spindle whorl was used while hand spinning textiles to maintain the speed of the spin.
Archaeologists delving into Perthshire’s history believe they have discovered a rare object which could shed new light on a long-lost way of life.

The exciting find was made by Diana McIntyre from Ladybank, Fife, while with Glenshee Archaeology Project digging a Viking-age longhouse at Lair in Glenshee.

The small circular stone, with a central hole, is thought to be a spindle whorl, a weight fitted to a spindle while hand spinning textiles to increase and maintain the speed of the spin. The stone, which is only around 5cm in diameter, has been carefully shaped to be symmetrical, but what has interested the team are the symbols and designs carved onto one surface.

David Strachan of Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust explained the possible significance of the find.
“Through the ages spindle whorls have often been decorated – and the spinning action would bring life to these shapes, much like the old spinning top toy,” he said.

“While we certainly have abstract shapes on this example, some of the symbols look like they could be writing, perhaps Viking runes or Ogham inscription, a form of early medieval Irish script.”

The project, which began in 2012, has been investigating rare examples of early medieval turf longhouses, and engaging with communities to experience archaeology first-hand.

The team are awaiting experts to carefully study the find to confirm the nature of the symbols but, whether Viking runes or Ogham inscriptions, they know it is really rare. “The only other known spindle whorl with an Ogham inscription is the Buckquoy spindle whorl, probably 8th Century in date, that was found in 1970 in Birsay in Orkney,” said Mr Strachan. “That date is in keeping with the radio carbon dates we have for the turf and stone longhouses on the site.”

To find out more about the project go to www.glenshee-archaeology.co.uk

01 July 2015

Viking dragon’s head discovered in Sweden

Medievalists furnishes yet another interesting article on a Birka, Sweden discovery. If you ever get an opportunity to visit Birka, please do so, you will be glad you did. (Ed.)


 – MAY 21, 2015POSTED IN: NEWS

Archaeologists from Sweden and Germany have discovered a little dragon’s head while digging in the port of the Viking town of Birka near Stockholm.

As the archaeologists were sifting through a mass of iron lumps, they found a bronze lump with a dragon. The little dragon was normally placed on a dragon needle, but the needle for this item was missing. It turned out that the dragon fit in the mould that was found at Birka in 1870, and which forms the dragon that has become Birka’s signature mark.

“This dragon head has become a symbol of the Viking Age”, said Lena Holmquist, lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University, and one of the project leaders for the excavations at Birka. “For many years, there has been an ongoing debate as to where the dragon head was made. With the discovery, we hope to show that it was produced here in Birka.”

In an interview with Radio Sweden, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, another project leader added, “The dragon has been part of the excavations since the late nineteenth century, when the mould was found. The image has been used by many different expeditions and researchers.”
She explained, “There are other dragon heads from the Viking age and we all know of the ships with the heads in the sterns, but there have been no actual finds that we can confer on. We also have other, small dragon heads made out of copper or bronze but they don’t look like this one. They look more Chinese even if they are clearly Scandinavian, Viking-age finds. This one, though, is the symbolic dragon and it also has some resemblance to the dragon’s heads found on the rune stones.”

The excavations at Birka were conducted in April and early May, and will continue next year, with the excavation area  being expanded