Scandinavia, Day 3: Roskilde

Travel by Adam on 2009-02-20 02:22

The viking longship was a very advanced technology in its day. It was a primary reason that the Norse peoples dominated the northern seas for the 400 years or so prior to the Crusades. The longship’s extremely shallow draught meant that it could travel up rivers to assault inland cities not prepared for navel attack; and it could also navigate the open sea. It could be powered by sail or by oar, and it had prows on either end, so it could retreat without turning around.


No fully intact longships have survived to present day. The vikings probably did not use any diagrams in construction, and most of the images of the ships are artistic, highly stylized renditions which give only vague hints as to their construction. Only a few rare archaeological finds provide hard evidence as to the physical makeup of these ships. The largest find to date is the decayed hulls of five ships, now housed in a museum at the town of Roskilde, which was the capital of Denmark for much of the viking age.


The ships were scuttled (deliberately sunk by their owners) in order to create blockage at the entrance to the fjord which leads to Roskilde, in an (apparently successful) attempt to prevent Norwegian vikings from sailing into a direct assault on the city. Five ships were stripped of their rigging and filled with boulders. Regrettably, only two of these were viking warships - the others were cargo, merchant, or fishing vessels.

Roskilde is an easy 30 minute train trip from Copenhagen, with trains running every half hour all day. From the Roskilde station, it’s a very scenic walk of about a mile north to the crux of the fjord, where lies a harbor and the viking museum.

My tour through the Roskilde museum, and inspecting the fully-functional modern replicas in the surrounding harbor, led me to the conclusion that the seagoing vikings were some serious bad-asses. Not because of their prowess in combat (though no doubt there’s plenty to be said for that), but because they braved the open sea in these ships. Their narrow width and short draught meant they something like sailing on a big log. And don’t forget that these guys were sailing the northern seas - so in addition to the regular trials of seafaring, they were also facing snowstorms and sailing between chunks of ice.


Most of the informational content of the museum was stuff I already knew, since I’ve studied Norse history and mythology a fair amount. A few things the displays pointed out that I didn’t know (or had forgotten about):

The Norse god Odin (”Wodin”) gives Wednesday its name. Likewise, Thor gives Thursday its name, and Frey and Freya give Friday its name.

A soapstone mold found during the period of conversion from pantheism to Christianity shows that its owner was happy to create both crucifixes and Mjolnir pendants at the same time. It is thought that the northlanders first treated Christ as just another god in the pantheon, alongside Odin and pals.

(The hammer pendant is in the center, crosses on either side.)

Viking art is almost always in the form of decoration on functional objects, rarely standalone works like paintings or sculpture. Looking at the various (familiar) examples, the parallel to Celtic knotwork seemed suddenly apparent. Like this decorated axehead:

Or this brooch:

Expenses: $100. $10 museum entry, $20 24-hour train+bus pass, $40 food, $30 hostel (Sleep-In-Heaven, which seems to be a joke related to the cathedral and massive graveyard right outside the front door).

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