At some point between 1070 and 1090 AD, five ships were loaded with stones and scuttled to form a defensive barrier in the Peberrenden channel of Roskilde Fjord. These medieval blockships were discovered and excavated in the 1960’s and their remains now take pride of place at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Consisting of two warships, an ocean going trading vessel, a coastal trader, and a cargo and fishing vessel, the ships provide a valuable source of information for the shipbuilding traditions of the late Viking period. The larger warship, Skuldelev 2 built in Dublin in around 1042, has a possible connection with events following the Norman Conquest. After his death Harold Godwinson’s sons fled to Dublin from where they raided Somerset and Devon in 1068 as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A later tradition recorded by Saxo Grammaticus sees them at the court of their uncle, the Danish king, Sven Estridsson. Though extremely tentative as a conclusion it is possible that Skuldelev 2 may have been the ship in which Harold’s sons and daughter sailed from Dublin to Roskilde on what was presumably a diplomatic mission with a view to restoring Anglo-Saxon or Danish rule in England. A more likely explanation lies in the connections between Viking Dublin and the rest of the Scandinavian world which would have seen warships and merchant vessels plying back and forth between Dublin and the trading emporia of the North and Baltic seas. The vessels known as Skuldelev 1 (the ocean going trader) and Skuldelev 6 (the fishing boat) were built in Norway, which further suggests that during its lifetime a ship could change hands, perhaps as a result of capture, but also as an act of exchange.
The presence of three commercial vessels at Peberrenden reminds us of the fact that mercantile trade was an important part of life in northern Europe during this period. Of the three, Skuldelev 3 was the best preserved, possibly a result of the consistent good workmanship its construction displays. It was a small cargo and transport ship built from Danish oak c.1040, and probably of the type referred to as a byrding or skude. Primarily a sailing vessel it could reach an average speed of 4-5 knots (4.6 to 5.8 m.p.h) and a top speed of 8.5 knots (9.78 m.p.h) as evidenced by the sea trials of the Viking Ship Museum reconstruction, the Roar Ege. Seven oarports before the mast allowed the ship to be rowed in calm weather or when manoeuvring in ports, rivers, or other narrow waterways. It had decks of loose planks fore and aft. An open hold amidships could carry a cargo of 4-5 tons. Overall it was well adapted for sailing in the Baltic and the Danish coastal waters of the sounds and straits. Given its average speed it was perfectly feasible for the ship to cover the distance between Roskilde and the trading posts of Haithabu in the bay of Schleswig, or Ralswiek on the island of Rügen, in less than a day and a half’s sailing.
Roskilde lay on an east-west trading line that linked the Irish, North and Baltic Seas in a network of Scandinavian trade. Important centres included Dublin, Kaupang, Haithabu, Birka, Paviken, Ralswiek, Wolin, Menzlin, Kolberg, Truso, Grobin, and Daugmale. Along this line flowed a trade in slaves, furs, wax, soapstone, metalware, raw materials, and luxury goods that linked northern Europe with Byzantium and the Islamic world. In the Baltic, Haithabu and Wolin, among other towns and emporia, provided links with the north-south trade from the Mediterranean, the Rhineland, and Sclavinia. With its low carrying capacity of just 4-5 tons it would seem unlikely that Skuldelev 3 was involved in long distance trading, especially when we consider that Skuldelev 1 could carry 20-25 tons, while the contemporary ship, Haithabu 3, had a capacity of 60 tons. It is feasible however that Skuldelev 3 may have been used to carry smaller loads of goods between its home port and the more important trading centres such as Wolin and Haithabu. Its primary use may equally well have been one of local trade, possibly that of a single farmer or an estate. Whichever is the case the ship is a testament to the seamanship and boat-building skills of the Viking world.
by Mike Dash
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