Sailing trials with reconstructed ship-finds

The five Viking Age ships excavated off Skuldelev in Roskilde Fjord in 1962 have naturally been, and continue to be, at the centre of the Viking Ship Museum’s research activities. Between 1983 and 2004, all five ships have been recreated at full size in the museum’s boatyard. The basis for this remarkable process is an exceptionally thorough investigation and reconstruction of the individual wrecks.

One aim of the sailing trials is to contribute to the other archaeological and technical descriptions of ships by explaining their practical use, and also revealing the opportunities this use had provided for the society that originally produced them. Or, in other words: what opportunities were provided by the construction, cargo-carrying capacity, sailing abilities and seaworthiness of these ships for contemporary transport and communication?

Another aim is to provide figures for the ship’s performance that can be compared with data from other types of vessel which have been investigated, both from the Viking Age and other periods. These figures can also be compared with information from contemporary written sources concerning travelling speed at sea.

Finally, the sailing trials also have the aim of training the ships’ crews in handling these large open vessels and safely carrying out manoeuvres in all kinds of weather with the long forgotten and therefore unaccustomed single square rig technique. This includes, of course, both veering and tacking under sail, reefing, taking in sails, laying to, picking up people who have fallen overboard and, in the case of the warships and small boats, rowing.

The general working method used in carrying out the experimental voyages is ‘experimental archaeology’. The experimental part of the archaeology is based on a ‘hands-on’ form of research and communication. The intention of this is to make visible the technology, use and application of an artefact from the material culture by reconstructing it in full size by way of careful research, using the original working methods and processes and replicas of original tools. Then to use the reconstructed artefact in the way which, according to detailed investigation, it is presumed to originally have been used.

It is therefore necessary to sail in order to be able to interpret the use and importance of ships in the past, just as it is necessary to sail in order to practise and preserve the practical seamanship which is the essential craft needed to handle ships such as these.

In practice, sailing trials are divided up into two types: standardised trials, i.e. short daily trials from the same shore base, and longer trial voyages over greater stretches of water. The different types of ship are tested as far as possible in the waters in which they are presumed to have originally sailed.