The reconstruction of archaeological ship finds is a core area in the Viking Ship Museum’s research and dissemination work. We define the work as ‘experimental archaeology’, not because it is performed by archaeologists, but because the designation contains an expression of the work's basic attitude and intention. We regard a ship find as a source of comprehensive and complex knowledge relating to cultural history. We regard it as our task to discover as much of this knowledge as possible in order to achieve greater knowledge of the individual ship’s construction and sailing characteristics and to illustrate a number of cultural-historical issues that concern the interaction between Viking Age ships and society. The reconstruction and testing in full scale is therefore ideally included as an element in the overall analysis of a ship find.
The work takes its point of departure in the idea that every ship was originally created and utilised in a complex interaction between people with differing competencies and attitudes to the ship. These people have left a variety of traces on the ships, some of which are very concrete, such as tool tracks that have been left as primary sources from the hand of the ship-builder. Others are more abstract, such as the ship’s form and nature, and these can tell us about the ship’s function, the waters in which it sailed, the “contractor’s” wishes and the intentions that the boat-builder had for the ship’s sailing characteristics. The ship can also tell us about the ship technology at the time and the use and understanding of materials. They can also provide food for thought about time consumption, resources, organisation etc.
Interpretation of a ship find
Nobody has the qualifications to interpret all this information alone. Gathering information from a ship find therefore depends on cooperation between people with a wide range of competencies, experience and approaches. The method of examining and questioning must be constantly developed and refined by a broadly comprised team, who can together process a comprehensive and very diverse source material and who can develop ideas on a wide range of issues, always with the bigger picture in mind. It is the process and the questions it produces that are significant for the analysis.
It is obvious that things have not necessarily been so, simply because it was possible. It is self-evident that the work is not about finding one answer or one solution, but to propose hypotheses and identify possible answers. The results achieved in the experimental archaeological process cannot be compared with the measurements of natural science.
The archaeological ship experiment is so complicated and comprised of so many inter-dependent elements, that it is impossible to choose, isolate and analyse a single factor in the same way as can be achieved in a test facility. However, the sailing reconstructions may be seen as a large-scale research methodology, which gives immediate feedback on all details, as it is physically obvious if a particular element does not function in the way it is intended. It might be the knees which snap; treenail holes that develop specific wear patterns in a particular area of the ship; a mast which does not work with the rigging etc.
If the results are to have culturally historic value, they must be carried out in realistic conditions. In practice, that means the trial voyages must be carried out in nature’s constantly changing elements, i.e. wind, current and sea. The human element also plays its part: can we as modern people even compare to the levels of skill and ability of people in the past? Taking these issues into consideration, we must focus on the project as a whole, and the same trial must be repeated many times under varying conditions in order to obtain average values, e.g. speed, ability to beat to the wind etc.
The actual product, the reconstruction, can be described as an historical hypothesis. It does not represent the definite truth in terms of how the original looked or functioned. Rather, it presents a picture which acts as a catalyst and a tool for a process which highlights new issues and correlations, and allows us to see and interpret the source material afresh.