Interest in the appearance of Viking ships and how they functioned extends far back in time. As early as the beginning of the 13th century, Snorri wrote down the first historic descriptions and by virtue of knowledge of the Norse and Norwegian texts, this historic interest remained alive through the centuries. In 1766, Carl Reinhold Berch's Afhandling om Nordisks Folkets forna Sjöväsende was published as the first Scandinavian maritime history based especially on historical sources. The earliest attempt at an archaeological investigation was probably the Swedish humanist and professor at the University of Uppsala, Oluf Rudbeck's excavations of the boat graves at Ultuna in the 17th century, of which we today are poorly informed. In 1852 began professional archaeological research into Viking Age shipbuilding. This was the year in which Nicolay Nicolaysen, who later became Norway's first state employed antiquarian, investigated a partially destroyed burial mound at Borre in Vestfold, Norway. Despite the extensive disturbance and decay of the woodwork he was able to establish that the burial mound had contained a ship, built in the same fashion as contemporary Norwegian vessels. However, another Norwegian vessel was discovered in 1867, the Tune ship from Østfold, which allowed archaeologists, for first time, to see a well preserved ship from Viking times. The Tune ship had similarly functioned as a burial ship and in the subsequent decades further excavations of burial mounds would lead to new discoveries of ships. The most important of these were the excavations of the Gokstad ship in 1880 and of the Oseberg ship in 1904, both in Vestfold.
With the excavation of the Borre mound, the connection between Viking Age sea travel and the living shipbuilding tradition was made, and ethnography – or folk life studies – began to make a contribution to the visual perception of a Viking ship. Another group of sources – illustrations in the form of the Gotlandic picture stones – were discovered at the same time and a long-term process was initiated leading to their virtual complete publication in 1941.
In 1912, the prominent Swedish philologist Hjalmar Falk presented his studies of the maritime words and terms surviving in poems and saga texts. This work was followed up between 1951 and 1982 by his compatriot Bertil Sandahl's studies of the heavily Scandinavian influenced maritime linguistic treasures in medieval English sources. Accordingly, a very large part of the etymological evidence was presented and the research field concerning seafaring in Viking times opened up across the whole of its width, with the exploitation of sources from archaeology, history, iconography, etymology and ethnography.
During the course of the 20th century and into the new millennium, this research has been constantly refined, revised and rewritten and had enjoyed the privilege of the continued attention of professional researchers.
Other important excavations
The excavation of the Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg ships provided an insight into the shipbuilding of the early Viking Age. As soon as these ships were analysed it became clear that the vessels of the Late Viking Age must have had a different appearance.
The excavation of the Ladby ship in 1934-36 provided the first impression of the long, slender vessels, which we today refer to as longships. And with the excavation of the longships from Skuldelev, Hedeby and Roskilde, between 1962 and 1997, this type has become just as well known as the early Viking vessels. Since 1963, a new facet has been added to research into the long ships – that of experimental archaeology. That was the year in which the first full-scale reconstruction of the Ladby ship was built, with the aim of investigating the vessel’s sailing attributes. Several further reconstructions, based on Skuldelev 5, followed in subsequent years.
In 1990, the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde began building its first reconstruction of a longship which was similarly based in Skuldelev 5 and, in so doing, brought experimental long ship archaeology within a professional framework. The building, in 2000-2004, of the Skuldelev 2 reconstruction the Sea Stallion from Glendalough, and the vessel's subsequent sea trials, constitute the most comprehensive project of this nature to date.