"Can a Viking ship have two keels?"

Published 06th Jul 2007

Fifty years ago, on 1st July 1957, Olaf Olsen, who was then the youngest curator in the Medieval Department of the National Museum, and I, who was a student of engineering with a mania for old ships, started on the National Museum’s first archaeological excavation underwater. This was at Skuldelev in Roskilde Fiord, where we examined "Queen Margrethe’s Ship". We knew in advance that it must be a ship from the late Viking period. It was also, however, so badly damaged that it would hardly matter that we were using it as the subject of an experiment in such a pioneer excavation. 

We had assigned a fortnight to the work and with a pump we could flush the sand and mud away from the stones and the ship’s parts at the bottom of the fiord. Great was our astonishment when an extra keel suddenly came into sight among the stones and Olaf asked me whether a Viking ship could have two keels. When my answer was "no", the conclusion was that it was not just one ship but several ships that had been sunk here as a barrage. Altogether there turned out to be five ships from the eleventh century, with Skuldelev 2 as the largest of them, a warship that had originally been about 30 metres long.

The fifty years that have passed by since then have presented a long chain of exciting and challenging tasks in the work involved in documenting, reconstructing, analysing and publishing these five different ships. In the same period our perspective was widened by the excavation of other ship-finds, as well as concerted archaeological efforts to trace remains of ancient navigation along the coasts of Denmark. The next challenge was to build and test copies in full scale of all the five ships as an archaeological experiment. 

Rarely has a single archaeological find in Denmark given inspiration to such continued active research efforts throughout half a century as did and still does the Skuldelev find. Now we are coming to the climax with the voyage of the Sea Stallion to Dublin. On the day the voyage is starting, which is also an anniversary day, my thoughts go to the many dedicated and skilled friends and colleagues who throughout the years have contributed to make this possible. Also, however, to the new generation of volunteers as well as professionals, who are carrying on this research tradition as the fundament of the work of the Viking Ship Museum – also in the years to come.

Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, dr. phil. h.c.

Created by Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, ret. maritime archaeologist, excavator of the orig. vessel