The history of reconstructed Viking ships begins shortly after the excavation of the Gokstad ship in 1880. Already in 1893 the first reconstruction of this ship sailed across the Atlantic. Archaeological research was not the motive – as will become apparent below, archaeological research was (and is) rarely the sole motive when Viking ships are reconstructed.
The Gokstad reconstruction Viking was built to represent Norway at the World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The ship was built using funds donated by the Norwegian-American Seamen's Association. The exhibition was organised to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America and Viking was intended as an antipole to the perception of Columbus' discovery, which offended a good many Norwegian immigrants in the United States. The voyage from Bergen to Newfoundland (3900 nautical miles) took just 27 days and oars were not used. The motive for the reconstruction Viking was national staging, however there was a spin-off in the form of a series of maritime observations, recorded by the skipper Magnus Andersen in his book about the voyage.
In connection with a Danish tourist campaign in England, a further reconstruction of the Gokstad ship, Hugin, was built in 1949. The vessel was fitted with a much too small, unusable sail and ornamented with a 250 kg dragon’s head at the bow, which destroyed the balance of the ship. Hugin completed just one voyage, from Frederikssund to London. The crew comprised 53 elite oarsmen, and this proved to be a mistake as modern rowing has very little in common with rowing a Viking ship. There wasn't enough room for all the oarsmen with their long strokes, but this was first discovered after the voyage had started.
Inspired by the Hugin project, Swedish oarsmen built a further reconstruction of the popular Gokstad ship, Ormen Friske. The ship was more successful than Hugin. Unfortunately, the voyage to England ended tragically when the ship foundered in a storm in the Helgoland Bight on 22nd of June 1950, with the loss of all onboard. Until recently, the circumstances surrounding the shipwreck were unclear, until the Swedish archaeologist Rune Edberg managed to unravel the drama: Due to the prevailing weather conditions, Ormen Friske had drifted into an American military area used for bombing exercises. The ship probably capsized while taking evasive action from the falling bombs – followed by fatally going aground. The matter was quickly covered up; it was a delicate subject at the beginning of the Cold War.
The reconstruction of the Ladby ship in 1963, Imme Gram, marked the beginning of a new era in the reconstruction of Viking ships. It was Scoutmaster T. Hartvig-Nielsen who took the initiative. Where previously there had been certain patriotic undertones in the projects, this was now overshadowed by social fellowship in connection with the actual construction, outdoor life and cultural history. This could also be spiced up with a few experimental archaeological objectives. For example, the intention with Imme Gram was to investigate the degree to which the Ladby ship could have been an ocean-going warship. It was based on Thorvildsen's reconstruction drawings of the vessel together with details from the, at that time, newly excavated Skuldelev ships. Imme Gram became the first in a long series of Danish Viking ship reconstructions built by boy scouts. Several people from these scout projects later became involved in a series of the Viking Ship Museum’s reconstruction projects.
A more intentional political exploitation of reconstructions is to be found in the Norwegian projects Gaia and Embla. The former is a successful Gokstad reconstruction which was built in 1989. It was part of the "Vinland Revisited" expedition in 1991, the aim of which was to "generate respect for the world and the environment which we are all a part of". Gaia paid a visit to the UN environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and sailed in protest against the French atomic bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean. Despite her hard "political" programme, Gaia has completed a series or research-oriented trial voyages. Embla was built in 1992 by the Association "Embla – the women's ship row for peace", and is used as a symbol of their political visions: to promote peace and international understanding through regional and international initiatives. The Association has been involved in, among other things, the AIDS problem in Zambia and it condemned the bombings in Afghanistan in 2001.
It is in particular through the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde's ambitious reconstruction projects relating to the five ships from Skuldelev that the scientific aspects have been given first priority. The ships have all been reconstructed as seaworthy full-scale vessels over a period of 20 years, starting with Roar Ege (Skuldelev 3), launched in 1984, and concluding with The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (Skuldelev 2), launched in 2004. The motives were as much scientific as educational and both thorough documentation and publication constitute important basic principles.
Andersen, M. 1895: Vikingefærden. En illustreret beskrivelse af "Vikings" rejse i 1893. Kristiania.
Edberg, R. 2004: Vikingaskeppet Ormen Friskes undergång. Ett drama i det kalla krigets skugga. Södertörn Archaeological Studies 2. Huddinge.
Petersson, B. 2003: Föreställningar om det förflutna. Arkeologi och rekonstruktion. Lund.
Vadstrup, S. 1993: I vikingernes kølvand. Erfaringer og forsøg med danske, svenske og norske kopier af vikingeskibe 1892-1992. Roskilde.