Reconstructed Viking Ships

The Reconstructed Viking Ship 'Viking' at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

© 2016 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO. CC BY-SA 4.0

The World's Columbian Exhibition

Around a decade after the excavation of the Gokstad ship in 1880, a replica was built at Christen Christensen's Framnes shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway. The replica was apparently very seaworthy, and it was sailed across the Atlantic to become a major attraction at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. This early replica still survives and is housed in Geneva Illinois, where it is cared for by the Friends of the Viking Ship Organisation. It is an important symbol of heritage for the Scandinavian-American community. You can view a documentary about the ship here.

Reconstructed Viking Ships

(c) RDale. CC BY NC

The Saga Oseberg

Our knowledge about Viking ships has advanced significantly since the building of the 'Viking' in the nineteenth-century, and the techniques of reconstruction are continually being refined. The Oseberg ship was once thought to be more of an ornament than a capable ship after a reconstruction called the 'Dronningen' sank very quickly during sea trials, and was lost for good during a storm in the Mediterranean. However, several faults were found with the reconstruction, and a new replica, the 'Saga Oseberg' was painstakingly reconstructed in 2011-2012, drawing on expertise at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

Detail of the Stem and Stern of Saga Oseberg

(c) RDale. CC BY NC

Re-Learning Old Skills

The reconstruction of the Oseberg ship was helped by the fact that virtually the whole ship remains intact, and exact measurements can be taken. As the website of the New Oseberg Ship Foundation points out, the construction of the ship pushes the materials to their absolute limit, and learning how to recognise the best properties when selecting trees and working the wood has been one of the biggest challenges for modern ship-builders. The ability to visualise the ship in the growing wood is a skill that would undoubtedly have been highly valued during the Viking Age.

The 'Saga Oseberg' was built and launched at Tonsberg in Norway, and these photos of the ship were taken at the Tonsberg Viking Festival. It has proved to be much more seaworthy than its predecessor, and can be seen at events around Scandinavia.

Click on the links to see more photos of the ship and its stem and stern

Reconstructed Viking Ship 'Helge Ask' photographed off the west coast of Sweden

(c) TBirkett. CC BY NC

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde

In addition to housing the five Sjuldelev ships, the Vikingeskibsmuseet Roskilde is a centre for the reconstruction of Viking and medieval ships. Craftspeople at the museum recreate everything from the tools used for woodworking to many thousands of meters of rope using traditional techniques. Perhaps the single most costly item is the sail: even the modest sail on the small warship 'Helge Ask' pictured here is 50 square meters of densely woven wool treated with dyes and horse mane fat. It would have taken many months of work (and the wool from over 100 sheep) to produce.

Photo of the Sea Stallion docked in Dublin 2007

(c) Rebecca Boyd. CC BY NC

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough

The most ambitious reconstruction produced by the Viking Ship Museum was the 29.4 meter warship Skuldelev 2, named Havhingsten fra Glendalough or 'The Sea Stallion from Glendalough'. Though only 25% of the original was recovered from the fjord, the dimensions of the ship could be accurately reconstructed from what survived. Each individual piece of oak was carefully chosen and worked by hand. There are around 8000 iron nails used in the clinker-built construction, 2200m of cordage, and 600 gallons of pine tar used to treat the wood.

Draken Harald Hårfagre in New York

(c) Raphodon. CC BY SA 4.0

Ships of the Imagination

The largest ship yet discovered is Roskilde 6: a truly impressive 36 meter warship. Yet the sagas mention even bigger ships, such as Olaf Tryggvason's 43 meter ship Ormrinn Langi ('Long Serpent'), which have captured the imaginations of ship-builders. The ship Draken Harald Hårfagre, pictured here sailing out of New York, is not based on a surviving Viking ship, but takes inspiration from literary accounts of ships and from traditional ship-building techniques. The privately owned vessel undertook a journey from Norway to Greenland and the United States in 2016, but with the assistance of an engine. The emphasis is very much on adventure and the spirit of Viking exploration rather than complete accuracy: rather like the replica 'Viking' that sailed to America 100 years ago.

Reconstructed Viking Ships come in all shapes and sizes, and more are being built every year for a variety of purposes including as public artwork, as museum exhibits or as touring ships. Many of them are inspired by Viking ship-building techniques rather than being replicas. And some of them have never seen the water.