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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

War machine: A visit to Roskilde

March 7, 2023

Sunk 1,000 years ago, a Viking ship recovered from the muck is sleek, beautiful in its lines, and built for speed.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

A mock-up of a Viking boat in a darkened room allows visitors to climb aboard and, if you let your imagination transport you, large video screens and speakers take you racing along a sea that is at hand’s reach. A storm approaches and the waves increase, rain falls, thunder crackles, and then it passes, and the waves heave more peacefully. A distant shore is outlined in the moonlight.

I had taken a Danish train, fast, clean, well-attended and popular, about 40 minutes outside Copenhagen to the city of Roskilde. While Copenhagen has changed into an international city, Roskilde remains supremely Danish. In the central square, right where it should be, stood a brightly painted sausage wagon or pølsevogn, with old and young stopping to have one of a great variety of just-grilled sausages with ketchup and mustard, with or without bread, called brød.

Next to the pølsevogn is city hall and behind it is the national church where Denmark’s kings and queens are buried.

But I had taken the trip to see the ships in the Vikingskibs Museet. An icy footpath led downhill from the church to the bag end of Roskilde fjord where the museum stands. From years ago, I remembered the center piece of the museum, a stunning beauty of a ship, long, slim, open, built for speed in the water.

The Danes are intellectually focused on their museums, and the description of the boat, Skuldelev 2, reflects and amplifies what I felt looking from the stern down along the inside of the hull. “Skuldelev 2 is a war machine. The long, narrow shape of the ship and the enormous sail allowed it to run at great speed. With a crew of 65-70 men, it was a chieftain's ship, like those praised in ancient scaldic verse.”

It was among five sunk in the main shipping channel of the fjord to block or slow down an attack that took place 1,000 years ago. From my past visit, I had taken away the impression that the Danish Vikings were so frightened of the more fierce Norwegian Vikings that they sank their own ships to block the harbor entrance.

But on a revisit, and a more careful reading, the story was a bit more complicated. The brothers of the Danish king had gone to the Norwegian King to seek support in dethroning their brother. They were given men and ships. A set of dioramas in a short tunnel from one side of the museum to the other told the tale.

The war party set out when the winds seemed favorable, sailed over the Kattegat Sea, then raced down the narrow fjord. The attackers would certainly be seen but they were moving so fast that men on horses could not deliver a warning in time.

Then the attacking ships were blocked by the boats sunk in the sailing lane. So the warriors disembarked and continued on foot (this is all played out with little ships and warriors set inside the dioramas), giving the city defenders enough time to organize themselves. With the element of surprise and overwhelming force lost, as the diorama described it, the opponents then proceeded to “negotiation.”

For 1,000 years since then, the ships sunk in the fjord had been partially preserved in the sea mud. In the 1980s, they were discovered and dug out in an elaborate operation that required building a large iron box around the old timbers and pumping water out of the box. The planks were then preserved and set into the iron skeleton of Skuldelev 2 now taking up the length of the main hall of the museum.

Ring analysis of the timbers showed that the ship was built of oak somewhere close to Dublin around 1042. Vikings had set up fortified bases along the Irish coast in A.D. 800. The bases developed into towns, today among the biggest in Ireland, where Vikings lived as merchants, mercenaries and shipbuilders.

Although seen through history as plunderers, which the Vikings surely were, the extraordinary reach of their maritime power was supported not just by ferocity but also by trade. Their basic rules from centuries ago could apply to business today, or should, and could mostly apply to Courthouse News: “Find out what the market needs; don’t make promises you can’t keep; don’t demand overpayment, arrange things so you can return.“

In the hall next to Skuldelev 2 was the mock-up, a recently constructed ship accompanied by video screens and speakers. Going on board, to feel and hear the sea racing along the hull on a moonlit night, storm waves building and surging, wind rushing overhead, the creak of the mast with its great, square sail – the whole of it transported me back in time.   

But then, stepping out of the museet into a cold, gray present, I saw the museet’s café.

Coming in from outside where the temperature is a roughly zero degrees centigrade, the room is warm, spare and open. The staff are young Danish folks that seem to me like college students, quick, friendly, efficient, working in an open, bright kitchen. I order what is billed as Viking stew, made up of various vegetables in a tasty broth, served with a big piece of brød and a pint of dark beer, and read on my phone through a summary judgment motion we are about to file in a First Amendment action in Idaho.

A polsevogn — sausage wagon — with Denmark's national cathedral in the background. (Bill Girdner/Courthouse News)
Categories / Op-Ed, Travel

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