British Museum blog

Building a Viking boat today

dragon stem head
Mike Selwood, Assistant Boat Manager, National Maritime Museum Cornwall
In September 2013, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall was approached by the British Museum and asked if we would produce something Viking to be filmed for their Vikings Live cinema broadcast, after seeing the Bronze Age boat replica that we had built and launched in March 2013.

Of course, we said yes. After plenty of chats with Gareth Williams, the curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend and Patricia Wheatley, Executive Producer of Vikings Live, our boat restoration team started to build the stem section of a Viking-style boat, to be constructed using traditional methods.

I was to manage the project, with my team of boat crew volunteers and boat-builder Brian Cumby, who had built the Bronze Age boat. The stem section was approximately sixteen feet long, eight feet beam (width) and about 12 feet at its highest, to be surmounted with a Viking dragon’s head. The section is equivalent to about 25% of a boat that we are planning to build next year as a feature of our Viking Voyagers exhibition in 2015.

Having assembled the team, I had to source the materials. There was no time to make nails, so they came off the shelf as galvanised Scandinavian boat nails with square roves made by our local blacksmith. The keel and stem post were to be oak, and we decided to plank in Cornish larch, not always durable for boats, but good for this project. Our friends at Tregothnan Estate, not far from us in Falmouth (also known for its excellent tea plantation) provided all of our needs, including a lot of crooks or timber turns, used for making frames to brace the planking.

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Brian set up the keel and the rabbet (the groove or rebate that takes the first planks) was cut. A joint was then cut for joining the stem post to the keel to create the backbone of the boat ready for planking. Brian and his team of volunteers then built up the layers of planking by riveting overlapped planks one on to the other. This method is called clinker in Europe and Scandinavia, and lapstrake in the America and Canada. We planned on seven planks to each side, each about one inch thick and twelve inches wide. The larch planks had to be steamed in a long steam box to make the wood malleable enough to fit to the keel and stem rabbet.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

To get the shape of a Viking boat we built moulds or section shapes that acted as guides. It is thought that the Vikings would have set up an overhead strong back supported by an A-frame, in order to brace the struts or shores to brace the planking. They are also likely to have heated stones to make the planks malleable as an alternative to steaming.

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

The crooks and turns were shaped and fashioned into frames, floors and knees (boatbuilding terms to describe brackets and braces that were fitted to the planking to add cross-sectional strength). Finally the thwarts or cross-section benches were fitted. All were fastened with nails or trenails (pegs of oak or tree nails that would swell and tighten when wet, sometimes with a small wedge driven down the grain to further expand and tighten).

Viking ship construction developed boats that were light, strong, but flexible so that they worked well with the stresses of the sea. They were also shallow draught, which meant that they could still move through shallower river and estuary waters. Climbing in and out was also easier, as speed and surprise were a feature of many Viking visits!

Detail of dragon's head

Pin with dragon’s head (detail), AD 950–1000. Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

While all of this frantic construction was going on, our woodcarver Rob (a National Maritime Museum Cornwall volunteer) began to work on the stem head. His brief was to make something that would frighten the natives. With help from Patricia from the British Museum, he researched some designs, and decided to use a Viking pin that was being displayed in the exhibition as his inspiration. The head was to be detachable, following the Vikings practice – apparently the raiding boat would remove the stem head on return to its home port so as not to bring bad spirits back with them or scare those on dry land.

The project has enabled our team to get in a ‘Viking’ mind-set , as we will not only be building a replica of a 57-foot Roskilde boat, but likely some very Viking stage sets for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall Viking Voyagers exhibition, supported by the British Museum.


Vikings Live is at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Vikings: life and legend, , , , ,

The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Vikings: life and legend, , , , ,

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