Six Viking Ships

A Radcliffe graduate who worked on the Hartford COURANT before joining the staff of the ATLANTIC, Miss Adams is one of our favorite travelers.Her enjoyment of the Greek Isles and the mainland resulted in two delightful series of articles now published in book form under the title A ROUGH MAP OF GREECE. This is the first of a new sequence depicting her recent return to Scandinavia.

THE staff of the Copenhagen Tourist Office, cheerful and multilingual, can locate any Danish authority in a matter of minutes. That is, they can locate him on the map; conferences, vacations, illness, and departmental crises flourish as thickly in Denmark as anywhere else and provide the usual odds against locating anybody in person. However, we seemed to be doing rather well in regard to the Viking ships.

They’re out at Brede, I was told, just as the tourist office had thought. “You’ll have to ride the pig.” The god Freyr used to get about on a golden boar, and the Danes occasionally threaten to lay on a ghost at Elsinore, but even so. I was skeptical. The pig? “It’s a sort of tram,” explained the young lady. “We call it the pig.” She stared into space for a moment, considering this name from the point of view of a foreign visitor, and gave judgment. “I can’t imagine why, because it doesn’t really look at all like a pig.”

Regardless of its looks, the pig was approached through a hole behind the Royal Hotel, in a station where train routes are marked out in red, green, and blue lines on a large map pinned to the wall. I waited for the green-bound train, as instructed, and was whisked away down a railroad track bordered first by the dignified old apartment buildings that Danish housing experts deplore (inadequate plumbing) and then by a district of small, violently green gardens where plum and cherry trees puffed white stars over the fences, and beech trees showed bark almost as green as their mouse-ear leaves.

At Jaegersborg I transferred to the pig, which proved to be a small, sleek shuttle train whose route evidently followed a watercourse up a shallow glen. The pig hustled up this line, pausing now and then under a tree where a small shed proclaimed an official stop. There were no towns to be seen, and the only signs of habitation were occasional glimpses of thatched roofs among the trees. The entire area seemed to consist of patches of woods broken by a few small fields. I suspect it was really a thickly populated and rather luxurious suburb of Copenhagen, for the Danes are very ingenious at using trees and high hedges to obtain privacy and a rural atmosphere in what are actually crowded districts.

I began to worry about recognizing Brede, and struck up a conversation with a boy carrying an armload of school books. His English was adequate, but my pronunciation of Brede was not. I had picked up, and earnestly practiced, three versions of it, two at the tourist office and one from the hotel desk. The boy was unresponsive to all of them. In desperation, I tried the word as though it were plain English. Breedah, more or less. “Oh,” cried the youth, “you mean — ”, and out came yet a fourth Danish version of the place. He added that I couldn’t miss it, since Brede actually looks like a town.

When it appeared, Brede did not look like a harbor for Viking ships. Plainly, the place had started as a small mill town set on a tiny inland creek in a tree-circled hollow. There was a still pond with motionless ducks on it, and up the parklike slope on the far side stood rows of white peak-roofed storyand-a-half dwellings, built end wall to end wall as though on a city street. They resembled very long sheds running parallel to the pond, and were reached by a trafficless road which curved around the near end of the water and was lined, on its inland side, with larger and altogether more impressive structures. Except for twirls of blue smoke from a couple of chimneys among the mill houses, the town had the air of a place that has been happily out of business for years.

I walked up the road, pleased with the thin spring sunlight and warily eyeing the surface of the pond for the first raindrops, since the two tend to alternate rapidly. I was looking for a sign saying “Vikingeskibene,” but did not see anything resembling it. A circle through the town turned up one cat, two dogs, and a child who stared solemnly through a casement window. The proprietor of the single shop, a creamery, was dozing over a newspaper. Somebody on an upper floor was practicing the horn.

I headed back for the larger buildings by the pond, pounded on a door, and routed out a twelveyear-old girl, who directed me as casually as though travelers without Danish were a daily event. Probably they are.

The six ships that I hoped to see are aliens in the quiet backwater of Brede, but there they are, nonetheless, because the owner of the mill has lent an unused building for their rehabilitation. It lay down a gravel side lane, among trees and sheds and subsidiary structures where, to my surprise, some sort of activity seemed to be in progress. Brede was not completely somnolent after all.

THE house of the ships was a vast cement and glass shed, with a roof that floated high up in the air on metal trelliswork. Bits of old machinery and the rusty remnants of cranes sagged along the side walls. The floor space was occupied by a bevy of tanks. A large, straight-sided round pool about two feet deep had been erected in the middle of things. Around it stood a zany variety of smaller containers, including lesser pools, a dory, and a kayak. All of them held pieces of dark wood soaking in mysterious, glassy elixirs. Some of these pieces were wrapped in plastic, some in plastic and what appeared to be fishnet, and some wallowed at large. All bore code marks.

The whole place was damp, chilly, and smelled fiercely of salt marsh.

A group of young people dressed for hiking or bicycling stood off to one side around a tall, thin young man who was evidently telling them about the place. I snooped off among the tanks and presently met a handsome fellow with bright gold curls on his head and bright gold whiskers on his chin. In other respects he hardly looked a suitable companion to the ships, for he was as amiable as a kitten full of cream, and seemed to be taking the temperature of the tanks with scientific meticulousness. Unsurprised by the appearance of a stranger, he announced that his English was not equal to the occasion. Too complicated— with a gesture toward the tanks. Wrong words. “You want Crumlin.”

All I knew about the six ships was that they had been found in Roskildefjord and dated from Viking times. Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, having escorted the hikers off the premises, was hospitably willing to correct my ignorance. In the first place, he confided, there were not six ships, but five, a fact which causes him no end of trouble with his records. The whole business of these ships has a faintly comicopera cast. Finding them was not what the National Museum people had in mind when they first splashed into Roskildefjord.

The Danes are far from uninventive, especially in the fields of social and political experiment, but they are also exceptionally ready to shark up foreign ideas and improve on them. The porcelain works was set up in imitation of the French, and the Swedes complain that although they invented modern furniture design, it’s the Danes who have spread it from Anchorage to Johannesburg. And everybody knows about the cheese. I doubt that any Dane would put it so bluntly, but there is in the national character a distinct strain of “anything you can do, I can do better.”

What had caught their attention, of course, was reports of underwater archaeological finds in the Mediterranean. Danish waters are cold and the Danish summer is short, but the temptation to try this new game was irresistible. There must be splendid relics of seagoing ancestors lying all about the coast, if only they could be found and brought up, and most of the surrounding sea is divable— that is, less than one hundred and twenty feet deep.

The thing to do, it seemed, was practice a bit, and the only question was where to begin. Roskildefjord was selected because it is a quiet, shallow waterway ambling gently through the level fields of North Zealand. The most inexperienced diver could hardly hope to drown himself in it. Moreover, it offered something obvious to work on — a waterlogged mess of old hulks known locally as Queen Margaret’s Ships.

Queen Margaret ruled Denmark around 1400, with her capital at Roskilde, where her intricately carved Gothic tomb (restored) is still one of the showpieces of the cathedral. She also ruled Norway and Sweden, having united the three crowns through a judicious combination of inheritance, marriage, and, according to her detractors, murder.

Her ships had been arranged to block one section of the wandering channels which complicate Roskildefjord, presumably as part of a defense scheme in some forgotten scuffle. Mr. Crumlin thought they were called Queen Margaret’s Ships simply because the population around Roskilde has a habit of attributing anything between the Stone Age and Napoleon to this formidable lady.

Fishermen wishing to use the channel had long since broken through the barrier, but the remains were still about, and it seemed a fine subject for practice-diving and salvage. Beginners’ mistakes wouldn’t matter on ships of Margaret’s era, which are considered to be of no serious historical interest.

A crew of skin divers, archaeologists, and enthusiastic hangers-on accordingly converged on Roskilde in the summer of 1957, and immersed themselves in brackish water and ooze. The old timbers they dragged out, with much trouble because the currents in the fjord proved awkwardly strong, did not look like anything belonging to a medieval tub. Activities were slowed and then halted altogether as the truth became unavoidable. With its first casual, diffident experiment, the embryonic school of Danish underwater archaeology had struck a bonanza and put itself temporarily out of action, for it was unthinkable that the salvage of two genuine Viking ships should be left to improvised methods by semi-amateurs. And at that point, everybody working underwater was necesssarily a semi-amateur.

The divers were recalled and replaced by a cofferdam.

Once the fjord water had been pumped out, the ships were excavated in the usual way, with digging and scratching and mapping and labeling. There were, Mr. Crumlin said, five of them all told, and they had been filled with stones and sunk to form a boom which lasted until impatient twentiethcentury fishermen bulled a passage through it. The early estimate of six ships came about because it took three summers to locate all the pieces, at the rate of two ships to a season. Tides and winter ice had moved some of the pieces between seasons, confusing everybody. In spite of the resulting mismarking, ships two and four are now established as being part of the same vessel. Mr. Crumlin observed that once a system of archaeological labeling has been set up, it is not to be altered without anguish and chaos. The ships will, of course, all get sorted out right when the time comes to put them back together.

MR.CRUMLIN stirred around in one of the tanks and turned up a gently curving piece of plank. Did I know how the old ships were built? Clinker — that’s right. Planks curved, tapered, and overlapped, hull built first and fastened to an inner cross frame with cord. Flexible, you see. There’s a piece of prow here somewhere.

He located it in the next tank. It was an elegantly shaped piece of dark brown wood, flaring at one end and tapering to the other in long, easy curves. The flat sides of this piece bore a series of shallow cuts which paralleled the outer edge and fanned out across the inner one. When the ship was reassembled, they would prolong the clinker lines on the hull, gathering the whole pattern into a point at the top of the prow. The wood looked astonishingly solid for something nearly a thousand years old, and shone with a dim, velvety glow. Mr. Crumlin purred over it before letting it slide back into the tank.

We retired to the office, a lath and plastic cabin in a corner. Its one solid wall was covered with diagrams of ships and cartoons of persons in fur shirts and horned helmets, busily gnawing bones or beating each other on the head with large swords. They had obviously been cut from newspapers or magazines, and I wondered if there was some press opposition to Viking ships. Grinning, Mr. Crumlin roughed out a translation of the text; it was merely opposition to certain antiquated politicians and their antediluvian ideas. “Nice Vikings, though.”

We then sat down to the catalogue of ships, with quick, sharp sketches by Mr. Crumlin to illustrate the different styles involved. There was one warship, slim, shallow, elegant, and very old, because the bottom was worn to half its original thickness from being dragged up beaches. How old would that be? Probably at least fifty years of service, Mr. Crumlin thought. He added that the Vikings had no trouble with shipworm because they beached their ships so often, and air kills the creatures instantly and thoroughly.

Next item: one Baltic trader, also slim and beautiful. The carved prow I had admired in the tank belonged to this ship, which was built of oak.

One very small trader.

One utility boat, possibly a ferry for work on the fjord.

One fat, sturdy, high-sided trader built of pine, which may have been used on the run to Iceland or Greenland, since this route required larger and heavier ships.

Carbon dating has located all these boats as definitely before the year 1100, and they constitute, as old ships go, a pretty spectacular find, although they are neither as old nor as handsome as the ships dug out of grave mounds in Norway. The great problem now before Mr. Crumlin and his crew is preserving the things.

Wood that lies underwater for nine hundred years is bound to soften; many of the pieces were so spongy that they had to be laid on boards and wrapped in fishnet before being lifted from the bed of the fjord. Only the oak, Mr. Crumlin said, could be called well preserved.

I supposed, in my innocence, that this was a good thing. Mr. Crumlin said that it was a very bad thing, making the pieces much harder to treat for preservation. The system of preservation, an entirely new method, has been worked out by the staff of the National Museum, and Mr. Crumlin professed unlimited confidence in it. Since the ships are to be put back together, matching nail holes and all, the wood must be dried out with no shrinkage whatsoever. This is an unheard-of requirement, but it seems to have been met.

As the water in which the pieces of wood lie soaking evaporates, it is replaced by a chemical concoction called, if I can trust my notes, polyethylene glycol. Eventually, all the water evap– orates and the tank is full of this brew. So is the wood, for all its cells are plumped full of the chemical and filled out to their original shape. This happy condition, which is not achieved without a close watch over temperature and rate of evaporation, is not the end of the process. The glycol must be persuaded to remain in the wood, and a glue must be found that will hold glycol-sodden surfaces. The museum staff, according to Mr. Crumlin, has solved both difficulties.

The laboratory staff of the National Museum is evidently capable of solving almost any problem, for it is much given to experiment and sometimes has the answer before anybody thinks to ask the question. Recently, a diver, underwater for other reasons, found a spot where a net with meshes a foot square lies under a layer of sand, above a layer of peat. Carbon dating has established the net as very old — Mr. Crumlin, unable to remember the correct date offhand, shrugged and attributed it to Queen Margaret — but what it can have been for is a puzzle, since it would not hold any normal catch. Regardless of the net’s ambiguous status, the museum proposes to try getting it up, as a nice exercise in the salvage and preservation of delicate fibers.

Mr. Crumlin circled back to his oak ship. Because oak lasts better than other wood, less of it decays and there is less space to be filled with the preservative, which makes the whole process much more difficult. (This is hardly an adequate translation of Mr. Crumlin’s technicalities about brittleness and rate of drying and proportion of shrinkage, but I really doubt that translation is possible except into other technicalities, ultimately as baffling.) 1t is so difficult that when Mr. Crumlin heard how certain German pencil manufacturers who can no longer get a supply of cedar wood are using a fungus to soften other kinds of wood to pencil temper, he seriously considered trying thi method. Nothing came of the idea, althougl whether because the Germans refused to disgorg their fungus or because the fungus refused to cat saltlogged oak, I could not discover.

Mr. Crumlin’s first try with the preservative ran two hundred days, and that proved to be too short a period. Ihe wood began to shrink and was hastily thrown back into the tanks, soaked out. and started on a second run of four hundred days. It occurred to me that reconstructing these ships might become a lifework. Mr. Crumlin dismissed it as a trifling matter of patience and pointed to the next desk, where a grave, wispy young fellow was working on yellow cards and maps.

The cards already filled four long file boxes, and each card represents a known or suspected wreck which Mr. Crumlin and the museum propose to examine. It looks like work for a century. The information about wrecks comes from old tales and records, reports from the navy or from fishermen, and from any other source that offers. “One nice wreck was found and reported by a nudist colony,” said Mr. Crumlin, by way of proving the scope of his spy ring.

THE young man at the card file was the only melancholy person in the place. I thought he must work very hard. Mr. Crumlin said that he did indeed, was a positive treasure of industry, in fact. “He’s a conscientious objector. The museum got him from the government on trial. They never did anything like that before. Conchies usually work at forestry or something. But we finally borrowed this one, and he’s just fine. We hope to get another when he gets out.”

I was amazed that there could be any difficulty in getting people to work on anything as fascinating as this wreck-hunting. Mr. Crumlin courteously suppressed his opinion of such stupidity. “It’s money,” he explained flatly, and then went into considerable detail about the finances of the enterprise. The National Museum budget for the ships does not cover clerical help, or working space, or, indeed, much of anything, for the institution does not have unlimited funds to throw about. If it were not for the contributions of Danish business firms, the whole affair would be impossible. The conchie was an acquisition highly valued by Mr. Crumlin because he did not have to be paid for his useful and devoted work.

I glanced at the conchie again and understood his air of bewildered gloom. It was the look of a man who has set out to suffer martyrdom and has achieved only comfort.

Mr. Crumlin himself is no more an archaeologist than most of the people who work at developing this new branch of the science. He is by training a naval architect, a career which he selected in early youth as the likeliest route to the place where he wanted to be. His father was a naval engineer, and young Ole, mad for old ships, perceived that engineering would lead merely to building new ones. As for history, the university and all that — “I had no interest in sitting at a desk, lecturing about naval history.” He hit on architecture as a comprehensive middle ground and waited for his chance, which came at Roskildefjord. Mr. Crumlin looks well under thirty, and I doubt that there is a happier man in Denmark. He is doing precisely what he always wanted to do, and the four boxes of yellow cards are guarantee that he will not run short of employment.

The only problem is diving, to which Mr. Crumlin is addicted and which he cannot do while supervising his tanks of ship fragments. He dragged out a map and pointed to an island out in the Kattegat. It had a long, thin tail running northeast. This island is now charted, lighted, foghorned, and tamed, but the reefs off its eastern point used to be a vicious danger to navigators. Ships sailing down the strait hit the reefs, bounced over, and sank on the south side. “There are piles of wrecks there,” said Mr. Crumlin, with yearning in his voice and greed in his eye. “Layers and layers of ships. We just have to get down and sort them out.”

He had been down, I gathered, and could hardly wait to get back. The water was very cold, of course, but not formidably deep, and there was no problem with sediment or seaweed. Sand was another matter. “You clear a place, and it fills in again overnight.”

Ships sunk by accident should be full of interesting objects, which is one more reason why Mr. Crumlin itches to get at this reef. The five ships of Roskildefjord contained, besides the stones that held them down, two scraps of pottery, one whetstone, and half of a bone needle. Not much like the Vasa, he mourned, and began an envious catalogue of the pots, spoons, rum jugs, butter tubs, and other unlikely vanities that were recovered when the Swedes salvaged that ill-fated caravel, a sort of spiritual ancestor of the Titanic. Mr. Crumlin seemed to be particularly covetous of the felt hat, although his chances of finding the like in a Viking galley were, he agreed, poor.

Archaeology normally looks exclusively toward the past, but Mr. Crumlin has hopes of applying his to the present. Examination of the Viking ships has revealed that with the exception of the Iceland trader, they were “built like racing cars.” Everything dispensable was discarded, and the surviving necessities were built amazingly light.

After studying the matter, Mr. Crumlin has started a little agitation for reform of the modern regulations governing the construction of fishing boats. They are, he thinks, too thick, too fat, too clumsy, and too heavy, because they are built to specifications evolved when engines were first introduced. Since the early engines were heavy things that kicked furiously, ships had to be reinforced to stand the internal pounding. Modern engines are light and do not kick, but heavy fishing boats have remained standard. Nobody recalls why they have to be heavy, Mr. Crumlin complained, but nobody thinks to change them.

He added a piece of observation that applies to trades other than making fishing boats. “Shipbuilders tend to think of themselves as the end of a process, the fulfillment, instead of merely the present link in a long chain of development.”

If Mr. Crumlin’s campaign takes effect, the stout fishing boats that chug into Copenhagen will disappear and the wharves will be lined with miniature destroyers, at a great saving of fuel. It’s hard to imagine, but should not be, for there must have been a time when fish, too, came home in ships that rode the water as lightly as leaves ride a stream.

The rain came before the pig, and I traveled back to Copenhagen in a blue-green mist. Halfway there, on the Jaegersborg platform, I remembered how I had first heard of the Roskilde ships in New York, and had mentioned them to a Norwegian. Six Viking ships in Roskildefjord. There have been three Viking ships, one of them a marvel, in Oslo for years. The Norseman raised an eyebrow. “Ah, yes, the Danes,” he murmured. “They always do things wholesale.” Wholesale may not be quite the word. Considering Mr. Crumlin’s leap from Viking ships to fishing boats, it would be fairer to say that the Danes do things unexpectedly.