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18 September 2014
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Reconstructing Famous Ships

By Barrie Andrian
Viking ship burial

Image of the Gokstad ship
The Gokstad ship - used for a warrior's burial 
One of the earliest ship reconstructions was based on the discovery in 1880 of a Viking ship burial at Gokstad, on the west side of the Oslo fiord. A replica of this well-preserved late ninth-century ship was made and sailed across the Atlantic in 1893, reaching Newfoundland after only 27 days.

The purpose of the experiment was to to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, celebrated at the Great Exhibition in Chicago. While the performance of the vessel and the success of the voyage met with much acclaim, it must have stirred the debate as to who actually first discovered America.

' Many replicas have been built and sailed to study methods and styles of construction and performance.'

Many Viking boats have been discovered since then, including the five ships that were sunk in the 11th century as a blockade in Roskilde fjord in Denmark. A cofferdam was constructed around them and the ships were excavated and salvaged in 1962. They are now on display in the purpose-built Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde.

Three of the ships have been reconstructed and tested, and from 1984-1986 the replica of one of the cargo ships - known as Wreck 1 - circumnavigated the globe. Since then, many replicas have been built and sailed to study methods and styles of construction and performance of Viking and later vessels. Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum and the Danish Institute of Maritime Archaeology run regular courses in such experimentation.

More recent, but less well known, Viking boat reconstructions include that of the Aifur, designed as a typical small cargo boat rather than as a replica of a specific ship find. The Aifur sailed to the east from Lake Malar in Sweden in 1994 and 1996 to test the viability of a traditional route to the Ukraine.

Although the little craft rowed well and sailed well, it encountered many problems - such as strong river currents and low water, which made portage difficult. So the project team concluded that in Viking times it would have been faster to travel this route with a horse and cart than to go by boat.

Published: 2005-01-26

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