Sea Stallion steps back in history

Richard Collins on a remarkable Danish replica ship.

AT three o’clock next Thursday afternoon Dubliners will be treated to an extraordinary spectacle. The Viking ship Sea Stallion, which has been on display at the National Museum in Collins Barracks, will be lifted 50 metres into the air by a giant crane. Then the huge vessel will be swung out over the three-storey museum building and deposited in the nearby Croppy’s Acre. In the middle of the night it will be moved to the River Liffey, prior to its long sea journey back to Denmark.

The Sea Stallion was built at Roskilde, the ancient capital of Denmark, and now a quiet town at the head of a long narrow fjord. About 900 years ago ships were scuttled in the fjord to protect the harbour from pirates. In 1962 five of the wrecks were discovered, one of which turned out to have Irish timbers; it had been built in Dublin about the year 1042. A replica was constructed. It required 7,000 iron rivets and 340 trees had to be felled. On September 4, 2004, the ‘Havhingsten fra Glendalough’ was christened by Queen Margrethe.

Thirty metres long, 3.8 metres wide and weighing 20 tonnes, the Sea Stallion of Glendalough can carry up to 100 people at an average speed of 6 knots. She can reach 15 to 20 knots in a sprint. With a draught of only one metre, such warships could enter shallow bays and travel up rivers, raiding monasteries and farms. ‘Deliver us, oh Lord, from the wrath of the Viking!’

Sea Stallion arrived in Dublin, to a tumultuous reception, on August 14 last. The seven-week voyage from Denmark was one of the most ambitious archaeological experiments ever conducted. Dr Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum, told RTE’s Mooney Show that a wealth of new discoveries had been made. The ship’s square sail, for example, had proved to be far more effective than expected; the sail rather than oars provided most of the power. The manner in which Viking ships were rowed has also been clarified. The ship’s rudder attachment proved to be seriously flawed, but this was not altogether a surprise; the rudder of the original vessel was not found, leaving researchers somewhat in the dark. The Stallion capsized more than once, but Dr Wallace thinks that Viking crews were so highly skilled than such events were rare long ago. In those days ships tended to hug the coast and food was probably cooked on shore. The 10th century equivalent of today’s giant aircraft carriers, these greyhounds of the sea were the product of highly organised and sophisticated communities.

Anyone with an interest in a maritime technology which changed the course of European history, should visit the ship museums at Roskilde and Oslo. Just 25km from Copenhagen, Roskilde is easily reached. Oslo, with its two fine nautical museums, used to be less accessible from Ireland, but now SAS, who sponsored a series of lectures by international experts during the Sea Stallion’s visit, offer direct flights to the Norwegian capital from Dublin.

The plush train, which takes you from Oslo Airport to the city centre in 19 minutes, even has ‘quiet areas’ where the use of mobile phones and noisy earphones is forbidden. In an inspired piece of urban planning, the maritime museums are located on a peninsula which is accessed by ferry; the boat trip through the harbour puts visitors in a nautical mood. A tourist card covers entry to the museums, as well as travel on the city’s trams metro and the ferry.

Oslo’s three Viking ships had been used for burials. The Vikings believed the gods led similar lives to us mortals. Important individuals were buried with all of the things required for the next life; there might be invitations to dine with the gods and one needed to look one’s best on such occasions!

The excavation of the Oseberg ship in 1904, a Nordic forerunner to that of Tutankamun’s tomb in the 1920s, unearthed a wealth of magnificent artefacts, including a decorated cart, sleighs and the remains of horses and an ox. The ship contained the bodies of two aristocratic women.

There is still time for a farewell visit to the Sea Stallion.

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