Monday, 7 July 2014

Of Dragons and Longships

Erik Werenskiold, 'Slaget ved Solskjel'
Public domain image
The media are currently reporting on the interrupted journey (because of a broken mast) of what is being touted as the 'largest replica Viking longship', the Dragon Harald Fairhair. There are so many potential misunderstandings, just in the name of the ship, let alone that description of it, that the academic in your blogstress just cannot resist putting her oar in.

First, the positive side of things. This is a fun project initiated by a wealthy Norwegian businessman, Sigurd Aase, who has a love of Vikings. It has given him some fun, other people some work, and yet other people the pleasure of rowing or sailing in an old wooden ship.

But as usual with the media and Vikings, there is a danger of hype and misrepresentation here. Despite what the captain said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the ship is in no sense a 'replica' of anything, let alone of 'Harald Fairhair's' ship. Unlike those replicas which are based on actual ship finds, this is not a reconstruction of any one particular ship. A Norwegian king known by the name of Haraldr hárfagri is most likely a historical figure, but if he was, he lived in the ninth century and we have little if any reliable evidence about him. We also do not have his ship.

The project website gives quite a lot of information which makes clear to the initiated at least that the building of the ship is based on a variety of sources, mainly from later periods, in particular sagas and laws relating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since there was enormous development in the building of ships between Haraldr's time in the ninth century and our written sources from the thirteenth, the claim that this is a 'Viking longship' is really stretching it. Undoubtedly, there is some continuity in the Norwegian boatbuilding tradition and the builders have also used their knowledge of later Norwegian boatbuilding in designing this vessel. But then it is disingenuous to describe it as a 'Viking warship'. The term 'longship' also has no real meaning. Some ships were longer than others. At 35m., the Dragon is in any case pipped to the stem-post by Roskilde 6, the genuine Viking ship that, however fragmentary, was the highlight of the recent Viking exhibition, at 37 m.

Calling it a 'dragon' is also unhistorical, if this is meant to refer to Harald's time - calling ships 'snakes' is a poetic conceit found from quite early on, but a dragon-ship is something different, not being a native animal. The word dreki really only makes its appearance in eleventh-century poetry, when it is first used to describe the large warships that emerge in that period. All in all, it is hard to see whether the people on this project see their ship as belonging to the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth century, nor do they seem to care. This is OK for a bit of fun, but no one should be led to believe that this exercise has any actual academic merit, though I am afraid some university folk, as well as the media, have been taken in.

As I pointed out two years ago, there are plenty of other and better reconstruction projects around - check those out instead!


  1. This is certainly under the category of one of your ramblings. You seem to know very little about it and, I suspect, very little about viking ships.
    As for checking out the other and 'better' reconstruction projects, how come the majority show such poor sailing qualities? I hardly think they have got it right either.
    Draken Harald Harfagre is certainly not a replica of anything, but then nor are the other modern viking ships replicas. All are attempts at reconstruction at the best.
    It is a pity that you did not take time to discover the academic input into this project - especially when your field of expertise is so clearly not in Viking ship technology.

  2. Dear Thorfastr,
    Thank you for taking the trouble to comment.
    I don't quite understand your point that the Draken is 'certainly not a replica', since your own Blogger profile calls it 'the largest ever replica Viking Longship'. I stand by what I have said above and I can assure you that I have spent some time, and not just in the past few years, acquainting myself with various aspects of the Viking Age, including their ships, and have also read the various websites about this project, as well as following it in the media. I have even met Sigurd Aase. I am certainly aware that the media can and will distort things, but it strikes me that some of the misrepresentations in the media come from the project itself, which makes claims which cannot always be substantiated. Thus, precisely because the website does make clear that the ship is a reconstruction based on literary sources deriving from the thirteenth century and later, it is disingenuous of those taking part in the project to call it a 'Viking longship', for the reasons I have explained above. A 'saga ship' might have been a better term. I cannot on this website see the names of any academic experts that I recognise listed there as having any academic input into the project, nor is it clear what anyone's input was really, the website is less than informative on that score.
    As for the website, which seems to be related to the project (though it is less than informative about its origins), this claims that the Draken is 'the largest and most authentic viking warship since 1200AD', again demonstrating a lack of basic understanding of historical chronology. That website also contains very many factual errors and unsubstantiated assertions but since no one is taking credit for them, I forbear to point them out. The claims made there that the project's aim is to 'redefine history' are rather grandiose and will I suspect be difficult to live up to.
    Just to be clear, I will repeat what I said above: I have nothing against the project per se, but only against its claims to be a 'viking' ship, let alone the 'most authentic' one ever. I also find the ship's name misleading, since it associates three separate time periods: that of Harald Finehair in the ninth century (when there are very unlikely to have been any ships remotely like the Draken), that of 'dragon' ships, which are a poetic conceit of the eleventh century, and the literary sources of the thirteenth century on which the design of the ship is based.
    As to the 'poor sailing qualities' of other reconstruction projects that you mention, I recognise that breaking a mast can happen to anybody, and it just shows how difficult all such attempts at historical reconstruction can be. So by all means carry on with the project, but you can hardly blame me for wishing you (i.e. the project as a whole) had made the factual basis of it more accurate than it is at present.
    Yours sincerely,

    1. Hi,
      I was wondering what your research on "dragon" ships is. I have been looking for references of dragon iconography in association with Vikings, and keep finding dead ends with no links to primary sources. Based on what you were saying, it looks like I might be searching in vain (I'm looking for 9th and10th century writings mostly) but I was wondering if you could share your 11th century poetry source and any other information you might have on the topic. Thank you! (If you have any serpent - ship references from early on primary sources, I would appreciate those as well. Like I said, I have been unable to find any primary source dragon iconography with Vikings, other than one reference in the Anglo - Saxon Chronicles for the year 793 (which was written later, of course, but still in the late 9th and 10th century I am looking at). Thank you again!)

    2. You may find some material of interest in Judith Jesch, Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse, Boydell (2001). The relevant poetry is now all edited in Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 1-2, which are volumes I and II of Skaldic Verse in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, ed. Diana Whaley and Kari Ellen Gade respectively, Brepols (2009, 2012).

    3. Thank you so much!

  3. Hi there! I'm an MA student in the University of Iceland's Viking and Medieval Norse program as well as a former sailor on the Draken, so I hoped I might be able to comment a bit on my experiences here (for what little that's worth.) My background is more in the folklore of the Scandinavian high middle ages than in archaeology or the Viking age proper, so I hope you'll forgive me if I'm speaking a bit beyond my remit here.

    Captain Björn Ahlander's description of the ship as a "replica" was, I can only assume, the result of his discomfort with English. You’re quite right to say that the ship is not a replica; the crew preferred terminology more along the lines of "historically-informed." Specifically, the design is intended as somewhat of a midway point between the familiar Norse warships of the Viking age and the Hanseatic cogs of the later middle ages - thus, for example, the ship's comparatively wide hull and high aft weatherdeck, meant to recall the later aftcastles. It's very much a "saga age" ship, as you said - it would fit far better in the leding of the Norwegian civil wars era than the fleet of a Viking king.

    Some of the more controversial design features of the ship (ie, the rigging) are practical in consideration. I believe that we have little hard evidence for historic rigging, even into quite recent history - an archaeologist friend says that he believes there simply has not been enough evidence found for the shape and function of medieval rigging to attempt a full reconstruction. Thus, the ship's rigging has been largely informed by later Scandinavian maritime tradition. Early attempts at rigging the ship without the use of blocks, using only eyelets, were abandoned as impractical. Perhaps this indicates that modern people (even modern tallship sailors) simply can't rival medieval mariners for muscle power; perhaps this indicates we should rethink our strict insistence that blocks were only introduced from the 13th century or so, and acknowledge the limitations of a patchy archaeological record. Smaller ships, such as the Sea Stallion, are able to get by well enough without this kind of technology; for larger ships such as the Draken, this doesn’t seem to be feasible.

  4. The name "Draken" itself is, as you yourself mentioned, more a poetic conceit than meant to reflect the ship's actual construction, meant to recall names like those of Olaf Tryggvason's flagship or skaldic kennings. And given the centrality of Haraldr Hárfagri in 12th- and 13th-century "historiography," I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine a proud shipowner of that era naming his ship after Norway's first "unifying king" (as he would likely have considered Haraldr to be.)

    On a concluding note, I'd like to point out that there was disinformation put forth both by the ship’s media outreach and the media itself. The actual crew were extraordinarily well-informed, representing some of the foremost talent in Scandinavian tallship sailing and boatbuilding. The ship’s outreach, on the other hand, seemed sometimes to value generating publicity and media buzz more than providing a factual account of our approach and its limitations. Without getting too much into the political considerations of the 2014 voyage, we were partnered with groups in the UK who often took the initiative in speaking to the media despite their lack of serious involvement with the project, resulting in statements appearing in the media which the crew could only shake their heads over. And the media, too, often took our statements out of context or grossly sensationalized them. I was among those interviewed by BBC Scotland when we arrived in the Shetlands, tired and stressed (as was everyone after having weathered a gale and later having seen our mast blown down, probably because I was the only native English speaker immediately to hand (and because with my beard and long hair, I suppose I fit the stereotype.) I tried to give a thoughtful response to their questions, but they insisted on reshooting it and wasting my time (I really needed to help out the crew in managing our lines and checking for damage) until I gave them exactly the answer they were looking for – something stupid about “retracing the steps of the Viking kings.” Complete nonsense.

    That said, thanks for this post! I’d meant to write something similar at some point highlighting some of the issues that had come to mind, but haven’t been able to find the time. I’m glad to see someone else has been able to articulate and discuss some of these problems.

    1. Thanks for these comments, Lars! It is always useful to have an insider's view.