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!