Behind the Scenes: The Vikings: no question of seafaring romance. Interview with Matthias Wemhoff and Bernhard Heeb of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History)


The 37-metre-long, original Viking ship Roskilde 6 is the centrepiece of the spectacular exhibition "The Vikings". It was discovered in 1997 during building work in Roskilde harbour and is now - after Copenhagen and London - on display in Berlin for the first time. In conversation, Bernhard Heeb, exhibition curator, and Matthias Wemhoff, Director of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History), explain how the ship made it from harbour basin to museum and the role ships played in the world of the Vikings.

What is the first thing you do with a find like the Roskilde 6?

Wemhoff: Salvaging the Roskilde 6 was very complex, because she was discovered under water. The most important thing with a find like that is to keep the wood damp. To all appearances it still retains its original structure, but after such a long time it has degenerated and lost all its solidity and rigidity. If the wood is allowed to dry out in an uncontrolled way, it will simply fall apart.

Heeb: As a rule the first thing to do is to raise the find as a block together with its surrounding context. The materials it is composed of can then be analysed in the laboratory and conserved. 

After the salvage stage is complete, how is the conservation done?

Wemhoff: The whole process took 14 years, from 1997, the time of the discovery, to 2012. The water in the wood had to be gradually replaced by liquid wax. To do that you submerge the object you want to conserve in a wax solution. The concentration of the solution can be constantly altered until the wax has finally seeped into all the empty spaces in the wood. This process of expelling the water has to be done so slowly and carefully that it literally takes years. Even after that the wood is still very damp and has to be freeze-dried. To do that, you need a giant vacuum chamber, big enough to fit ten-metre long planks of wood inside. It's a really impressive procedure. I can still vividly remember the first time we saw it done in the conservation studios of the National Museum of Denmark.

After that lengthy process, the ship can now be seen in Germany for the first time. What role does it play in the overall concept of the exhibition?

Wemhoff: The ship was the basis of the Vikings' success. Without their ships they couldn't have been traders or explorers, they couldn't have made conquests and established settlements abroad. It took the Vikings hundreds of years to develop their ship-building technology to the point where they had their ocean-going vessels. No-one else in the world at that time had ships like them. Whenever a vessel like the Roskilde 6 appeared on the horizon, you knew you only had an hour to disappear. With its flat keel it could simply glide right up to the shore and then out jumped hundreds of armed warriors - it all happened far too quickly for anyone to organise a defence. Then of course there is also the trade aspect, which produced its own type of ships. And as well as that the ship plays a symbolic role for the Vikings: it's a status symbol and is even used for burials. It's present everywhere in Viking life and that's brought out beautifully in the exhibition.

During the exhibition the "Sea Stallion from Glendalough" will be anchored in the Spree - a copy of the Viking ship Skuldelev 2. How accurate are these reconstructions and what can we learn from them?

Heeb: The Skuldelev 2 is much better preserved than the Roskilde 6. We know a great many technical details about the way it was built and so the reconstruction is pretty near perfect. The shipbuilders used authentic materials, tools and techniques and so they were able to glean information about how long the building took, how much material was needed and what the practical problems were.

Then the voyage which the "Sea Stallion" made from Roskilde to Dublin when it was finished gave us more information, for instance about the crew and sailing speeds.

Wemhoff: In the exhibition we're going to show part of the documentary film which was made during the voyage. One thing is for sure: a journey like that across the open ocean is no pleasure trip and there was no question of romanticizing seafaring. The Vikings really must have been an incredibly tough bunch.

Apart from the Roskilde, will the exhibition have many other exciting exhibits - what are you especially looking forward to?

Heeb: I'm especially keen to see the mass grave from Weymouth. It contained 54 beheaded warriors - probably the result of a failed Viking attack on southern England. In the exhibition we'll have items from this exciting find displayed in an impressive reconstruction of a mass grave.

Wemhoff: I'm especially thrilled that we're able to show the spectacular gold treasure from Hiddensee. It's both the climax and the final exhibit of the exhibition and it will leave every visitor spellbound - some of the goldsmith work is of unbelievable quality. It's also perfect evidence of the way things were changing, because the pieces combine old motifs with the cross, symbolising the beginning of the Christianisation of the Vikings.

The Vikings
10.09.2014 to 04.01.2015

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