Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Awesome' Viking warship 'struck terror into people'

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
At 37 meters long, the Roskilde 6 is the biggest Viking ship ever discovered. It is on display at the British Museum in London. At 37 meters long, the Roskilde 6 is the biggest Viking ship ever discovered. It is on display at the British Museum in London.
HIDE CAPTION
Roskilde 6
Discovery
Live by the sword
Awesome axe
War games
Golden age
Myth and legend
Martime masters
King Cnut's pride and joy?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • World's biggest Viking ship has been discovered, a whopping 37 meters long
  • Built in 1025, royal warship was most likely owned by King Cnut the Great
  • It was found in Denmark's Roskilde Fjord during renovation of Viking Museum
  • Now on display at London's British Museum, it is part of a Viking exhibition

(CNN) -- There are ghosts at the British Museum.

Hulking, hairy, bloodthirsty warriors grunting in unison as they row the biggest warship of its kind the world has ever known.

Can the gallery curator see them, or am I the only one? He laughs -- a little nervously: "Yes, you do get a sense of them."

Looming before us is Roskilde 6, the largest Viking ship ever discovered, carefully reconstructed after 1,000 years languishing beneath the waves. At 37 meters long it's double the size of the boat Christopher Columbus sailed to America.

Ghost armies or not, it is a sight to behold. The ship's fearsome metal frame seemingly rises from a watery netherworld on a mission to conquer the globe -- once and for all.

Shock and awe: Elaborately decorated ships were intended to terrify.
Getty Images

Built around 1025, it is the crown jewel in the museum's major new exhibition exploring the Viking age, and it sails on an invisible wave past glass cases of ancient jewels, swords and skeletons.

"It's huge. And you can't stress that enough. Even by the standards of written descriptions of big Viking ships, this is massive," says curator Thomas Williams -- who, with his thick beard and carefully twirled mustache, resembles something of the modern-day Norseman.

"We read about ships of 35 oarsmen per side being extremely big, shockingly big. And this probably had about 40 oarsmen per side."

Even by the standards of written descriptions of big Viking ships, this is massive
Thomas Williams, curator

If you saw this vessel on the horizon -- with its elaborate carvings, animal head prow, and single sail billowing in the wind -- it would have signaled serious trouble was on the way.

"To see this coming up the River Thames would have meant domination by a political elite," says Williams. "It would have struck terror into people.

"I suppose in many ways it's psychological warfare as much as anything else. You're demonstrating your power through the sheer scale and awesomeness of this ship. And of course we've got this one, but we don't know how many there might have been. Dozens, hundreds of ships ... it's frightening stuff."

Danish discovery

It's perhaps fitting that the boat was discovered in Denmark's Roskilde Fjord by workers renovating the city's Viking Museum in 1997.

Almost a quarter of the original timber remained, and it now lines the heart of the recreated metal structure on display in London.

The Vikings weren't simple warriors -- they were master mariners.
Getty Images

Only a person of enormous wealth and power could have built a boat like this, with historians pointing to North Sea ruler at the time, Cnut the Great, a man described as: "Exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, except for his nose."

Long and sleek (the boat, not Cnut's nose), it was designed for speed, featuring low sides so men could leap quickly onto land.

"This is really a troop carrier," says Williams. "An amphibious landing craft to get lots of men across the sea as fast as possible."

Barbarians vs. Bravehearts

You're demonstrating your power through the sheer scale and awesomeness of this ship
Thomas Williams, curator

But who were the Vikings, really?

"The way the Vikings are traditionally presented, in Britain at least, is as marauders, as these terrible people who come from overseas, kill all the monks, steal your stuff, steal your wife, and off they go again," Williams says.

"But from a Scandinavian perspective it's a much more varied picture. Those people who disappear over the horizon to raid a monastery don't reflect the whole of Scandinavian society in that moment -- that's just what we see from the accounts of monks writing during the Viking age."

That said, being seen as a warrior was a key part of being a Viking man.

Much like a Hell's Angel biker might adorn himself in tattoos to intimidate others, a Viking might file down his teeth into a horrific snarl -- as one skull on display demonstrated.

It would have been excruciatingly painful to file down these teeth.
Getty Images

"I think filing down your teeth like that is a way of saying, 'I'm prepared to do this to myself, just imagine what I'm prepared to do to you,' " Williams says.

"But it's also saying, 'I am marking myself out as somebody who is beyond the social norm.' And people who identified as being full-time Vikings were not the norm."

Maritime might

But of course the Vikings were not simply beefed-up bruisers. They were superior seafarers; the first people to reach four continents, arriving in America long before Christopher Columbus.

Their naval technology opened up new trade routes and helped establish cities.

"You can't get away from the fact that there's a great deal of violence in the Viking age," Williams says. "But at the same time there's a great deal of bravery and self-confidence in the desire to explore, to open up new horizons.

"All of these things are quite inspiring. They still capture our imaginations today."

Read: Henry VIII's Mary Rose warship on show

See: Mississippi River Pirate ship sold online

Inspire: Sea astronaut light years ahead

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
MainSail
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1005 GMT (1805 HKT)
Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Over 300 miles from the nearest ocean, competitors in one of the world's fastest sailing races prepare for battle.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
Ship captains of the future won't be salty sea dogs with their hand at the helm, and the ocean at their feet.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1348 GMT (2148 HKT)
Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
VO65 'Dongfeng' Training in Hong Kong
Nine months at sea, one change of clothes, freeze-dried food and a strange language. Could you cope?
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
He's one of the great landscape artists, but JMW Turner also had a watery passion -- and his maritime travels are being retraced.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
How do you get a foot on the property ladder, when you live in one of the most expensive cities in the world? The answer may lie in the water...
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Quadriplegic yachtswoman Hilary Lister was saved from suicide through the sport of sailing. Now she is plotting a voyage across the Atlantic.
ADVERTISEMENT