The Nydam Ships

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The Nydam find consists of 3 vessels dating from the late iron age. The ships are part of war-spoil along with large quantities of weapons and other warfare equipment. This was all deposited in what was at the time a lake, but today is a peat bog which has offered excellent conditions for preservation of wood and most metal objects. The 007 Nydam ship is the best known of the ships and is normally referred to as the "Nydam Oak Ship" or even "the Nydam Ship".

The Nydam site and research history

The excavation of the Nydam find was undertaken in the years 1859, 1863 and 1864. The first ship was found in august 1863, and consisted of parts of an oak ship which had been cut to pieces and scattered on the lake. Only a few days later the complete Nydam Oak Ship came to light. The ship had been deliberately sunk in the freshwater lake after being hauled only a short distance over land. <here image 007t016.jpg> The head of the excavation Conrad Engelhardt reported that the parts had come completely apart and lay straightened out in one layer. During this work a third ship was found lying alongside the Oak Ship, namely the "Nydam Pine Ship", which when found was also complete.

Because of the outbreak of the war between Denmark and Prussia in 1864 the excavations had to be cancelled, and the timbers of the Pine Ship were lost in the turmoil. With the conclusion of peace Denmark had to part with the Nydam find altogether, and the Nydam Oak Ship was moved from the former Danish town of Flensborg to Kiel in 1877. In 1941 the ship was moved again, and spent the rest of the second World War on a barge on a lake, and was finally moved to the Archäologishes Landesmuseum in Schleswig were it is still on display.

In 1984 after the find of a deposition dating from 400-450 AD, it was decided to resume excavations on a greater scale, mainly to locate Engelhardt's trenches and to obtain more parts of the known ships or even find new ones. The new campaign took place from 1989 to 1997 and was carried out by the Institute of Maritime Archaeology at the Danish National Museum. Engelhardt's old trenches were found, and re-excavated together with the surrounding areas. Thus parts of the ship left over by Engelhardt were found in his old trenches as well as "new" ones in the untouched peat.

Archaeological interpretation of the Nydam site

The remains of the ships represent three of at least six depositions of war-spoil dating from between 200 AD and 450 AD, which have been interpreted as the equipment of several beaten armies. From the combination of weapons it has been possible to suggest an organisational pattern of the iron-age armies. By far the largest amount of warriors were armed with lances, spears and a large circular shield, while a contingent of about a third had a sword of roman spatha design and a shield. An even smaller portion were archers, and several beautifully preserved longbows of yew and hazel and hundreds of arrow shafts have been excavated both by Engelhardt and during the recent campaigns. Finally a few finds of riding gear indicates a small contingent of cavalry. The Ship has recently been dated via dendrochronology to 310-320 AD, and the deposition is likely to have taken place 340-350 AD.

Constructional features of the Nydam Oak Ship

The Nydam Ship is the oldest known rowed vessel from Northern Europe. It is clinker-built on a broad keel plank and consists of five strakes. The keel plank and the planks have carved out cleats for fastening the frames; on the keel plank and the first four strakes two for each frame and on the fifth just one sturdy cleat which at the same time accommodates the top of the frame and the thwart. The keel plank is made from one piece of oak 14,30 m long and 57 cm wide amidships tapering to about 20 cm at the ends. A flat broad ridge underneath gives it a thickness of just 7 cm amidships and at the ends 13 cm.

Stem and stern were possibly made from single pieces of wood, they are rather flatly curved and scarved to the keel plank by means of a short horizontal scarf fastened with just two treenails. They both have a rabbet running from the keel scarf to the gunwale. Along these are three ornamental grooves extending all the way to the top. Fastening of the hood ends of the planks are done by iron rivets.

The plank dimensions were somewhat distorted due to shrinking when the ship was recorded and reconstructed in detail in 1929, but then the thickness was 22-25 mm and the width amidships 36-45 cm. Originally the planks must have been up to 56 cm wide. It was until recently believed that the strakes were also fashioned in one piece, but when the ship was examined during the cutting of samples for dendro-chronological dating it was discovered that all strakes were scarved, and thus consisted of more than one plank. The plank seams are done in fully developed Nordic clinker fashion; the overlap is luted with woollen cloth, and fastened with iron rivets. As is the case in this tradition up to the 12th century, both the stem and head of the rivets are round while the roves on the inside are square.

The frames are in one piece of oak and have a drop-shaped section where the thinner end rests on the cleats on the planks. When the ship was excavated only nine of originally 19 frames were recovered, and most of them in a fragmentary state. On the single cleats on the fifth strake the top of the frames rest by means of hook-like heads, the spacing of the frames averages a little more than one metre. All fastenings between plank cleats and frames are done by rope lashing. In the midship frames are three holes for thwart stanchions, towards the stem and stern the number of stanchions is reduced to two and eventually just a single one. The thwarts were badly preserved and today none of the originals exist in the ship as exhibited. Their design was recorded by Engelhardt as a flat straight board with notches in either end to make room for the top of the frames. They are fastened to the top cleats with treenails.

During the recent campaign some timbers were found which are believed to be transverse supports for floor boards. The floor boards themselves are also represented in the new material.

The number of oars have been established with some certainty to 15 pairs, of which maybe one has been added during the working life of the ship. None of the rowlocks in the ship as exhibited are originals, and their uniform appearance does not correspond with the drawings made immediately after the excavation, nor with the newly found ones. The horizontal distance from the middle of the thwart to the position of the oar is only some 30 cm, and the oars are no more than 3 to 3,5 m long. This indicates a rowing technique with short quick strokes - different from techniques suggested by later ship finds.

The side rudder was poorly preserved when found, and Engelhardt had a copy made for the exhibition. The present rudder is yet another copy, but luckily Engelhardt's draughtsman Magnus Petersen made a detailed drawing of the original, which shows a rudder with a long shaft and a short broad blade. On top is a transverse tiller and a handle.

In the last season of the new campaign - 1997 - two 1.4 m long wooden poles with sculpted heads of men were found in the vicinity of where the bow area of the ship used to be. The faces are carved with marked features and they have long "beards" under the chins. The sides are flat and feature-less, but square holes have been cut through the heads where one would have placed the ears. Maybe the poles have been fitted in the bow with the heads resting on the gunwale, serving for instance as bitts.

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Text: Otto Uldum
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