Haithabu 1

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From 1979 and almost 20 years ahead this wreck held the position as the worlds longest Viking ship found. In 1997 a new find in Roskilde harbour took over this title, which with the inclusion of Skuldelev 2 makes a group of three wrecks from old Danish territory of very long warships dating from the late Viking Period. Either rowed or under sail they have been awesome demonstrations of wealth and power as well as serving the purpose of transporting large numbers of warriors. The Haithabu 1 wreck was built in the Nordic clinker tradition with excellent craftsmanship of the finest materials, but ended its service as a fireship in an attack on the town of Haithabu probably very close to the place where it was built.

The town of Haithabu - excavations and research history

From its founding in the 8th century Haithabu (Hedeby in Danish) soon grew to be the most important trading place and communication centre in Viking Age Denmark. It was situated in the bottom of the Schlei Fjord in the south-western corner of the Baltic just south of the present Danish-German border. It served as a transit port between the Baltic region and the Saxon and Frankish markets.

The town was laid out inside a semi-circular rampart that is still preserved, and excavations in this area have been carried out from 1900 with regular intervals. The harbour area was investigated already in the 1930'ies by a diver though little was learned by then due to the muddy conditions in the shallow fjord. Loose finds turned up in 1949 and systematic diving reconnaissance was carried out in 1953, which yielded lots of artefacts such as bone and pottery. Moreover coherent pilings were found, and next to one of these the Haithabu 1 wreck. Some timbers were recovered before the wreck was marked with poles and secured.

A seismic survey in the Haithabu harbour was carried out in the years 1979-81 with a "pinger", an echo sounder which is capable of detecting objects lying embedded in sediment. With this equipment even objects as swords and axes were found, but also wooden objects such as poles and parts of wrecks. Two more wrecks were also detected; wreck 2 which was rather fragmentary and wreck 3, a large cargo ship.

The Haithabu 1 wreck was excavated in 1979. A cofferdam of 22 by 8 metres was built around it, and a 10 metre wide extension of this ran onto the shore. The uncovering of the timbers was carried out from moveable gangways above the timbers, and the waterlogged wood had to be kept wet at all times with foam rubber and sprinklers. The preserved part of the wreck was mainly made up by a coherent portion in the fore half of the port side, but quite a few loose timbers lay scattered around the wreck. From the fourth strake and up the ship was heavily charred, and it had evidently been on fire and burnt down to the waterline before it sank. The surviving timbers have proven to be sufficient material to present a reconstruction of the wreck. A full scale model of the fore part of the wreck is on display in the Wikinger Museum Haithabu.

Constructional features of the Haithabu 1 wreck

As found the wreck was about 16 metres long but originally the ship was much longer than this. The method employed in assessing the original length is based on a diagram of the widths of the planks and the keel correlated to their length. It is known from other wrecks of similar character of the period, that the planks have their greatest width around amidships or a little abaft of this, which in this case is around the aftermost preserved frames. This gives an initial estimation of between 26 and 32 metres, but because of preserved internals the position of the mast can be established with greater certainty which offers a better indication of the total length. As reconstructed in drawing the ship was 30.9 metres long. The beam is on the basis of planks and internals suggested to have been 2.7 metres and the height 1.5 metres.

The oak keel was U-shaped in section and 16 cm wide but worn down to only 6 cm in height. It has originally been well over 26 metres long, whereof at least in the fore 2.5 metres was made up by a transition piece to the stem. The garboard was riveted to the keel except for a length of about 4 metres near the stem where it was spiked. In traditional Nordic fashion all the planks were fastened to each other by iron rivets, but in this case unusually closely spaced with regular intervals of 10 cm. The section of the individual planks followed the curvature of the hull i.e. the planks near the keel curved outwards and the planks near the waterline and up curved inwards. The planks were of oak and very wide; in strake 1-4 up to 26 cm, and in the 5th up to 37.5 cm. The thickness varied between 1.2 and 2.4 cm. Plank seams were luted with twisted wool soaked in tar.

The framing consisted according to the reconstruction of 34 stations indicated by floor timbers placed with regular intervals of 85 cm. They were made of oak and ash and very high in section over the keel, and tapered towards the top which reached the upper edge of strake 4. Cross beams - so-called bites - were placed here with standing knees covering the 5th strake. On the upper edge of this strake was a longitudinal reinforcement - a stringer - on which another cross beam was resting. Also the 6th strake had a stringer on the inside. The gunwale was probably made up by the 7th strake, trough which oarports were cut. This corresponds well with the upper cross beams functioning as thwarts. Between the main frames intermediate frames of ash and elder covered strakes 2-4.

The keelson itself was not preserved, but evidence of its size and position is provided by keelson knees and so-called snelles which most likely has kept it in place on frames 14-19. The mast step was placed immediately aft of frame 16. With this reconstruction a single square rig has also been proposed though nothing of this was preserved.

Dating and interpretation of the Haithabu 1 wreck

It was evident from the beginning of the excavation that the ship sank because of the fire, but also that it happened at the end of the towns active life due to the fact that the wreck lay on top of the town debris. Several samples have been cut for dendro-chronological dating, and the result of the analysis states that the trees of which the ship was built were felled just around 985 AD, within all probability immediately before the building took place. The samples also showed that the trees grew in the Slesvig region, indicating that the ship ended its life close to where it was built.

The ship was built and maintained to the highest standards, but were of some age when it was filled with hay or brushwood and deliberately set on fire in an attack on Haithabu. This probably happened between 990 and 1010 AD.

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Text: Otto Uldum
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