Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/Some Prehistoric Vessels

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 19 May 1881  (1881) 
Some Prehistoric Vessels


A VERY remarkable archæological discovery has recently attracted the attention of the scientific world in Scandinavia, and has become a matter of popular concern in Norway, where every one is interested in the ancient and glorious national traditions. The baths of Sandefiord are situated in the southwestern part of the fiord of Christiania. The road from that place to the ancient city of Tansberg passes near the village of Gogstad, not far from which is a tumulus or funeral-mound, which has been long known in the local traditions under the name of Kangshaug, or the Mound of the King. This heap, which is nearly fifty metres, or more than one hundred and sixty feet, in diameter, rises in a gentle slope from the level of the plains and meadows which extend from the fiord to the foot of the mountains, and is covered with a verdant sod. According to the legend, a powerful king had chosen the spot as the place where he should finally rest, surrounded by his horses and his hunting-dogs; and his most precious treasures had been buried near his body. Superstition and the fear of avenging spirits had for centuries prevented every kind of examination of the tomb, but the investigating zeal of our age ventured to penetrate the mystery. Excavations were made, and brought forth the discovery of an entire viking's war-vessel, and the grave of the unknown chief by its side.

The sons of the peasant on whose land the tumulus was situated began to dig into it in January and February, 1880; they turned away a spring which they found in digging, and soon afterward met with building-timbers. Wisely, they suspended their labors to bring them to the attention of the society at Christiania for the preservation of ancient monuments. This society took charge of the subsequent excavations, and sent Mr. Nicolaysen, a learned and skillful antiquary, to superintend them. They were continued under his direction during April and May, and finally brought the viking's vessel into view. The ship was twenty-two and a half metres (or about seventy-two feet) long, five metres (or seventeen feet) wide in the middle, would draw a metre and a half (or five feet) of water, and had twenty ribs or benches for rowers. It is considerably the largest vessel of antiquity that has yet been discovered.

The Danish Professor Engelhardt, in 1863, unearthed from the turf-pits of Nydam, in Schleswig, a vessel fourteen metres (or forty-five and a half feet) long; and another vessel was found in 1867, at Tune, thirteen metres (or forty-two feet) long. Neither of these vessels could be compared, however, as to its state of preservation or its dimensions, with the one found at Gogstad.

The tumulus is now nearly a mile from the sea, but the nature of the alluvial soil makes it evident that the waves formerly washed its base. The vessel had, it then appears, been drawn immediately out of the fiord, and placed upon a bed of fascines or hurdles and moss. The walls had then been covered with clay, the hold filled with earth and sand, and the whole covered over so as to form a tumulus. The prow of the vessel was turned toward the sea, for at that period it was believed that, when God should call the chief, he would come out of his grave and launch his ship all equipped upon the waves of the ocean.

Some interesting objects were found on the prow of the vessel, which at first escaped attention. A piece of a beam showed the hole in which the shaft of an anchor had been inserted, but only bits of iron were found. The remains of two or three small oaken canoes of very fine form were unearthed, and by their side were found a number of oars, some of which were intended for the canoes, and some for the vessel itself. They were eighteen or twenty feet long, and of a shape much like that of the oars which are used in England in regattas. The blocks were worked very thin, and some of them were ornamented with carvings. The floor of the ship was as well preserved as if it had been built yesterday, and was adorned with curved lines. Some pieces of wood seemed to have formed parts of drag-nets. Certain beams and planks are supposed to have formed partitions separating the benches of rowers from one another, leaving a passage in the middle. A neatly shaped hatchet, several inches long and of the form common to hatchets of the iron age, was found on a pile of oaken chips. Some beams had dragons' heads at their ends, rudely carved and painted in the same colors as the walls of the vessel—that is, in black and yellow. The colors are still bright enough to show that water has not greatly affected them. As olive and other vegetable oils were then unknown, we must suppose that the colors were prepared with some kind of fat, perhaps with whale-oil.

The excavations were continued till the whole length of the vessel was exposed. All along the outside of the walls, from the prow to the poop, extended a series of circular bucklers lapping one over another like the scales of a fish, of which nearly a hundred, partly

PSM V19 D092 Ancient scandinavian vessel found in gokstad.jpg
Fig. 1.—Ancient Scandinavian Vessel Found in the Tumulus of Gogstad, Norway.

painted yellow and black, remain. In many places the wood of the bucklers has been destroyed, and only the central plate of iron is left. The famous tapestry of Bayeux shows quite plainly how the vessels of the vikings were furnished with rows of bucklers (Fig. 2), but it has been supposed that they were the shields which the soldiers used in action, and which were hung there for the sake of convenience. It is now evident that they had no purpose but ornament, as they were of wood, not much thicker than pasteboard, and could not resist a sword-thrust that was given with any force.

A large block of oak, solidly fixed in the bottom at the middle of the vessel, had a square hole for the mast; and some circumstances indicated that the mast could be laid down. A few pieces of rope, and some rags of a woolen stuff, probably the sail, were also found.

The funeral-chamber was built on one side of the tumulus, with strong planks and beams set obliquely one against another, the whole occupying a space of two or three square metres. This was opened, with the expectation of finding arms or precious objects, but the explorers were disappointed. The tomb had probably been violated at some previous epoch. A few threads of a kind of brocade, a few parts of bridles and saddles, some articles in bronze, silver, and lead, and metallic buttons, on one of which was artistically represented a knight letting down his lance, were all that could be found here. The bones of a horse and of two or three hunting-dogs were discovered in the sides of the chamber.

A large copper vessel, supposed to be the kettle of the ship, was found in the forward part of the boat. It had been hammered out of a single sheet of copper, and afforded satisfactory evidence of the industrial skill of those remote times. Another vessel, of iron, with ears and a bail, was found, with some wooden bowls near it. It was at first intended to remove the whole of the ship to the Museum of Christiania, and Mr. Treshan, a large proprietor of the neighborhood,

PSM V19 D093 Attempted restoration of an ancient scandinavian vessel.jpg
Fig. 2.—Attempted Restoration op an Ancient Scandinavian Vessel.

offered to pay the expense of the removal. The persons having the matter in charge, however, decided, after a careful examination and consideration of the subject by an expert, that it would be cable to carry the vessel away, and that it would be better to cover it from the weather and leave it where it was found. Only the smaller objects were taken to Christiania.

Antiquaries have agreed in ascribing the epoch of the erection of the tumulus to the most ancient iron age, or to the ninth or tenth century of our era—most probably to the age of Harold the Fair-haired, founder of the Norwegian state.

Dr. Y. Gross, of Neuveville, Switzerland, has furnished a description of an ancient canoe which was found in April, 1880, buried in the ground near the shores of the Lake of Bienne, and which has been placed in the museum at Neuveville. It is of oak, and differs somewhat in shape from similar canoes that have been found heretofore. The stern has the square form of modern boats, and the prow

PSM V19 D094 Lacustrine canoe found in the lake of bienne.jpg
Fig. 3.—Lacustrine Canoe found in the Lake of Bienne.

is adorned with a spur-shaped prolongation (Fig. 3). The boat is 9·55 metres (or a little more than thirty feet) long, from two and a half to three feet broad, and about nineteen inches deep. Rounded notches at intervals along the sides seem to have been intended as rests for oars. A piece of about five feet by nine inches appears to have been broken or taken out of one of the sides near the stern, the place of which may have been supplied by a plank. In order to preserve the form of the vessel against warping and shrinkage, it was soaked in boiled linseed-oil to which colophene was afterward added. The application, after a sufficient number of repetitions, was attended by such satisfactory results that Dr. Gross has no hesitation in recommending it for all objects that are too bulky to be put in glycerine.—La Nature.

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