As Norway struggles to find funding to preserve their longships, Denmark is celebrating a milestone with one of theirs. The longest Viking ship ever found, the Roskilde 6, has been on the road since 2013, and has traveled on tour across Europe and North America. The entire journey is a feat of modern preservation techniques. Roskilde 6’s trip has exposed it to a wide variety of climates, but efforts by the exhibition’s staff, including the use of hermetically sealed coffers, has defied the odds and offered to museums across Europe and North America a glimpse at one of Denmark’s most prized historical treasures.
The Roskilde 6 longship was found entirely by chance in 1996 when the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum began work to expand its campus. Workers found the ship’s remains almost as soon as they started to dig, and archeologists intervened. No sooner than the excavation had begun, those involved realized they had not found just any longship. Measuring in at 37 meters (121 feet) long, the Roskilde 6 is the longest of its kind ever discovered. Its unusual length made it impossible to exhume from the ground in a single segment, so archeologists had to dig it out piece by piece.
Conditions above ground were cause for concern. The humid, oxygen-rich air risked destroying the ship’s wood. Cleaning, analysis, and documentation of each piece had to be done quickly. Preserving it, however, is no small task. For 15 years after pulling it from the ground, conservators have worked continuously to keep the ship’s wood intact. While ships pulled from ground appear well-preserved, the reality archeologists find is that the pieces are profoundly degraded. Kristiane Strætkvern, the head conservator for Roskilde 6 at the National Museum of Denmark, has led the efforts to preserve the ship since it was found.
Beginning in 2008, the National Museum of Denmark started a collaboration with the British Museum London and the Museum für Vörnd Frühgeschichte (Museum of pre-history) in Berlin to create a Viking-themed exhibit. Curators wanted to showcase an artifact that would draw large audiences. What would attract more viewers than the longest longship in history? As ambitious as it was to add the Roskilde 6 ship to the traveling exhibit, curators and conservators worked together to make it happen.
To prepare the Roskilde 6 for its long journey on the road with the Viking exhibit, conservators prepared the wood through a process called lyophilization, or freeze-drying. Once prepped, the pieces were placed in hermetically sealed cases. Alongside the original wood, the exhibit also features a metal skeleton of the ship (see video below) that assembles and disassembles somewhat like legos (because Denmark!) to represent the shape the ship had before it was buried.Vikings: Interview with Roskilde 6 Conservator from The Franklin Institute on Vimeo.
Despite their diligent attempts to preserve the ship, the six years it has spent on the road have taken their toll. Now on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the humid conditions in the museum are worrying curators of the exhibit and the original conservators. More concerning for them is that the display has one more stop on its way home, and it isn’t scheduled to return to Roskilde until 2020. Kristiane Strætkvern, who continues to work with the exhibit, would prefer to take the ship back to Denmark early. The Franklin Institute has taken steps to improve conditions (which Kristiane Strætkvern said were adequate in a recent interview) while they still have the ship on display, which has helped slow the wood’s decay. What the ship needs, ultimately, is to be placed in a stable environment for the long-term.