January / February 2024

On the Edge of an Axe

Building a traditional Viking boat in modern times
A 900-year-old boat re-created.

MATTHEW BARNES

The author led the Leetes Island Boatworks crew in re-creating a 900-year-old boat found and documented by archaeologists at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.

In 2017, when I was working as a shipwright at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, Søren Nielsen visited from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, where he is the boatshop director. I had come to deeply admire boatbuilders such as Søren who had not only a high level of skill but also a sense of purpose. In my work, I had been focusing especially on adze and axe work, learning much from my colleagues. My interest had become an obsession by the time of Søren’s visit, and during our conversations he ended up inviting me to join a boat-construction project at his museum that summer. A fellowship grant from Mystic Seaport made it possible; I was soon on a plane for Copenhagen.

During that summer, I spent 16 weeks as an apprentice working on the museum’s third reconstruction of a type of boat that had become known as the Gislinge boat, the 12th-century original of which was documented by archaeologists after it was unearthed in a municipality by that name (see sidebar, page 69). Its construction was right in line with the Viking tradition, but it was relatively small at 25'. That meant its construction could be accomplished in a reasonable time, giving me a full experience in Viking Age clinker boatbuilding, or what we would call lapstrake construction. I fully immersed myself, trying to learn everything I could, from cleaving oak logs, to making the resulting 16' × 12" pieces perfectly flat using only an axe, to using open fire to bend them into planks. While I was there, I took some time to travel around Scandinavia and northern Europe, following the path of the Norse peoples’ westward expansion to study how it affected boatbuilding in the region and how it survives today.

After returning home in September, I found myself with my hands on a computer more and more and on the axe less and less. In 2019, I decided to leave the museum to get back to hands-on boatbuilding, and I partnered with Tucker Yaro to start Leetes Island Boatworks in Guilford, Connecticut. The dream of doing a project such as the Gislinge seemed to be falling farther and farther out of reach. One day, however, a friend at the museum called to say someone had asked about having such a boat built; the museum declined it, but my friend referred the query to me.

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