One thousand years ago the community of Roskilde had a problem. Then the seat of the Kings of Denmark, the settlement was ideally placed, at the head of a wide fjord with swift access to the open sea. But this meant outsiders could find their way in just as easily as the inhabitants could find their way out. There were three shipping routes in to the harbour, one straight and deep, one that wound its way through rocks and shallows and one almost impassable without local knowledge. In a reverse Goldilocks manoeuver, Roskilde chose to close all but the most difficult. But how to do it? Whatever blocked the channels would need to be big, to be resistant to the powers of the water and to be something that nobody wanted any more, that they wouldn’t mind sacrificing to the waves. At some point thoughts turned to five old ships that were reaching the end of their service, and the solution became obvious.
It is unlikely that anyone at the time the blockade was sunk thought that, rather than being destroyed, the ships should be protected as symbols of cultural heritage. Ironically, if they had, and the ships had remained on shore without the protective embrace of the waters, the wood would have rotted and crumbled away. The decision to sink them inadvertently preserved for posterity the greatest and most varied collection of late Viking era ships in the world, a powerful example that one man’s rubbish can be another’s treasure.
As I looked at the skeletons of the ships, their ribs visible like the carcasses of mighty beached whales, I wondered what would be thrown away by my generation that may be discovered and revered one thousand years in the future. We have become a society obsessed with preservation. Throughout time humans have worried about their mortality; sometimes this has led to a rejection of the material in the knowledge that, in the end, things do not really matter, sometimes, as with now, we strive to record and keep every minutiae in an attempt to justify and commemorate our existence. What we throw away we truly do not want and the sea is one of the greatest victims. It saddened me to think that, rather than wooden ships, we are leaving our descendants a legacy of vast floating rafts of plastic. I hope there will not be a museum to that.