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Vikings, according to John Hale, archeologist and director of the Liberal Studies Program at the University of Louisville, were "in some ways, just as bad as everybody thinks."

Viking Ship
Viking enthusiasts set sail in a longship replica. (Photo courtesy of the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark)
During their peak, from 800 to 1100 A.D., they attacked armies and civilians across Europe. They murdered, raped, pillaged, stole, destroyed, colonized, and defiled religious centers. Those who resisted were killed. Those who didn't resist were often killed anyway.

On the other hand, the Vikings had strong family bonds, strict law and order in their communities, a society in which women had more freedom than in other European cultures, self-sufficiency born of a farming tradition, and a passion for art, poetry, oral "sagas," and craftsmanship -as exemplified in their shipbuilding.

Everything about Viking longships flies in the face of modern vessel design and construction. They were leaky, needed constant bailing, rode barely above the water line, and appeared so long as to be unmaneuverable. Yet, they were fast, sturdy, highly navigable, and thin enough to invade the narrowest inland waterways. The Viking ship was the perfect vessel for its time and purpose, Hale says.

John Hale
John Hale, archaeologist and director of the Liberal Studies Program at
U of L. For more than 20 years, Hale has researched the ancient shipbuilding techniques that culminated in the elegant Viking longship.
Tracing the long evolution of Scandinavian boatbuilding, from the times before the Vikings, has been the focus of much of Hale's research since his dissertation work at Cambridge University in England in the 1970s. Through his work, Hale has dated the origins of Viking shipbuilding techniques much earlier than previously thought, and debunked other assumptions about boat construction in the Bronze Age.

At one time, scholars believed the Viking longship, a sleek warship or ceremonial vessel, existed only in myth. Then fragments of a Viking ship, six times longer than it was wide, were unearthed at Ladby, Denmark in 1935. Since then, five more longships have been excavated, most by renowned archaeologist Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, silencing skeptics of Viking shipbuilding prowess. The most immense longship ever found, 35 meters (115 feet) long, was unearthed in Roskilde, Denmark in 1997.

Hale was writing an article on Viking longships for Scientific American magazine when the Roskilde find was announced. "The Viking Longship" was published in the February 1998 issue as a companion piece to a Scientific American Frontiers television special on Viking ships. However, the Roskilde find was made after the show was filmed, making Hale's article the first account of the discovery.

"I combined this fresh, hot-off-the-press information from Roskilde with the information I had assembled about the Bronze-Age, and even the Stone-Age, ancestors of Viking ships to create a technological saga which featured the skill and the genius of these Scandinavian boatbuilders," Hale says.

Viking Ship
Above, the most immense longship ever found, 35 meters (115 feet) long, was unearthed in Roskilde, Denmark in 1997. (Photos courtesy of the Viking Ship Museum)
Hale's fascination with ancient boatbuilding has its roots in his upbringing. He hails from a family whose business is woodworking, lumber, and veneer. His path to archeology stems from his boyhood in New Albany, Indiana, where newly-dug gardens and house foundation sites often yielded spears and axes left from old Indian camps and buffalo trails.

As an undergraduate at Yale University in 1969, Hale learned to row and has been an avid oarsman ever since. It was there that he first researched ancient Greek rowing techniques, which were quite advanced but were not "reinvented" until the 19th century.

Hale continued his rowing at Cambridge, and shifted his research to the earliest ships of Scandinavia. In his dissertation, he demonstrated that boats of the Bronze Age were not constructed with skin over a wooden frame, as previously believed, but were made entirely of wood.

"The more I studied skin boats, the harder it became to match (them) with the features of the Bronze Age pictures," Hale says. "In the Bronze Age, the Scandinavians started raising these high ends to their boats with heads of horses, dragons, and serpents. No skin boats have high ends because you have to flip the boat over to dry every time you bring it on the beach. That was my first clue that there was something amiss with the current theory.

"Current theory (also) implied that Viking ships were a young tradition, beginning at the time of the Roman Empire, and that boats built by Scandinavians in earlier ages had nothing to do with Viking ships, (yet) I could see so many visual similarities. I just couldn't believe this, (so) I was happy when it was possible to show that these were elements of a tradition that depended on wood, on an absolute genius for choosing the right wood."

The Scientific American article provided a forum for Hale to lay out his arguments favoring a longer history for Viking shipbuilding.

"There was no Henry Ford for Viking ships," Hale says. "These technological marvels weren't the brain child of a single inventor. They were the products of thousands of years of evolution, and hundreds of generations of shipwrights perfecting this model through time. That was the aspect of these ships that interested me the most."

As vapors arose from a crack in the earth, the old priestess Pythia inhaled deeply. In a state of ecstasy, she regaled a visitor with cryptic speech-words of wisdom said to emanate directly from the god Apollo.

For centuries in ancient Greece, the town of Delphi was said to be the "center of the earth," and its sacred temple to Apollo on the slope of Mt. Parnassus was the site of the Oracle of Delphi-a place where words of divinity were spoken. Transformed by the vapors into a heightened spiritual state, Pythia's utterances were actually said to be those of Apollo, set to verse by a waiting priest and interpreted for the enlightenment of all who made the pilgrimage.

The prophetic powers of the Delphic Oracle were so vaunted that wars were fought over the site's possession. At some point during the Roman occupation of Delphi, the vapors of the oracle suddenly ceased and so did the prophecies.

After modern geological excavations of the oracle site failed to produce evidence of gaseous vents in the earth, scientists proclaimed the old legends "debunked."

Recent road work at Mt. Parnassus, however, exposed a substantial geological fault that has since been studied by Jelle de Boer, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and U of L archaeologist John Hale. Based on two site studies, de Boer and Hale concluded that two geological faults cross at Delphi, a phenomenon consistent with geophysical activity such as hot springs and gas vents.

"Jelle was able to show that there had been earthquake after earthquake at the site, and that the underlying rock was limestone with petrochemicals in it which, under the heat generated by earthquakes, vaporized into gases like methane, which are intoxicating," Hale says. "One of the ancient high priests, named Plutarch, actually said that in his time, the second century A.D., the vapor had stopped. He speculated that earthquakes had closed off the vents that brought the gases to the surface. It's interesting that a modern geologist would have exactly that explanation for what happened to the famous intoxicating vapors in the temple of Delphi."

Hale and de Boer recently presented papers on these findings in Chicago and London, respectively, and plan to publish a jointly-authored book on the subject.

Whether one believes that the Delphi vapors induced spiritual communication, or just made an old woman high, Hale says the study was successful. "(De Boer's) interest was in earthquakes but my interest was in vindicating these ancient sources."