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Modern is better - or so some people think, yet the crafts, techniques and technologies of the past continue to surface as superior to our so-called 'modern' improvements on them. The Viking ship's sail is a good example of this.

As early as 1400 BC Norwegian farmers kept sheep and burnt the heather, Villsau, the breed of sheep they preferred, must eat a rich variety of grasses in the summer to gain the weight they need to survive winter; fire augments the suppression of heather and young pines, and keeps the land clear for new grass. Over the centuries the Vikings continued to raise their sheep and use the wool for many purposes, including of course, clothing.

But when it came to making sails for their ships they excelled. For example, it is believed that the Danish king Knut II had more than 1700 ships at his command when he laid plans to oust William 1st from England in 1085 AD. The sails for this fleet came from sheep, and the wool was worked by women, who laboured year after year using drop spindles and looms.

A Norse law dating from about 1000 AD says, "The man on whom responsibility falls and who lives near the . . .

Modern is better - or so some people think, yet the crafts, techniques and technologies of the past continue to surface as superior to our so-called 'modern' improvements on them. The Viking ship's sail is a good example of this.

As early as 1400 BC Norwegian farmers kept sheep and burnt the heather, Villsau, the breed of sheep they preferred, must eat a rich variety of grasses in the summer to gain the weight they need to survive winter; fire augments the suppression of heather and young pines, and keeps the land clear for new grass. Over the centuries the Vikings continued to raise their sheep and use the wool for many purposes, including of course, clothing.

But when it came to making sails for their ships they excelled. For example, it is believed that the Danish king Knut II had more than 1700 ships at his command when he laid plans to oust William 1st from England in 1085 AD. The sails for this fleet came from sheep, and the wool was worked by women, who laboured year after year using drop spindles and looms.

A Norse law dating from about 1000 AD says, "The man on whom responsibility falls and who lives near the sea, shall store the sail in the church. If the church burns, this man is responsible for the sail." The sail was a prized possession. It was crucial to the defense of Norway's long coast against rival clans and foreign invaders.

A few years ago the remains of one of these sails was discovered in a church ceiling in Trondenes. It was analyzed and found to be made of woven wool, from the villsau sheep, so plans were made to reconstruct a woolen sale exactly as the Vikings did it.

Even a simple sail is a highly complex tensile structure. The fabric must be heavy enough to withstand strong winds, and also the strain from the rigging, but not so heavy that it slows down the ship, or is difficult to raise or lower. It must be elastic, so that it fills with enough wind to form an area of low pressure in front of the sail, but not so elastic that it forms irregular pockets. The sail's form must also be correct: too flat and it won't propel the boat, but too bowed and the boat won't maneuver in the wind. The trick to achieving this balance lies in the strength of the different threads, the tightness of their twist, and their interlacing and water-tightness.

The remains of the cloth showed, under a microscope, that only the long, coarse hairs of the villsau were used, and so a team set out to harvest sufficient of this wool to weave a sail. (They also added some similar wool from a similar breed, the spelsau) Both types of wool had to be worked by hand to preserve the lanolin, but even before this painstaking work began the wool had to be "rooed" or pulled from the villsau in midsummer. One sail, of 85 square metres, consumed 2000 kilograms of wool, from 2000 sheep. All the longer. Outer hairs had to be separated by hand, a task that took four people six months to do. Spinning the wool into 165,000 metres and weaving the sail took two and a half years.

The ship made her maiden voyage in 1995 and was christened the Sara Kjerstine.

You would think that a heavy woollen sail would be no match for today's modern technologies, with their carbon fibre, and synthetics, but scientists who tested the Viking sail found that the woollen sails actually powered the Viking ships about 10% faster upwind, and could sail closer to the wind than modern sails.

Just as supposedly 'old fashioned' inventions quite often turn out to be proof of great intelligence and ingenuity, the Bible records several examples of the same thing from much earlier in human history: the building of the ark in Noah's day, and the tower of Babel after the flood. Both examples demonstrate that Man's intelligence has not grown in any significant way since those times, and the discovery of the Viking sail is further proof of this.

Richard Gunther, Copyright 2006

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