DAVID ARNOLD - Medieval mystery played out beside River Rother

A Scandinavian longship. In 1822 what was thought to be a Danish vessel was discovered buried in a field near Northiam, East Sussex. More recent examination of the facts indicates that it dated from Medieval times. But one question concerning a 'species of moss' remains unanswered. SUS-150704-152602001
A Scandinavian longship. In 1822 what was thought to be a Danish vessel was discovered buried in a field near Northiam, East Sussex. More recent examination of the facts indicates that it dated from Medieval times. But one question concerning a 'species of moss' remains unanswered. SUS-150704-152602001
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History has always fascinated me. None more so than when there is an element of mystery attached to a particular story of olden days. I came across a perfect example recently when learning of an 
exciting discovery made in the Rother valley near Northiam. It occurred in 1822 when the remarkably well-preserved remains of a very ancient ship were uncovered.

The eminent Sussex historian Thomas Horsfield, who was alive at the time, recorded that the vessel was of Danish origin. He wrote: “Her dimensions were, from head to stern, 65 feet, and her width 14 feet, with cabin and forecastle; and she appears to have originally had a whole deck. In her caulking was a species of moss peculiar to the country in which she was built.

“In the cabin … was found a human skull with a pair of goat’s horns attached to a part of the cranium; a dirk or poniard, about half an inch of the blade of which had wholly resisted corrosion; several parts of shoes, or rather sandals, fitting low on the foot; two earthern jars and a stone mug, all of very ancient shape…”

Horsfield added: “There was a piece of board exhibiting about 30 perforations, probably designed for keeping the lunar months, or for some game or amusement, together with many other antique relics.”

The River Rother today doesn’t appear anything like wide enough to have accommodated such a large vessel. But we know that 1,000 or so years ago it was a much more expansive waterway. Indeed in the year 892 it is said that no less than 250 Viking ships came up the river, which in those days was also known as the Limene. They destroyed a fort that was under construction on the edge of the Weald and moved on to make camp at Appledore in Kent where they stayed for several years until the army of Alfred the Great expelled them.

So the circumstantial evidence sits well with the story of a Danish ship becoming buried in a field beside a Sussex river. Unfortunately, neither the ship nor the various artefacts listed by Horsfield appear to have survived.

What I did find out is that the Science Museum apparently has a print that shows the vessel as she lay in the excavation. An accompanying commentary makes the point that back in 1822, our knowledge of ancient ships was very limited. Thus it was easy to conclude that the ship must have belonged to Scandinavian marauders, known to have passed this way in Sussex.

In fact modern interpretation of the print indicates that the vessel was built no earlier than the 14th century. She was of a type employed in the English coastal trade. Further, it was deduced that the ship was most likely used to transport stone up the Rother to Bodiam Castle, a fortress that was under construction in 1385. So the true story of the “Danish” ship is a little more prosaic than that imagined by the original finders back in 1822. On the other hand, unearthing a medieval vessel from the mud is no mean discovery either. Yet there still remains a final mystery; why was Horsfield so specific about that “species of moss” in the ship’s caulking as coming from Denmark?