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Ole Crumlin Pedersen: Doyen of nautical archaeology


One of the key people to bring archaeology into the post-war world and the 21st century (where coasts, sea and the vessels to navigate these are seen as central to human development) was Ole Crumlin Pedersen, Danish naval architect turned nautical archaeologist, museum creator, author, innovative designer and founder of integrated research centres.

Always hands-on, he was still at work when he died on a blueprint of the 1500 BC Dover boat intended for a gala anniversary crossing of the Channel next summer. A colleague described him as "the most important nautical archaeologist so far".

A turning point in his career came in 1962 when Viking ships were revealed in the mud of Roskilde Fjord at Skuldelev. A sunken vessel long known as "Queen Margaret's ship" had blocked the passage through the shallow waters leading to the cathedral city and medieval capital, Roskilde, a target for shipborne raids from the north. Crumlin, as a young naval architect and diver, identified the timbers as Viking and reported that there were at least five ships of different types.

And so it proved when the site was pumped out within a surrounding coffer-dam and the timbers cleaned by hand, tagged, wrapped and individually lifted. There were thousands of them and while their shape and structure survived they were as manageable as planks of soft cheese. Methods had to be devised for handling, stabilising and conserving, and then abstracting the maximum information.

Crumlin put the ships back together again in their original shapes once rid of the distortions of a thousand years. Such precision work confirmed that ships were the most advanced technical construction of their time and required the largest, most elaborate "industrial" organisation of which the community was capable. The Skuldelev ships and restoration became a benchmark in the advancing discipline of ship archaeology.

Another phase of Crumlin's career was the setting up of an interdisciplinary Research Centre as a separate department in Roskilde in 1993. Here he could expand his vision and delve into the many topics thrown up by – but peripheral to – 30 years of concentrated ship archaeology: work on sacrificial deposits in bogs and lakes; submerged Stone Age settlements; hidden harbours, havens and shipyards that serviced the ships of the Vikings; boat-graves and rock carvings: these were some themes to pursue.

By 2003 the Centre had becomea forcing house for overseas talent as well as supporting Scandinavian research and a demand for a well-equipped cadre of Danish graduates. Crumlin and the Centre exerted a huge influence worldwide.

Ole Crumlin Pedersen would sometimes, laughing, call himself "Ol' crumblin' Pedersen". He had overworked, over-performed, never stopped over a long working life. The closure of the Centre, coinciding with loss of staff and cut-backs at the museum at Roskilde, was a watershed. Though always smiling and surrounded by people, he was a very private man and here he took some knocks. He was single-minded: ship archaeology was his life. The challenge was for quality.

He imparted this to his disciples (as many became) and it changed their lives. Despite his extreme standards, half of his original cohort were still working with him 20 years later. As a mentor, one wrote, "he had an exceptional talent for making others feel intelligent". A contemporary colleague and scholar who was drawn into maritime archaeology by Crumlin says simply "... a star has been extinguished in the sky of international research."

Ole Crumlin Pedersen, nautical archaeologist: born 24 February 1935; died 12 October 2011.