Not only were these Viking ships unique in design, structure and decoration, but they also helped propel Viking warriors across rivers, seas and oceans with lightning speed.
These ships were the perfect tool to allow Viking warriors to strike fear into communities from modern-day Canada to Constantinople.
Surrounded by the sea
The Scandinavian Peninsula – as the name suggests – is surrounded by water. For millennia before the first Viking set foot on a ship, peoples and communities in this region had developed an economical, religious, and military function for ships.
As forests and mountain ranges dominate the Scandinavian Peninsula, shipping was often seen as the most efficient and easiest method to facilitate communication and trade.
Aside from its more pragmatic purposes, the ship had also developed ceremonial and religious functions for people living on the Scandinavia Peninsula.
Archaeologists have discovered stone engravings of ships from as far back as the Nordic Stone Age (115,000 – 11,700 BCE), whilst the Nydam and Hjortspring boats, discovered in Denmark, were believed to have been buried as part of an elaborate ritual ceremony.
The importance of ships only grew during the Viking Age (793 – 1066 CE). They were not only a sign of power or wealth – desirable by local political rulers and elites but also helped population growth.
Once small communities, like Ribe (Denmark), Oslo (Norway), or Birka (Sweden), soon grew in size and stature to become important hubs of commerce thanks to goods and people ferried by Viking ships.
Unique method of boatbuilding
Perhaps the most important design aspect of any Viking-era boat was how it was constructed. As Scandinavia was never incorporated into the Roman Empire, a separate and distinct boatbuilding method was allowed to foster without any Mediterranean influence.
Clinker-built boats (sometimes known as lapstrake) were a method of boat construction that originated in Scandinavia that has been traced back to boats constructed as far as the 4th century BCE.
This technique sees the edges of planks that form the hull overlap, making the boat not only more hydrodynamically efficient – and thus smoother, able to glide through the water faster – but also more robust and more flexible than other boat designs.
Furthermore, this greater flexibility allowed a small overall displacement that was an advantage when crossing the often dangerous and choppy waters in the North Atlantic Ocean and its tributary seas.
The boat's planks were fastened together with copper or iron rivets and iron nails bent to form a hook or screws.
Though made famous by Viking era Scandinavia sailors, traders and pirates, this boatbuilding method was also employed by peoples in Anglo-Saxon and Frisian societies.
The burial mound of the Oseberg ship. Photo: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo / Olaf Væring
Viking ships - more than just the longboat
So this unique construction method allowed Vikings to have a comparative advantage over many of the societies they raided, especially in Northern and Southern Europe.
Though the longship is perhaps the best-known symbol of Viking-era maritime skill, engineering and technology, it was not the only type of vessel used by people in Viking societies. Some of the more common types were:
Færing – this was perhaps the most common – and smallest – type of boat used during the Viking Era. It is an open rowing boat with two pairs of oars hence the name, færing, which is Old Norse for "four oars." These can also carry a small sail and stern-mounted rudder. Some of the small boats uncovered with the Gokstad ship resemble a færing.
Knarr – was a type of ship built to ferry people and goods across long oceanic distances. The Viking's cargo ship, it had a long, deep and wide hull with a length of about 16 meters / 53 feet and a beam of 5 meters / 15 feet. Cargoes of up to 21 tonnes / 24 tons could be carried.
It was primarily used to carry commodities like wool, timber and wheat, but more exotic fares like walrus ivory, honey and even slaves were loaded onto this ship too.
They were also responsible for ferrying livestock between Norse settlements in the Scandinavian homeland to more periphery settlements (e.g. on Greenland or Iceland).
The best-known example found was in the Roskilde fjord in 1962 amongst the Skuldelev ships that are today on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
Longships – the longship is one of the most widely known and celebrated symbols of Viking military prowess, maritime skill and engineering ingenuity. Broadly speaking, these were long, narrow and light ships with a shallow hull, allowing navigation in shallow waters (for example, rivers) or landing warriors on a beach, a sort of an early medieval personnel carrier.
Longships were also double-ended, with oars down the length of the ship, allowing reversal to be achieved quickly and efficiently. Longships built later in the so-called "Viking Age" also had a single sail, which could propel the ship to speeds of up to 15 knots, but most sailed between 5 – 10 knots. To put this into context, a journey from Western Norway to the British Isles could take as fast as a few days.
Academics and historians have classified the longship into four similar but distinct types. These are:
1) Karvi – The smallest type of longship. As defined by the 10th century CE Gulating Law, a ship with 13 rowing benches was the smallest available for military expeditions. These were mostly used for trade and fishing but could be augmented to meet military needs. The most famous example of a karvi is the Gokstad Ship, which will take pride of place in the new Viking Ship Museum being constructed in Oslo.
2) Snejkka – the smallest type of longship strictly used for military warfare. This had a minimum of 20 rowing benches, a length of 17 meters / 56 feet and could carry 40 oarsmen. These were apparently so light they could be simply pulled and stored ashore. These were the most common type of longships during the early medieval period.
3) Skeid - these were the largest form of known longships with more than 30 benches for rowing. During harbour excavations in Roskilde in 1962, Danish archaeologists uncovered a group of these ships. One of these boats, named the Skuldelev 2, spans a length of just under 30 meters and could carry a crew of 70 – 80 men. A more modern construction, Draken Harald Hårfagre, was built in 2012 and sailed to the British Isles, including stops in Liverpool, the Isle of Man, and the Orkney and Shetland islands.
There is another type of longship – Drakkar (Old Norse for "dragon") that has been the source of widespread speculation. Said to be larger than a skeid, the only evidence we have of these is found in sagas.
These were said to be elaborately decorated with a dragon or a snake on the ship's masthead. There has been no archaeological discovery of a dragon ship yet, but the city seal of Bergen (designed in the late 13th century CE) depicts one.
The Gokstad ship was buried in the ground for almost a thousand years. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo
The legacy of Viking ships
The structure and design of the boat made the longship a deadly weapon utilized so effectively by Viking warriors throughout the early medieval period.
The lightweight and shallow hull allowed the ships to sail in a variety of different environments – from the North Atlantic Ocean to the various river systems that snake through Eastern Europe and the Russian steppe.
Unlike other contemporary ships, this gave Viking warriors a far superior range of mobility. This enabled them to bypass coastal defences and strike at lightning speed, often at the rear of an army or at a strategic weak point.
Though devastatingly lethal at first, by the 11th and 12th centuries CE, the cultures and societies that the Vikings raided, traded and colonized soon began to adopt Viking shipbuilding technology. In fact, they remained popular amongst the newly emerging kingdoms of Norway and Denmark until at least the early 15th century CE.
Though they once dominated the North Atlantic world, only a fraction of Viking ships has been uncovered by archaeologists and scientists.
The Nydam ship, discovered in the mid-19th century CE, in Sundeved, Denmark, is believed to be the oldest constructed longship, dating from between 310 – 320 CE. Its discovery was vital for the understanding of the evolution of the design and construction of later Viking longships.
The Oseberg and Gokstad ships in Norway are perhaps the most magnificent examples of later Viking-era shipbuilding design and technology. Finally, the Gjellestad ship, uncovered in Halden, Norway, in 2018, is still currently being excavated and analyzed.
In the latest meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in December 2021, the "Nordic clinker boat traditions" – the construction method for many Viking era ships – was placed on a worldwide list of "intangible cultural heritage."
To follow the latest news on the Gjellestad ship excavations, visit the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research website here (in Norwegian).
For a UNESCO press release on the recognition of 'Nordic clinker boat traditions', click here.
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