Viking ships were used for warfare, trading, and exploration purposes. In that sense, Viking ships can be divided into two main categories – warships and merchant ships. However, these purposes would sometimes intertwine or exchange. For example, some merchant ships would be a part of fleets used in warfare.
In general, Viking warships were smaller, lighter, and resembled canoes. These features made them faster, while merchant ships were larger, with a bigger load capacity.
Viking ships were used throughout the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. They were present in Scandinavia and other areas of the world that Vikings reached during their voyages, such as the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, or the Mediterranean Black Sea.
The Gokstad burial mound
The Gokstad burial mound was much larger than other burial mounds. Furthermore, it was built in a different, more elaborate manner than other burial mounds.
It resembled a sort of trench containing a pool in which the Gokstad ship was placed and buried. Hence, all these elements helped keep the ship in excellent condition for almost a thousand years.
Scientists and researchers agree that those who planned and built the mound probably had a precise plan for the underground construction. Those who took part in the construction effort were precise and successful, as shown by the layers uncovered in the excavation process.
There was also a sort of a walkway that was probably used to carry the objects placed on the ship that were buried together with the ship.
According to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, "the burial mound around the ship had been built up of clay and peat. It was approximately five meters high and had a diameter of almost 45 meters. In all likelihood, the mound was even larger in Viking times. The ship itself was buried in blue clay below ground level. The two upper strakes and both bow and stern posts protruded from the clay and had therefore been completely destroyed, but otherwise, the ship was exceptionally well preserved."
The Gokstad ship
The Gokstad ship was (and still is) a particularly famous Viking ship, not just in Scandinavia. Twenty-four meters long and in very good condition, the Gokstad ship was buried in the ground for almost a thousand years.
It was buried in approximately 900 AD and was found in 1880. When archaeologists opened the burial mound and started the excavation process, they found the ship with a surprising amount of wood very well preserved (thanks to the clever and successful construction effort mentioned above). The find is considered one of the most significant Viking archaeological discoveries in Norway.
The Gokstad ship was named after the burial mound, and it was most likely used for trading and raiding. It could host 34 people, and it could sail or be rowed.
After the excavation, the Gokstad ship was in such a good condition that it was put on display without any restorations. However, after some fifty years, the process of restoration started.
The restoration was necessary as the ship was exposed to air and light, so some parts had to be replaced by new wood. Once these works were done, the Gokstad ship got its permanent home in Oslo, in the Oslo Viking ship museum.
The Gokstad ship was built around 890 AD. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo
The excavation of the Gokstad ship
During the excavation process of the Gokstad ship, a human skeleton was found in the burial chamber, together with bones of animals – dogs, horses, sheep, and even a peacock.
Another three smaller boats were also found, along with other items such as kitchen supplies, candle holders, etc. The skeleton belonged to a man who was in his 40s at the time of death.
He was most probably an important person, likely with a leading role in the society of the time (like a chieftain or similar). Precious items such as gold, silver, or precious stones were not found, but such items were probably looted a long time ago.
Considering all these elements, the Gokstad ship was used in the famous Viking burying ritual – the ship burial. The ship burial was a burying ritual organized for those of a higher social ranking.
The Gokstad ship replica
Approximately fifteen years after the discovery of the ship, a crew of 12 sailors sailed a replica of the Gokstad ship, called "The Viking," across the Atlantic from Bergen, Norway, to Newfoundland.
It took them approximately a month to reach Newfoundland. The ship then sailed to New York and, from there, to Chicago, via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, to the World's Columbian Exposition.
The Gokstad ship replica, "The Viking," is currently located and kept in the United States, in Illinois.
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