Viking Ships 2
Without the Viking ships, there would be no Viking Age. Norse sagas, skaldic poems and contemporary foreign sources describe the Viking ships as marvellous at sea, being compared to dragons, birds and sea serpents.
Viking ships were a technology far ahead of other ships of the time. They were seaworthy and could sail vast distances, while their shallow draft allowed them to navigate shallow rivers or estuaries, while they were able to be dragged onto a beach.
When Magnus the Good (1047) put his ships to sea, it was as if a swarm of angels from the King of heaven – soared over the waves. (The skald Arnorr)
Thanks to their amazing ships, Vikings sailed from America in the west to Asia Minor in the east, and perhaps even farther.
It was the seaworthiness of the Viking ships, together with the Norsemen’s knowledge of navigation and seamanship, which made it possible for them to conquer the ocean. The Vikings’ understanding of the sea is also reflected in the Old Norse language that has about 150 words for waves.
According to the Old Norse laws, the Norwegian leiðdang (defence fleet) could mobilize at least 310 ships when danger threatened. In addition to these came all of the “private” Viking ships. There must have been built several thousand Viking ships during the Viking Age. However, like too many sources of Viking icons and tales, very few burial ships and ship wrecks have been found.
The ships that have been found are in many pieces. Often large parts are missing. We have to rely on different interpretations when the ships are put together, and when reconstructions are made.
So modern researchers still don’t know how the Viking ships were built, how they were sailed, how they were rowed or how they were navigated. Nor do we know a lot about the different ship types that the Norse literature describes.
Here are some interesting Viking Ship facts:
1. Viking ships didn’t appear from nowhere
Viking Ships were part of a long tradition developed over time: a Viking ship that was built in 1050 did not necessarily look very much like one built in 800.
The earliest example that we would call a Viking ship is probably that from Salme in Estonia. It dates to around 750. Unfortunately, it is not very well preserved. Only the iron nails were still lying in the ground, in the pattern that they had been in the boat.
We would call it a Viking ship because it was obviously used in a Viking activity. It was filled with dead warriors who had been on a raiding party or some mission into the Baltic. They ended up on the island of Saaremaa, where they died and were buried in their ship.
2. Viking ships were not all the same
Ships fulfilled different purposes. Some were used for fishing or transportation. Others for freight or travel. Water was the main mode of transportation in Scandinavia because it was difficult to travel overland because of lack of roads and the necessity to scale steep mountains and forests.
The famous Longships, were mostly for warfare.
3. The Viking Longships were expensive objects of power
The owners of the big ships were wealthy and powerful. With the quantity of materials and the number of work hours that went into building these ships, they were very costly.
About 60 sheep were needed to produce enough wool for one sail for a large warship. They also required perhaps some 15 big oak trunks of about a metre in diameter in order to produce enough e planks. They then there was a couple of hundred kilograms of iron, plus significant quantities of tar and rope.
These ships were really major investments and they were extremely carefully built. The shipbuilders had a very strong aesthetic sense, coupled with a very strong idea about quality.
4.Viking ships were light and flexible
Because Viking ships were often rowed, propelled by oars rather than sails, the incentive was to make them as light as possible.
Compared to ship remains from other parts of northern Europe, Viking ships were very lightly built and so very speedy. They were easy to pull up on shore. They didn’t need harbours. They could be taken up rivers and over land if need be. So that was the main secret behind the Viking ships, that they were so light that they could be used for a variety of purposes.
5. Viking ships were not comfortable
When sailing in a Viking ship, sailors were exposed to the elements. It was not a fun cruise to cross the North Sea and definitely not to try to travel to Iceland or Greenland.
The first thing that you would have experienced when you went on board was the smell. There would have been tar everywhere to conserve and protect the wood and parts of the rigging. If the ship was freshly tarred it would have been sticky, and the tar would have got on your clothes and skin. You would also probably have smelt a rotten stench, from the fats that were used in the sails to make them more windproof.
You would be outside and constantly exposed to the weather. In the North it would have been freezing, plus you would have been wet when it rained and hot when the sun shone. It was cramped because ships were expensive and, especially for warships, the idea was to try to transport as many people as possible in one unit, because that made it was a weapon.
It would have been a rather cramped, cold and smelly experience.
Find out more
Viking Life by John Guy and Richard Hall (Ticktock, 1998)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
Other Viking Blogs
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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