One of the secrets behind the Vikings’ successful explorations, trading voyages and conquests was their skill in shipbuilding.
Across Scandinavia, the fjords and rivers proved more navigable than traversing the land, and so sailing became a cornerstone of life. The Viking world revolved around waterways, and the Vikings used their boats to move along coasts, up rivers and across seas.
Viking vessels varied according to their primary function – from little fishing boats to ferries and wide cargo boats – but the Vikings are primarily known for their longboats, or longships.
The international success of the Vikings as raiders, traders and explorers depended on these remarkable vessels, which would become the most sophisticated boats of the medieval period.
Viking longships: an overview
How long is a Viking longship? | Viking longships were typically between 20 and 30 metres in length.
They were clinker-built | This means they were built with overlapping planks of wood to make up the hull, with the gaps in between stuffed with tar or tallow mixed with animal hair, wool and moss.
They were powered with muscle and wind | An average longship could accommodate up to 60 oarsmen and possessed a single square sail woven from wool. Steering was by a side rudder at the rear of the vessel.
Average speed? | Around ten knots by sail, half of that by oars.
They had a shallow draught | This allowed them to be taken close to shores and up rivers, to quickly deliver a raiding party and cause maximum devastation.
They sometimes had figureheads | The bows were sometimes decorated with a carving of a monstrous creature such as a dragon or a serpent, a device possibly more designed to ward off evil at sea than to instil fear as the Vikings approached their enemies.
Vikings ships: five lesser-known facts
For the first time in more than a century, a Viking ship burial is being excavated in Norway. The site is at Gjellestad, on the eastern side of Oslofjord, and was discovered after a ground-penetrating radar survey in 2018. Work started in September 2020 and is expected to run until December.
Here Jan Bill, professor of Viking Age Archaeology and curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway – and also head of the steering group for the Gjellestad dig – explains five lesser-known facts about Viking ships. Listen to him in conversation with our content director, David Musgrove, on the HistoryExtra podcast.
Viking ships didn’t appear from nowhere
They were the continuation of a long tradition, and they 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.
Viking ships were not all the same
Ships fulfilled different purposes. People went out fishing, so they needed very small boats for that. Then there were other vessels which were more suitable for travelling. Water was really the big mode of transportation in Scandinavia in those days because it was hard to travel over land with a lack of roads, combined with a lot of steep mountains and forests. So the water was the way. Then there were the longships, which were mostly for warfare.
Towards the end of the Viking age, we also get specialised cargo ships, designed to transport goods as economically as possible. It is important to realise that these were ships which could be built basically everywhere. If you had wood, and iron, and the know-how, then you could build a Viking ship.
The big Viking ships were expensive objects of power
The owners of the big ships were wealthy and powerful. That is one of the key results of the experimental archaeological work that has been carried out on Viking ships over the last few decades.
We now know much more about the quantity of materials and the number of work hours that went into building these ships. That gives us a perspective on the Viking age that we didn’t have before. It is really quite impressive amounts that were involved.
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 all the planks. They would have needed maybe a couple of hundred kilograms of iron, plus a lot of tar and a lot of 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.
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Viking ships were light and flexible
This was a key advantage over other ships of the period. The Scandinavian ships were built in a tradition that we can follow several centuries backwards in time. The early examples were specialised rowing ships, propelled only by oars rather than sails. This meant that there was a huge incentive to build them as light as possible so that they were easier to row.
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 lot of things.
Viking ships were not comfortable
When sailing in one, you would have been pretty exposed to the elements. It was not a holiday to try to cross the North Sea and definitely not to try to go 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 very 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 have been outside all the time and exposed to the weather. You got wet when it rained and hot when the sun shone. It was pretty cramped on board because ships were expensive and, especially for warships, the whole idea was to try to transport as many people as possible in one unit, because that made it efficient as a weapon. It would have been a rather cramped, cold and smelly experience.
Jan Bill is professor of Viking Age Archaeology and curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway, and also head of the steering group for the Gjellestad dig.
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in October 2020