Viking Age Ships

It's time to talk about Viking Age ships in Scandinavia. I'm going to call them viking ships from now on. (No, we're not about to go into the whole Norsemen vs. vikings debate here. I'll write a separate blog post about that at a later point)

To do research for my trilogy about vikings and Norse mythology, I ended up becoming a crew-member onboard a Viking longship.

My knowledge of viking ships is anchored both in that experience, and in extensive reading through non-fiction books and the sagas, visits to museums and archaeological evidence.

Today we shall have a more specific and overarching look at Viking Age ships. Later on we will examine life onboard and also longship in more detail.

Let the fun begin.

The Basics

Viking Age Scandinavians were not only warriors. They were traders and explorers, and their ships was the secret behind their wide-ranging successes.

As skilled seafarers, they made ships suited to their purposes. Their ships were highly manoeuvrable but did not tip deep into the water. This means that they could sail both up rivers as well as across the ocean.

Usually at this time there were ships built to sail the rough seas, and different ships, built to sail up rivers.

Enter the vikings.

A crew of 30-60 eager warriors sail on each ship. They blow in from the salty seas, and they do not stop. They continue straight up along the narrow river to attack the first town in sight.

When the Norsemen arrived, there was little time to truly be prepared and mount a defence, because they didn't stop to change vessels. One moment they appeared on the horizon, the next they were up the river, kicking in your door.

The diverse abilities of their ships not only facilitated their raids, it also made them able to explore the world at more ease. Sailing to Iceland, then Greenland and even the Americas.

They raided Paris and cities all along the rivers of Germany, and they sailed up rivers into Russia. Their ships were versatile enough that when they stripped off the rigging and carried off the mast and the ballast, they could carry the ships from one river to the next, or one coast to another, and effectively reach the Mediterranean, where they minted coins in the Islamic world.

All of it possible because of their ships.

Where does our knowledge come from?

When a Viking ship was decommissioned, it's generally thought that they were either destroyed or broken apart for planks and other components to be used elsewhere. So that makes it tough to find Viking ships to examine. Tough, but not impossible.

You might have heard of Viking ship burials. The famous Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlan described a ship burial in detail in his accounts of the Rus.

Indeed some of the Viking Age ships we have, do come from ship burials. These ships include the Oesberg and the Gokstad ships as well as the Ladby ship (we shall talk about them all below).

But there is also another way in which Viking Age ships have been preserved during a millennia for us to examine today, and that is ship barriers. In Skuldelev, Denmark, a whole link of ships were found to have been sunk in the water.

They had been purposefully sunk, likely to make an underwater barrier to defend against an incoming attack. From here comes a large portion of our knowledge about Viking ships. A few ship wreck have also been found (notably the Hedeby wrecks).

In addition to that we also have a few other sources, like images from the Viking Age and later of the ships, both carved into stone and wooden “grafitti” of ships made by bored Norsemen. This is especially useful when we talk about the rigging as that’s something that isn’t preserved on any of the excavated ships.

Types of viking ships

Generally, vikings ships are divided into two kinds: longships and knarr (cargo).

I will make the tentative suggestion that we also have a third kind, which I will call the Norwegian model and which represents early Viking Age ships. These neither seem to adhere to the longship tradition nor the Knarr construction.

Officially the Viking Age is said to begin on the 8th of June 793 when viking raiders attacked Lindisfarne in Northumbria (British Isles), but that's a very specific date and the people we commonly refer to as vikings developed their culture and beliefs before this time. This is merely the earliest record of a viking raid that we possess.

The Norwegian model

Now why do I call these the Norwegian model? Well… It just so happens that all of the early Viking ships we have stem from Norway, whereas what we have since the 900s mostly stems from Denmark and Sweden (and southern Norway). As of yet, we don’t have enough evidence to know for certain whether the Norwegian models were how all ships throughout the Norse lands looked before the 900s or whether it was a regional difference between Norway and the rest of the Norse lands.

The Norwegian model ships are, in basic terms, somewhere between the next two types of ships we shall examine later; the Knarr (for trade) and the longship (for warfare).

The earliest Viking Age ship we have is the Oseberg ship, which was built around the year 820.

(so roughly 30 years after the official start of the Viking Age)

The Oseberg ship was a beautiful burial ship made of oak. It is just over 21.5 meters long (70 feet), just over 5 meters broad (16 feet) and has an impressive 15 oar-holes on each side of the ship, so 30 oars in total. This means that it probably had a crew of a little over 30 sailors, perhaps up to 40 sailors.

Now, while the ship has beautiful carvings and is a beautiful work of art, there has been a long discussion about how sea-worthy the Oseberg ship would have been.

The Oseberg ship was reconstructed in 1987, but the ship sank. Reconstructions continued to sink and people began to wonder if the Oseberg ship really was not seaworthy, after all.

That is, until researchers had another look at the original ship and discovered that there had been a mistake in the initial restoration. No obvious issue could be seen on the outside but on the inside, the ship planks didn’t appear to quite fit.

A new ship was built to account for this, and today the beautiful “Saga Oseberg” (pictured) sails in Norway.

This just goes to show how difficult it is to properly reconstruct a ship.

Even when we have almost all of the pieces, and for many viking ships, we simply don't.

Next, we have the Gokstad ship. This is also a Norwegian model and also a burial ship. It’s believed to have been built around the year 890, making it roughly 70 years younger than the Oseberg ship, seen above.

As for the measurements it’s a little bigger, coming in at just under 24 meters (78 feet) long and just over 5 meters (17 feet) wide. It has 16 oars on either side, so 32 oars in total, which is two more than the Oesberg ship.