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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.

This ship is similar in construction, but a little wider in shape, so not quite as swift up smaller rivers.

Something revolutionary happens here, because this ship has oar-hole stoppers, to prevent water from rushing in through the oar holes at sea. (This definitely does still happen, I can assure you, even with oar-hole stoppers. Water has a way to fill up into viking ships. A never ending struggle. *sigh*)

Strangely, there are no rowing benches.

It’s speculated that rowers were sitting on chests with their personal belongings as they rowed, or maybe even directly on deck.

(Pictured is the Saga Oseberg, which suffers from the same problem. Here we can clearly see that the student rowers are seated on chests)

The first reconstruction of the Gokstad. the “viking” was made in 1893, and quite impressively sailed across the Atlantic to be displayed in Chicago (it’s now on display a little outside of Chicago). Many other reconstructions have been made since and all sea-worthy.

Finally, in the same style, we have the Tune ship, again a burial ship which was built around the year 910. Less of this ship remains, but it’s a little shorter than the earlier two ships and is estimated to have had 12 oars on either side, so 24 oars total, with a slightly smaller crew.

Okay, moving on from the early Norwegian models to…


Cargo ships : Knarr


Cargo ship in the Viking Age came in many different sizes. They could be as small as 11 meters (36 feet) in length and as long as 22 meters (72 feet).

Typically these ships were wider in construction to allow for more cargo.

The first real Knarr we will have a look at is the Klåstad ship from Norway, which was built around the year 995.

(The drawing shows what it would likely have looked like. Look how much room there is! As a sailor who has had to pack a longship, I'm envious)

This ship is quite similar to both the Oseberg and Gokstad in size, but where those two ships would be able to carry over 30 sailors, the Klåstad seems to have been built to carry only a crew of 5 to 7 people.

This is the large difference between cargo ships and other ships of this era.

Cargo ships sailed with a much smaller crew.

And, as the name suggests, there was plenty of room under deck and on deck.

(I'm SO envious)

The small crew also means that there are very few oars onboard these ships, since there were few sailors to man the oars when it was needed. Mainly the oars were used to manoeuvre, making cargo ships almost entirely reliant on the wind to be able to sail.

A reconstruction of the Klåstad ship, called “Saga Farman”, was successfully launched in 2018, and is currently preparing for this epic voyage through known Viking Age trade routes.

The ship is intended to arrive in Istanbul in 2022, where it will will overwinter, before continuing south to Alexandria, sail all the way north to Iceland and then complete this journey in 2024.

We’re not entirely done with cargo ships.

In Skuldelev, Denmark, a few ships were found that appear to have been sunk to form a barrier to prevent ships to enter. Among these sunk ships were two cargo ships of different sizes.

The smallest of the two is the Skuldelev 3 ship. It was 14 meters (46 feet) long and could carry around 5 tonnes (5.5 US tons) of cargo. A reconstruction called "Roar Ege"(pictured) proudly sails around the fiord.

The other was the Skuldelev 1 ship, which could carry a cargo of up to 25 tonnes (27.5 US tons) of cargo.

Well, now we’re talking.

Skuldelev 1 was built around the year 1030, constructed from Norwegian pine wood with certain components in oak from further south in Scandinavia. I find it interesting to note that this ship was repeatedly repaired with wood from both Oslo and Denmark.

Similarly to the Klåstad ship, Skuldelev 1 was made for a crew of 6 to 8 sailors.

Pictured is the beautiful reconstruction Ottar, where you can really see how wide this type of ship is (take note for later).

Seen here, from above, we can see the mechanism that allows the ship to be operated with a small crew, and also how much room there is on deck.

While there are other examples of cargo ships, the last cargo ship we shall talk about here is the Hedeby 3 ship.

In Hedeby (a significant trading port in Viking Age Scandinavia) a ship-wrecked Knarr was uncovered. It is the largest Knarr we have found to date, measuring 22 meters in length, a bit over 6 meters in width and able to carry up to 60 tonnes (66 US tons) of cargo. It was constructed around the year 1025.

On the drawing you can see the cargo ship next to a longship. The differences between these two types of ships are startling when looking at them this way.


Warship : longships


Longships were exceptionally long and narrow (hence the name). This means that there was very little room onboard. Very little room for personal affects, but that's not the worst part.

Food would be difficult to store and transport on a ship like this, especially with 60 plus hungry warriors onboard.

Speaking from experience here, but packing a viking warship, is a tetris nightmare. Every. Single. Time.

This means that a longship is reliant on being able to replenish its food stocks relatively frequently, whether that's by sailing with a cargo ship at their side, or by making frequent stops. Those warriors need to eat.

What you'll see here is going to be vastly different from what we covered above. Longships are a bit of a different breed.

Longships come in both small and large sizes. On the smaller side we have the eldest confirmed longships, the Ladby ship.

(I say confirmed because while there is an older one from a Hedeby ship burial, too little of it remains to draw conclusions)

The Ladby ship is a burial ship from Denmark. The timbers did not survive so the dating may be a little off, but it is estimated to be from around year 900. It was over 21 meters (69 feet) long but just under 3 meters (9 feet) wide. with 16 oars on each side, 32 oars total. It would have a crew of a little over 30, so similar to the Norwegian models we looked at.

What sets this ship apart from the Norwegians model is that it is incredibly slim, and hence, clearly a longship. There is little room on deck (and below).

A beautiful reconstruction of the Ladby ship, "Ladybydragen" was recently launched (pictured).

It is assumed that longships were a status symbol, which the rich burial mound in Ladby certainly suggests. The ships weren’t suitable to carry cargo and required large crews to operate them, so they were a very different breed from the cargo ships above.

We will look at one other small longship before moving on to the big boys.

The second smaller ship we’re going to be examining is the Skuldelev 5 ship from around the year 1030. It is just over 17 meters (56 feet) in length but under 2.5 meter (8 feet) wide. It has a total of 26 oars, which puts the crew at around 30 sailors, and makes this the smallest proper Viking Age longship that we know about.

What makes this ship particularly interesting is its construction.

While it was primarily constructed from freshly cleaved oak, one side of it was completed by recycling ash and pine timber from previous ships.

In fact, a closer examination of the upper plank with oar holes reveals that the upper plank was originally used on a different ship, with different dimensions because some of the old oar-holes were blocked up and new ones were made to fit the new ship.

The Skuldelev 5 ship went through repeated repairs until the day when it was decommissioned and sunk.

Today the reconstruction “Helge Ask” sails and is kept in good shape.

Let’s attack the large warships.

At this point in history, three large longships have been excavated, and we’re going to look at each one of them in turn, beginning with…

The Skuldelev 2 ship, from the year 1042. It was just over 29 meters (95 feet) long and 3.8 meters (12 feet) wide and boasts an impressive 60 oars. For comparison, this is twice the amount of oars on the Oseberg ship

A ship like this could likely ferry upwards of 66 warriors to the battlefield. So, a little army, landing on enemy shores.

It’s slim enough to easily move up rivers and yet lies stable in the waters at sea, so this would be a force to be reckoned with.

Here we see a comparison of size between the Skuldelev 2 ship and the Skuldelev 5 ship that we talked about just before. Pictured we also have the stunning reconstruction “The Sea Stallion”.

I should tell you that I’m super biased in my account about this ship, because, “The Sea Stallion” is the ship I have the privilege of sailing with during my summers, so it’s special to me. I’ve tarred those ropes, painted those planks, tied up the rigging, and had a hand on every rope on the ship. I’ve rowed under the burning sun with hot tar dripping down my back and in rains with a thunderstorm on the way.

All of that to say, please forgive my biased opinion on this particular matter, but that ship is a hottie.

The second large longship also has a total of 60 oars, and that is the Hedeby 1 ship from around the year 985.

It is just under 31 meters (101 feet) long and 2.7 meters (9 feet) wide, so considerably narrower than Skuldelev 2.

This ship ended its sailing career quite dramatically by going up in flames.

The last, and possibly, the grandest, longship, has quite the discovery story.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde houses all of the Skuldelev ships, and their reconstructions. The site is full of life and the boat builders are always building a new ship using Viking Age techniques, which means that the harbour is full of bigger and smaller ships and boats.

In order to build a vibrant shipyard and a harbour for the many ships, the museum was looking to expand. They did an archaeological dig at the chosen site before building, and voilà, there lay nine beautiful medieval and Viking Age ships, among them, the largest Viking longship found to date. Time for the Viking ship museum to expand.

Roskilde 6 is that large longship, build in around year 1025 with a length of over 37 meters (121 feet), a width of just about 4 meters (13 feet) and a staggering 80 oars in total.

Let’s break that down.

That’s 40 oars on EACH SIDE. The Oseberg ship had 30 oars IN TOTAL.

The ship seems to have been wrecked, not deliberately sunk, because the upper planks were removed, likely so that the ship would not accidentally sink others, or possibly to use them elsewhere, since, as we saw earlier, recycling and upcycling were sort of Viking Age phenomena.

This impressive ship was built from oak felled in southern Norway where the ship was likely constructed, but has been repaired since. While we don’t know when it sank, it was notably in the Baltic area with trees felled around the year 1039.

Roskilde 5 is a huge longship! Even the sagas rarely mention a ship with more than a standard 50 oars total, although sometimes they do. The largest ship mentioned in the sagas is Olav Tryggvason’s longship called “The Long Worm” which was said to have 120 oars all in all, but it was described as a monster of a ship, so pretty uncommon.

All things considered a longship with 80 oars is... Pretty impressive.

Okay, that was our basic breakdown of Viking ships. In future blogs I will look at the longship/warship in more detail, and also talk about my personal experiences sailing with such a beauty.

Until such a time, you can read the following posts:

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