We all know that the Vikings were great warriors. During their 3 century-long reigns, few dared to oppose them. The awe they evoked in their countrymen was enormous. However, have you ever wondered what it was that enabled the Vikings to make their conquests so successful? As brave as these ancient Scandinavian people were, was courage alone enough to spread fear through the countries across Europe? We are sure that it's not. The Viking crafting skills and innovations they brought to shipbuilding made them more mobile and faster in relation to their enemies, which was the key to their success.
Did you ever think of what led these Norsemen to build their famous Viking longship? The answer is very simple. Life in an area such as Scandinavia, which is characterized by numerous water currents, forced Viking shipbuilders to build ships for safe sailing, both on Scandinavian rivers and fjords and on open sea waters.
What Were the Viking Longships Like?
The dangerous expeditions that people from Scandinavia embarked on sometimes involved even months of sailing on rough and open seas. For such a voyage, a Viking ship needed to be strong enough (durable), easy to navigate, and fast. These vessels had to be designed so that they could be easily navigated, both in shallow and deep waters and regardless of the wind. Finally, a longship needed to be light so that the crew could transport it from the sea to the mainland as needed. A typical Viking ship was just like that.
As for the appearance of these ships, we probably wouldn't know a thing if it was not for the archaeological discoveries of early Viking longships. These findings allowed us to learn more about the material from which they were built, their dimensions, and their construction. So let's see what was discovered about Viking longships by studying archeological finds.
The following facts are known:
1.The Viking Longships were Wooden
Based on the remains of the ships found, archaeologists concluded that a longship was made of wood and that oak was mainly used for that purpose. For this reason, only a small number of ships from the early Viking period were found. Most of them did not break the ravages of time and rotted beyond recognition.
The earliest surviving sailing ship constructed in Scandinavia was the ship Osberg, which was found in 834 in the fjord of Oslo (Norway). The ship is well preserved and is now displayed at the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy.
2. For the Construction of Longships, the So-called Clinker Method was Used
This method in shipbuilding meant that the oak planks were folded over each other and nailed. To make the boats waterproof. Vikings filled the empty space between the planks with wool and animal hair, and then they would put tar over it.
This way of building Viking ships was known as built shells, and until the late Middle Ages throughout northern Europe, this was a universal way of making longships.
3. A Longship was Suitable for Sailing in Shallow Waters
The long and narrow construction of the ship enabled easy movement in shallow waters, which greatly facilitated the Viking raids on other lands. With a ship built like this, Norsemen could easily disembark even on inaccessible shores and quickly set sail on the high seas after the raids.
4. Viking Longboats Were Propelled by Oars and Wind
The addition of oars greatly facilitated the movement of Viking ships. The oar used to steer the ship was called the "rudder" and was located at the stern, attached to the starboard side of the ship. However, the most important advantage of long Viking ships was the square sail made of wool. Thanks to oars and square sail, Viking ships were fast and easier to steer, which allowed Norsemen to trade safely, fight effectively and cross the open oceans where they were often exposed to severe storms.
Without sails on ships, Viking overseas exploration would be considerably more difficult and often impossible. The addition of sails turned Viking ships into fast vessels that became key to the success of Viking conquests.
5. The Design of Viking Boats Changed Over Time
Over the years, the Vikings developed their shipbuilding skills. Accordingly, the original small boats used for fishing purposes gave rise to the famous longships (the term "Knarr" was used to describe these ships).
In addition to longships, the Vikings began building cargo ships that they could use to carry the goods they traded. These cargo boats were wider than longships in the early Viking Age, which is why they moved more slowly but could carry a lot of goods. However, over time, cargo ships were made longer, and at one point, they could be considered longships.
According to records in the Viking Ship Museum (Roskilde, Denmark), in order for a ship to be classified as a longship, its length had to be at least five times its width.
6. The Warships Were Symmetrically Built
The bow and stern of longships had a symmetrical design. The boats manufactured in this way enabled the Vikings to sail quickly after the raid without the need to turn the ship around.
Thus, the primary function of Viking ships was not to fight on the high seas or oceans. The Vikings built boats that gave them the ability to move easily through sheltered watercourses.
7. The Vikings Did Not Use Maps for Navigation
Since the Vikings crossed great distances with their ships, the crew needed to know in which direction they should move. Navigation was not a problem near the coast, but when it comes to sailing across the open sea without land in sight, the orientation was not so simple.
Compass, maps, or ship's logs were either not used or did not exist in Viking times. Therefore, before being within range of the land they knew, sailors relied on their knowledge of the sun, stars and established wind and wave behavior patterns. However, the most valuable landmark was the previous experience of sailors.
Accordingly, the Viking crew's uncertainty during the first trip on a certain route was certainly unimaginable.
Some of the established Viking routes were from Denmark to the Mediterranean, then from northern Denmark to England, and from Norway to Scotland. The first long route across the high seas for which directions were found was from Norway to North America (Greenland). These sailing instructions were found as an integral part of an Icelandic manuscript from the 14th century. It describes in detail how to adapt to different sailing techniques and describes the experiences of Viking sailors in favor of navigation on the high seas.
8. Viking Longships Were Decorated With Carved Animal Heads
The fronts of the long Viking ships were decorated with detailed carved animal heads. Most often, it was a dragon head, and sometimes snakes were used as well. The purpose of these carvings was to intimidate enemies during the conquest and protect sailors from various monsters that they believed were lurking in the seas.
9. Viking Ships Reached Speeds of About 17 Knots
The speed of longships was not always the same and varied depending on the construction of the ship. However, it is believed that the speed that these ships could reach was about 17 knots and only in the case when the weather conditions were favorable. A square sail was there to catch the wind, and at times with no wind, rowing was always an option.
10. Viking Exploration and Conquest of the Territories of Other Countries Was Possible Only Thanks to Longships
The Viking Age is characterized by extensive explorations of distant continents that would not have been possible without advanced shipbuilding. The skill of shipbuilding enabled the Vikings to make their extensive research and dangerous conquests successful. The Vikings have dictated shipbuilding styles for centuries, and many characteristics of their longships have been adopted by other nations all over Europe.
The Most Significant Inventions of Viking Ships
During their study of ancient Viking settlements, archaeologists managed to conjure up for us the way of life of the Vikings, but understanding their maritime technology was a little harder. The reason for this is the small number of Viking ships found.
As we have already written, ships in the early Viking period were built of wood, and most of them rotted over time. In addition to the first ship found (Osberg, found in 834 AD), the ships Gokstad and Tune stand out as significant finds of Viking longships. Both ships were found around 900 AD, also in the Oslo Fjord.
After the discovery of the first ship, several replicas of Viking longboats were constructed. The most famous among them is a replica of a ship built-in 1893. This ship is known for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1997, archaeologists found another ancient Viking longship (near Copenhagen, Denmark). With a length of 36 meters, it was the longest ship ever found.
Below you can browse our collection of Viking ship products:
The fact is that ships in Viking history were crucial to the whole of Scandinavian society and were equally valuable to all levels of society. To the rulers, the ships enabled the conquest and later the control of the conquered territories along the rivers or banks on which they were located.
Also, the possibility of easy movement on all kinds of watercourses facilitated the transport of trade goods and the communication of Scandinavians with the people of other countries and cultures. Therefore, it is clear that the expansion of the Vikings and the colonization of other countries would not be possible without their ships.
Until our next meeting,