Viking ships were marine vessels of particular designs used and built by the Vikings during the Viking Age. The boat-types were quite varied, depending on what the ship was intended for, but they were generally characterized as being slender and flexible boats, with symmetrical ends with true keel. They were clinker built, which is the overlapping of planks riveted together. Some might have had a dragon's head or other circular object protruding from the bow and stern, for design, although this is only inferred from historical sources.
The ship functioned as the centerpiece of Scandinavian culture for centuries. In fact, the importance of the Viking ship is deeply rooted in Scandinavian culture, as the vessel served both pragmatic and religious purposes. Scandinavia is a region with relatively high inland mountain ranges and easy access to coastal ports. Consequently, trade routes primarily operated via shipping, as inland trading was both hazardous and cumbersome. Viking kingdoms thus developed into coastal cities, all of which were deeply dependent on the North Sea for survival and development. Control of the waterways was then of critical importance, and consequently the most advanced war ships were in high demand. In fact, because of their overwhelming importance, ships became a mainstay of the Viking pagan religion, as they evolved into symbols of power and prowess. Throughout the first millennia, respectable Viking chieftains and noblemen were commonly buried with an intact, luxurious ship to transport them to the afterlife. Furthermore, the Hedeby coins, among the earliest known Danish currency, have ships as emblems, showing the importance of naval vessels in the area. Through such cultural and practical significance, the Viking ship progressed into the most powerful, advanced naval vessel in Viking Age Europe.
The knarr is the Norse term for ships that were built for Atlantic voyages. They were cargo ships averaging a length of about 54 feet (16 m), a beam of 15 feet (4.6 m), and a hull capable of carrying up to 122 tons. Overall displacement: 50 tons. Knarrs routinely crossed the North Atlantic centuries ago carrying livestock and stores to Greenland. It was capable of sailing 75 miles (121 km) in one day and held a crew of about 20-30. This type of ship was used for longer voyages than the Gokstad type of ship and also for hazardous trips. It is also shorter and sturdier than the Gokstad. It depended mostly on sail-power and used its oars only as auxiliaries if there was no wind on the open water. The vessel also influenced the design of the cog, used in the Baltic Sea by the Hanseatic League.
Karves were a small type of Viking longship, with a broad hull somewhat similar to the knarr. They were used for both war and ordinary transport, carrying people, cargo or livestock. Because they were able to navigate in very shallow water, they were also used for coasting. Karves had broad beams of approximately 17 feet (5.2 m).
Longships were naval vessels made and used by the Vikings from Scandinavia and Iceland for trade, commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. The longship's design evolved over many years, beginning in the Stone Age with the invention of the umiak and continuing up to the 9th century with the Nydam and Kvalsund ships. The longship appeared in its complete form between the 9th and 13th centuries. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions until today. The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship but lay in the range of 5–10 knots and the maximal speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots.
The long-ship is characterized as a graceful, long, narrow, light, wooden boat with a shallow draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one metre deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around; this trait proved particularly useful in northern latitudes where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions sported a rectangular sail on a single mast which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys.
Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details, and prestige. The most common way to classify longships is by the number of rowing positions on board. Types ranged from the Karvi, with 13 rowing benches, to the Busse, one of which has been found with an estimated 34 rowing positions.
Longships were the epitome of Scandinavian naval power at the time, and were highly valued possessions. They were often owned by coastal farmers and commissioned by the king in times of conflict, in order to build a powerful naval force. While longships were used by the Norse in warfare, they were troop transports, not warships. In the tenth century, these boats would sometimes be tied together in battle to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. They were called dragonships by enemies such as the English because they had a dragon-shaped prow.
Viking ships varied from others of the period, being generally more seaworthy and lighter. This was achieved through use of clinker (lapstrake) construction. The planks from which Viking vessels were constructed were rived (split) from large, old-growth trees—especially oaks. A ship's hull could be as thin as one inch (2.5 cm), as a split plank is stronger than a sawed plank found in later craft.
Working up from a stout oaken keel, the shipwrights would rivet the planks together using wrought iron rivets and roves. Ribs maintained the shape of the hull sides. Each tier of planks overlapped the one below, and waterproof caulking was used between planks to create a strong but supple hull.
Remarkably large vessels could be constructed using traditional clinker construction. Dragon-ships carrying 100 warriors were not uncommon.
Furthermore, during the early Viking Age, oar ports replaced rowlocks, allowing oars to be stored while the ship was at sail and to provide better angles for rowing. The largest ships of the era could travel five to six knots using oar power and up to ten knots under sail.
With such technological improvements, the Vikings began to make more and more ocean voyages, as their ships were more seaworthy. However, in order to sail in ocean waters, the Vikings needed to develop methods of relatively precise navigation. Most commonly, a ship’s pilot drew on traditional knowledge to guide the ship’s path. Essentially, the Vikings simply used prior familiarity with tides, sailing times, and landmarks in order to route courses. For example, scholars contend that the sighting of a whale allowed the Vikings to determine the direction of a ship. Because whales feed in highly nutritious waters, commonly found in regions where landmasses have pushed deep-water currents towards shallower areas, the sighting of a whale functioned as a signal that land was near.
On the other hand, some academics have proposed that the Vikings also developed more advanced aids to navigation, such as the use of a sun compass. A wooden half-disc found on the shores of Narsarsuaq, Greenland initially seemed to support this hypothesis. However, further investigation of the object revealed that the slits inscribed in the disc are disproportionately spaced, and so the object could not in fact function as an accurate compass. Rather it has been suggested that the instrument is instead a “confession disc” used by priests to count the number of confessions in their parish. Similarly, researchers and historians continually debate the use of the sunstone in Viking navigation. Because a sunstone is able to polarize light, it is a plausible method for determining direction. By showing which direction light waves are oscillating, the sunstone has the potential to show the sun’s position even when the sun is obscured by clouds. The stone changes to a certain color, based on the direction of the waves, but only when the object is held in an area with direct sunlight. Thus, most scholars debate the reliability and the plausibility of using a navigational tool that can only determine direction in such limited conditions.
Viking sagas routinely tell of voyages where Vikings suffered from being "hafvilla" (bewildered) — voyages beset by fog or bad weather, where they completely lost their sense of direction. This description suggests they did not use a sunstone when the sun was obscured. Moreover, the fact that this same bewilderment could arise when the winds died suggests that the Vikings relied on prevailing winds to navigate, as expected if their skills depended principally on traditional knowledge.
Culture and traditions
One Viking custom was to bury dead lords in their ships. The dead man’s body would be carefully prepared and dressed in his best clothes. After this preparation, the body would be transported to the burial-place in a wagon drawn by horses. The lord’s favorite horses and often, a faithful hunting-dog, were killed to be buried with the deceased man. The man would be placed on his ship, along with many of his most prized possessions. The Vikings firmly believed that the dead man would sail to the after-life. An example of a Viking ship burial was excavated near the Danish village of Ladby and can be found on display here.
Burial of ships is an ancient tradition in Scandinavia, as evidenced by the Nydam boats from 200-450 AD, for example.
Several Viking ships have been found through the ages, but only a few have been relatively intact and subsequently preserved. The most famous of these few ships are:
- Gokstad ship: overall length- approximately 23.3 metres (76 ft)
- Oseberg ship: overall length- approximately 21.5 metres (71 ft)
- Tune ship
- Skuldelev ships
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Viking ships.|
- Recreating a Viking voyage - BBC
- The Vikingship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark
- Web page about the Gokstad ship excavation
- The Oslo Viking Ship Museum
- Gaia, the Gokstad Ship copy
- Munin, a Gokstad replica in Vancouver, BC
- Comparison between Viking and Egyptian Ships
- Dreknor Project, Normandy
- Leif Ericson Viking Ship LEVS is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit educational organization dedicated to the study, education and promotion of the fact that Leif Ericson was the first European to set foot upon and explore the North American Continent and of Vikings in general, their times and travels throughout the world.
- Rebuilding and sailing a Viking Knarr ship
- History of vikings
- Francis Miltoun: Ships & shipping, London, Alexander Moring Ltd., 1903
- The Mariner's Museum: Age of exploration
- New Oseberg Ship Foundation
- Video: Viking ship replica Saga Oseberg tacking on Vimeo
- Video: Viking ship replica Saga Oseberg wearing on Vimeo
- Video: Viking ship replica Saga Oseberg sailing close hauled on Vimeo
- Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (New York, 1997), 182.
- Peter Sawyer, (1975) The Oxford Illustrated history of the Vikings. Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-285434-6 ISBN 0-19-285434-8
- Plural of knarr is knerrir.
- What is a norse færing? (Vikingskip.com)
- Ervan G. Garrison: . A history of engineering and technology: artful methods, p 111
- Lapstrake hull schematic
- Stephen Batchelor (30 April 2010). Medieval History For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 101–. ISBN 978-0-470-66460-5. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
- Richard Hall, The World of the Vikings (New York, 2007), 55.
- Hall, The World of the Vikings, 54.
- Oscar Noel and Sue Ann Bowling, “Polar Navigation and the Sky Compass: Article #865,” Alaska Science Forum, March 21, 1988, http://www.gi.alaska.edu/S cienceForum/ASF8/865.html (accessed November 24, 2010).
- Hafvilla: A Note on Norse Navigation, G. J. Marcus, Speculum, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1955), pp. 601-605, Published by: Medieval Academy of America, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849616 (accessed November 02, 2011).