A large striped sail towers above the high sea waters. A slender wooden ship, a Viking longship, crashes through the waves - oars out and painted shields on the sides. The windswept Viking raiders ready themselves for the pillaging and plundering ahead. The classic image of the Vikings and their famous longships is well-known all over the world from popular culture such as comics, movies and TV-series. It is such a powerful and dominating scene to imagine that it is tempting to think of longships as the only way the Vikings travelled the seas. But was this really the case?
A Brief Background
First off, a Viking ship is not just a Viking ship. The shape, size, and use of the Scandinavian ships and boats varied a lot from place to place and throughout what we call the Viking Age. There were a few common denominators through the period in the North. The first, and one of the most important and characteristic, was that all ships were clinker built. Instead of having the hull planks meet on the edges to make a smooth hull, the hull planks overlapped each other and were nailed together, so they formed what sort of looks like an upside-down stairway. The hull was the first thing that was built, and the clinker built technique enabled the hull to actually hold itself without requiring a supporting frame, though supports were of course added to strengthen the hull. On top of this strong hull construction technique, the Scandinavians also made sure to split the planks along the grain for their ships, a process called riving. What difference does this make, you might ask? When the wood is split instead of being sawed or cut, the natural fibers of the wood stays intact and makes for a stronger and more flexible plank. These two principles allowed the Vikings to make ships that could better withstand the storms of the North Sea.
The second common thing for Viking ships was the use of sails. Although Vikings are shown a lot in popular culture sweating over the oars, the main propellant while sailing would be… well… a sail. The oars would usually only be used when necessary; in calm weather, in hurried situations, or when navigating difficult waterways. Oars were also necessary in surprise attacks, where the mast could be detached and laid down on the ship, so the Viking ship could nearly disappear on the horizon.
One Size Fits All?
So, with the construction techniques out of the way, what types of ships did the Vikings actually sail? There were actually several different types of Viking ships through the Viking Age. And through time, they became more specialised.
In the beginning of the Viking Age (late 8th and 9th century CE), there was not a vast difference between what would be considered trade- and warships. Archaeological evidence suggests that Viking ships during the 9th century were wide-hulled ships. The Oseberg and Gokstad ships from Norway give us invaluable insight into Viking ship construction in the early and late 9th century respectively. They were both found in ship burials from the Viking Age and are both considered warships, though they could easily have been used for trade and transport as well due to their wide hull size with room for goods and men. Both ships could be rowed by some 30 crewmembers, but their main propellant was by sail.
Over time, the Northern peoples perfected and specialised their vessels. Through the 10th century what we now know and recognise as a Viking longship was born. This can be seen in the phenomenal archaeological findings around Roskilde in Denmark, where two impressive collections of Viking ships (here and here) from the early 11th century have been found. Viking raiding and trading became more organised and in general became a bigger ordeal, therefore, ships built for the right purpose were essential to the continued success. Shipbuilding was divided into two branches: The bulky trade vessels called “knarr”, and the slender warships we know as longships.
The knarr was the freighter of the era. Carrying upwards of over 20 metric tons of goods, this vessel could traverse the difficult seas of the North. Most oars were scrapped to enable more room for cargo, and were only used to navigate in and out of ports and harbours. Sail was the only way to move the ship on the long trade voyages to the Baltics, Western Europe, Iceland and Greenland, and all of the other places the Vikings went on their quest for riches. Firm ballast, a taller hull, and a v-shaped keel would all help make sure the ship did not capsize while sailing on the treacherous waves of the North Sea.
Opposite the knarr was the longship. Specialised for the particular type of hit-and-run raid tactics of the Vikings, the ship was slender, fast, and flexible. Oar holes down both sides enabled the crew to propel the ship even when the wind failed. But more often than not, a large square sail would pull the ship forward. A dragon’s head might have adorned the bow of the ship. In some cases shields would be mounted on the sides, covering the oar holes and clearing space in the ship itself for more loot, plunder, and in general to open up a bit of room on the ship. A flat keel enabled the ship to sail in extremely shallow waters, and even sail directly up onto the shore, so the Viking raiders could jump directly from the ship onto solid ground, or at the very least water that did not reach above their ankles. The flat keel also made it possible for the Vikings to transport the ships over land for short distances, which they used to “switch lanes” and move the ship from one river to another.
The Wrap Up
Whether we look at warships or trading vessels, the Viking ships were essential to the success of the Scandinavians in the Viking Age. They allowed them to trade across Europe, travel to distant lands such as Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland in today’s Canada, and enabled the large-scale raiding of the European continent from the far Southeast in the Greek and Anatolian regions to the far Northwest on the British Isles.