Viking Ships

Viking Ships

Norway, along with Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, is famous for its Viking past.  Individual, autonomous districts each ruled by its own Jarl coalesced at the end of the first millennia into a larger kingdom.  As a result, overseas trade and exploration became more organized (Bent 2012).  The most famous type of Scandinavian vessel, and one of the most famous types of vessels in the world, is the Viking longship.  These vessels, propelled by oar or paddle, were used in Scandinavia long before the Vikings.  The Hjortspring, Nydam, and Sutton Hoo ships are three predecessors of the longboat (Hortspring and Nydam were found in Denmark, Sutton Hoo in England).  The longship has become an easily recognizable symbol of the Viking Age.  Not only did it carry the famous raiders throughout Europe, modifications of the longboat were the vehicles of expansion for those hoping to establish new settlements outside of Scandinavia (such as on the northern islands of Scotland, the east coast of England, scattered throughout Ireland, and in Normandy, France) (Crumlin-Pedersen, 2010).

The intact Viking longships that have been discovered in Norway, such as the Oseberg and Gokstad vessels, are some of the largest and most complex artifacts ever recovered by archaeologists in Norway.  Other, less intact vessels have been discovered, such as the Tune ship now housed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo along with the Oseberg and Gokstad ships.  These boats were all found as part of elite burials rather than shipwrecks.  In addition to the boats themselves, information about seafaring can be found in the sagas and laws preserved from Norway and Iceland’s Viking period.  Iconography preserved on the Gotland picture stones, coins, or town seals has also been helpful in reconstructing life at sea in the medieval period (Christensen, 1982; 20-21).

In addition to the Tune, Oseberg, and Gokstad boat burials found near Oslo, there have been other Viking ship finds in recent years.  In 1970, a shipwreck was excavated at Klåstad in Vestfold; despite its fragmentary condition, it was later reassembled at the museum in Tønsberg. Another small medieval wreck was excavated at Sørenga, in Oslo’s medieval harbor, and at Sjøvollen in Asker on Oslo fjord’s western side.  Fragments of other vessels were uncovered at Bryggen in Bergen (Christensen, 1982; 24).

Iconography indicates that Viking ships were rigged with a single mast placed amidships and fitted with a square sail until after AD 1400 (Christensen, 1982; 26).  But when did the Vikings adopt the sail? Carvings on the stones in Gotland from AD 700 provide some of the best Scandinavian evidence for sails.  The earliest example of the T-shaped keel (a strong keel is integral to supporting the mast) can be found on the Kvalsund ship from approximately AD 700 (Their, 2003; 184).  To date, the Oseberg and Gokstad vessels are the only Viking ships to retain evidence of rigging.  Oseberg, buried in AD 834, is the oldest.  Mast-steps have been found on these vessels as well as the Skuldelev wrecks from Denmark.  The mast-step, which supported the mast and could stretch to cover as many as half of the frames, replaced the keelson in Viking shipbuilding.  The strength of the mast-steps suggests that the Viking boats were rigged with free standing masts (Roberts, 1990; 124-126).