In 793, the monks of Lindisfarne watched in horror as men invaded their holy place. They were under attack. There had been rumors of pirates in nearby Kent, but this was the first time the monks at Lindisfarne had come face-to-face with the raiders. The strangers plundered the monastery of everything valuable and left the edifice covered in the blood of the priests. Then the invaders returned to their ships and sailed away.
Their fine vessels would take the Vikings through Europe, the Baltic, and the Near East, allowing the Norse to establish trading ports and conquer foreign kingdoms. The ships would also allow the Vikings to colonize Greenland and Iceland. Always the ship carried the Vikings onward. Viking ships represented technical innovation and became monuments to honored leaders, ensuring the iconic legacy of the Vikings.
Before the Viking Ship: Boats Before the Viking Age
The Vikings remain famous for their ships, but Scandinavia witnessed shipbuilding and burials before the medieval period. Surrounded by seas and dotted by lakes, streams, and fjords, the people of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden naturally adapted to a nautical way of life. Early Norse ships were typically row boats with paddles, often built in the clinker style. Using the clinker technique, builders worked from the outside in, attaching the stem and stern posts. Once these pieces were set, the builder installed the ship sides plank by plank. These pieces were riveted together with nails. Under this system, the internal ship framing was added last.
Archaeologists have discovered Iron Age boat graves in Denmark and Norway. Scandinavians began burying more individuals in boats during the fifth and sixth centuries. Discoveries in England and the Western Baltic indicate that boat burials were not unique to Scandinavia during this period, though the exact origin of this tradition has yet to be determined. The oldest plank-built ship yet found in northern Europe is the Hjortspring Boat, which dates to the early Iron Age.
Big Changes in Viking Ship Building
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Scholars debate how the Vikings built ships. The main ingredients were wood, iron, and wool, but the Vikings put these elements to use in different ways. Generally, the Norse constructed ships per the clinker tradition, but debate persists over whether they built ships via molds, or by eye.
No molds have been discovered, suggesting to some that the Vikings did not lay out ship planks on frames or molds. It may also be argued that Vikings did use them, but that they were destroyed or otherwise deteriorated.
Scholars who think there were no molds argue that Vikings designed ships with “mental templates” and pieced the planks together by eye. Unlike present-day divisions of labor, the Viking ship architect likely acted as the boatbuilder as well.
Ships excavated from the Viking Age show that construction began to mature during the medieval period. Shipbuilders began to shorten the length of the planks, and keels were improved to allow a mast to be attached. The rudder was shifted to the starboard side, giving the captain more control over the ship. Vikings also made the switch from paddles to oars. One of the most famous Viking ships, the Oseberg, had thirty oars. The longship Hedeby I, had nearly double that.
By the time the Viking Age dawned, Scandinavian weavers had also adopted new tools and techniques. Archaeological excavations have recovered wool combs, spindles, spindle whorls, and loom weights from around the Viking world. Certainly, Scandinavians produced textiles before the Viking Age, but the craft matured during this period. Changes in textile production may have aided in the transformation of the Norse into a dominant maritime culture.
The Viking Age textile industry allowed medieval Scandinavian shipbuilders to adopt the sail, a critical technological innovation that helped propel the Vikings onto the world stage. Other cultures used sails prior to the Viking Age, but this technology made its first appearance in Scandinavia during the medieval period. Viking Age sails were most likely made of wool, but flax or hemp could also have been used. Icelandic Sagas also indicate that sails could be more than just nautical tools; they could also be decorated and presented as ornate gifts.
While Vikings required the basics of wood, iron, and wool to get started on their ships, excavations have revealed some of the different tools Vikings used to craft their fleet. In Birka, Sweden, archaeologists found wooden toggles, commonly used for rigging, wooden rivets, and thick wooden nails. But the most important factor was the people behind the tools.
Based on twenty-first century reconstruction efforts, scholars estimate that building a 30-meter longship would take approximately 27,000 hours to complete. Investing so much time and resources in this effort suggests that Viking ships were of essential importance to the medieval Norse.
Ships for Every Season
The Vikings crafted ships for different challenges. Grand, elaborate ships like the Oseberg were probably the exception rather than the norm. But richly decorated vessels showed the talents of Viking craftspeople and the resources of their patrons.
Longships were ideal for war and raiding, as they were long, narrow, and suitable for more oarsmen, allowing swift attacks and retreats. The Tune ship burial offers a glimpse at a possible warship. Ships with higher sides and deeper drafts served as useful cargo vessels, sailing through the seas of Europe and beyond. Cargo ships tended to be more sail dependent with smaller crews. Always though, the Vikings sailed in style. Archaeological excavations have recovered intricate weathervanes, which were likely placed on top of the ship’s mast as some sort of signal to others or a symbol of unity.
Legends of the Sea
With ships for all occasions and years of experience on the water, the Vikings were ready to take on the world. Sometimes, the Vikings sailed for conquest. In 865 CE, a fleet of Viking ships headed towards England. Times had changed. When the Vikings attacked Lindisfarne, they raided, killed, and left in quick succession. In 865 CE, the Vikings sailed to stay. That year, the Great Heathen Army set its sights on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. In short order, they conquered the Anglo-Saxons in York and made it their base. For the next fifteen years, the Vikings crisscrossed the Anglo-Saxon kingdom taking East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia. Clearly, the Scandinavians of the ninth century built their ships with much more than a little raid in mind.
After years of taking what they wanted from England and Europe, the Vikings headed for terra incognita. They made their way to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. At present, the farthest the Vikings seem to have journeyed was L’Anse aux Meadows. There, archaeologists found wooden debris and rope, suggesting that the Vikings were busy repairing their ships while at the farthest reaches of their journey. How long they intended to stay at L’Anse aux Meadows remains a mystery. More certain was that when it was time to go, there was only one way back home.
Monuments to the Past: The Legacy of Viking Ships
Ships made the Viking way of life possible. For some Vikings, the necessity of the ship endured in the afterlife. Archaeologists have discovered ships entombed in giant mounds of earth, small ship burials, and stone ship burials. These monuments indicate that ships symbolized something enduring to the people of medieval Scandinavia. Evidence from the British Isles shows that even after leaving Scandinavia behind, the ship remained core to the Vikings’ identities.
Because of the time, labor, and expense required to build and bury a ship, many speculate that ship burials honored the leaders of the Viking world. One presumed leader died around 900 CE, apparently from violent injuries likely sustained in battle. He was buried in the back of a ship called the Gokstad that could be sailed, rowed, and defended by 64 accompanying shields.
Additionally, archaeologists found three more boats buried with the man. Though smaller in size, they offered additional modes of transportation that were apparently vital to the afterlife. After adding burial goods to the man’s grave, the Vikings buried the Gokstad under a mound that measured approximately 5 meters high (16 feet) and 40 meters in diameter (131 feet) when recorded in the nineteenth century. Scholars suspect it may have been larger in the medieval period.
Before the Gokstad ship was placed in the ground, Viking laborers dug a trench and piled dirt around the ship almost like a staging area for the burial. Similarly, scholars believe the Vikings constructed a staging area for the Oseberg ship burial. One analysis reported that spring flowers and autumn fruits were present at the burial, suggesting that the grand ship burial lay open and exposed for several weeks or possibly months. Another analysis however argued that spring flowers were not in the burial and that the burial stage lay exposed for a shorter period.
The deliberate layering of soils suggests that the excavation and construction of the burial mound was a performative ritual, just as important to the Vikings as the construction of the ship and layering of burial goods. However, archaeologists have also identified local variations in mound construction. The construction of Viking ships and mounds followed a long Scandinavian tradition, but it also exhibited personal and local character. Though much changed throughout the Viking Age, the ship remained essential to the Scandinavian world and endures as a testament to their legendary maritime prowess.