Viking ships

A modern replica of a Viking ship. This ship is of the Snekkja longship type.

Viking ships were marine vessels of unique design, built by the Vikings during the Viking Age. The boat-types were quite varied, depending on what the ship was intended for,[1] 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 initial thought when you hear the phrase Viking ships, is violence and raids but Viking ships varied greatly in both size and functions. What some people fail to realize is how the Viking ships were not just used for their military prowess but for long-distance trade, exploration and colonization.[2]

In the literature, Viking ships are usually seen divided into two broad categories: merchant ships and warships. These categories are overlapping; however, some kinds of merchant ships, built for transporting cargo specifically, were also regularly deployed as warships. The majority of Viking ships were designed for sailing rivers, fjords and coastal waters, while a few types, such as the knarr, could navigate the open sea and even the ocean. The Viking ships ranged from the Baltic Sea to far from the Scandinavian homelands, to Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Newfoundland, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Africa.


The ship has functioned as the centerpiece of Scandinavian culture for millennia, serving both pragmatic and religious purposes and its importance was already deeply rooted in the Scandinavian culture when the Viking Age began. Scandinavia is a region with relatively high inland mountain ranges, dense forests and easy access to the sea with many natural ports. Consequently, trade routes were primarily operated via shipping, as inland travel was both more hazardous and cumbersome. Many stone engravings from the Nordic Stone Age and in particular the Nordic Bronze Age, depict ships in various situations and valuable ships were sacrificed as part of ceremonial votive offerings since at least the Nordic Iron Age, as evidenced by the Hjortspring and Nydam boats.

The Viking kingdoms developed into coastal cities, all of which were deeply dependent on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea for survival and development. Control of the waterways was of critical importance, and consequently advanced war ships were in high demand. But 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 millennium, 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.[3]


Main article: Faering

A faering is an open rowboat with two pairs of oars, commonly found in most boat-building traditions in Western and Northern Scandinavia, dating back to the Viking Age.[4]


Main article: Knarr

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.[5] Overall displacement: 50 tons. This is shorter than the Gokstad type of longships, but knarrs are sturdier by design and they depended mostly on sail-power, only putting oars to use as auxiliaries, if there was no wind on the open water. Because of this, the knarr was used for longer voyages, ocean going transports and more hazardous trips than the Gokstad type. It was capable of sailing 75 miles (121 km) in one day, held a crew of about 20-30, and knarrs[6] routinely crossed the North Atlantic in the Viking Age, carrying livestock and goods to and from Greenland and the North Atlantic islands. The design of the knarr later influenced the design of the cog, used in the Baltic Sea by the Hanseatic League.


The Gokstad ship, on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.
Main article: Longship

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 510 knots and the maximal speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots.[7]

Animal head from Oseberg ship.

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 meter 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 deployed by the Norse in warfare, they were mostly used for troop transports, not as warships. In the tenth century, these boats would sometimes be tied together in battle to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. Longships were called dragonships (drakushiffen) by the Franks because they had a dragon-shaped prow.[8]


Main article: Karve (ship)

The Karve 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).

Ship construction

Viking ships varied from other contemporary ships, 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.[9]

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.[10]

Furthermore, during 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.[11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

Culture and traditions

One Viking custom was to bury dead chieftains 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 man would be placed on his ship, along with many of his most prized possessions. The chieftain’s favorite horses, often a faithful hunting-dog and occasionally thralls and households, were sacrificially killed and also buried with the deceased. The Vikings firmly believed that the dead man would then 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, stretching back to at least the Nordic Iron Age, as evidenced by the Hjortspring boat (400-300 BC) or the Nydam boats (200-450 AD), for example. Ships and bodies of water have held a major spiritual importance in the Norse cultures since at least the Nordic Bronze Age.

Preserved ships

The preserved remains of the Oseberg Ship, now located in the Viking Ship Museum (Oslo).

Several original Viking ships have been found through the ages, but only a few have been relatively intact and subsequently preserved. The most notable of these few ships includes:


Main article: Viking ship replica

Viking ship replicas are one of the more common types of ship replica. Viking, the very first Viking ship replica, was built by the Rødsverven shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway. In 1893 it sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition. There are a considerable number of modern reconstructions of Viking Age ships in service around Northern Europe and North America. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has been particularly prolific in building accurate reconstructions of archaeological finds in its collection.

See also


  1. Eldar Heide (2014). The early Viking Ship types (Sjøfartshistorisk årbok 2012. 81-153.)
  2. Jones, Gwyn, A history of the Vikings (Oxford 2001).
  3. Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (New York, 1997), 182.
  4. What is a norse færing? ( Archived February 22, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Peter Sawyer, (1975) The Oxford Illustrated history of the Vikings. Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-285434-6 ISBN 0-19-285434-8
  6. Plural of knarr is knerrir.
  8. Ervan G. Garrison: . A history of engineering and technology: artful methods, p 111
  9. Lapstrake hull schematic Archived July 17, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. Stephen Batchelor (30 April 2010). Medieval History For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 101–. ISBN 978-0-470-66460-5. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  11. Richard Hall, The World of the Vikings (New York, 2007), 55.
  12. Hall, The World of the Vikings, 54.
  13. Oscar Noel and Sue Ann Bowling (21 March 1988). "Polar Navigation and the Sky Compass: Article #865". Alaska Science Forum. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  14. 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: (accessed November 02, 2011).

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