norse-ship

Lesson 14.a - Viking Ships and Seafaring, Part I: Development, Construction, and Navigation.

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Komiði sæl og blessuð,

This lesson begins a two-part lesson on the impressive ships that allowed the Vikings to expand their presence in the medieval world. This portion of the lesson will be discussing the reasons for such advanced maritime development in Scandinavia, as well as their methods for construction and navigation. The second portion will provide many examples of various ship types (yes, there is more than just the longship). So, be on the look out next week for those examples (lots of pictures).

Contents:

  1. Maritime Development in Scandinavia
  2. Complexity Built from Simplicity
  3. Navigational Techniques

Maritime Development in Scandinavia

Fair maid, I saw the ship slide
from the river’s side to the sea.
Behold the planks of the proud dragon
lying off the land.
Over the ship shines the
serpent’s mane, streaming light;
bow and stern bore pure gold
as she sped from the slipway.

                     - Thjodolf the skald

Scandinavia had a culture that placed great significance on the sea. The poem above is among my most favorite, for it so beautifully demonstrates and admiration for the sea and their ships. Scandinavia was well suited for heavy maritime development, because it was far easier to travel by sea than by land (unless it was winter). Also, do recall Lesson I, in which we discussed that coastal regions were prime settlement points (fertile soil, less severe, etc.). Scandinavia is host to many inland waterways that lead to the sea. So, given their geographical advantages and conditions, maritime development was inevitable. As a result, we see a strong symbolic importance attached to their ships and the sea.

Through experimental archaeology, scholars have been able to gain insight into their process of shipbuilding. According to these efforts, it took around 40,000 working hours to build a 30 meter longship. This resulted in a surplus production of 100 people in one year. Sailing and maintaining a ship of this size required 70 men. This resulted in 460 workers of surplus, but was usually paid for through plunder. In the end, building a ship was a huge financial expense. We see in later records the rise of a tax to help pay for shipbuilding as Scandinavia began to centralize, called leiðangr.

Scandinavia’s obsession resulted in, arguably, the most advanced ships of the medieval world. They were lighter, slimmer, and faster than other ships. Their shallow drafts allowed them to navigate rivers, yet also open waters. They were also large enough to carry quite a lot. All these benefits in their ships is what allowed them to raid the coasts of Europe by being able to “park and raid” to the complete surprise of the inhabitants.

Complexity Built from Simplicity

As the amount of labor and expense suggests, building these ships was much like artwork. As a result, shipbuilding itself had an “art” to it. Overall, their methods for construction were very natural. They had lost the technology of the saw, and so they split wood along its natural grain, which actually resulted in stronger “cuts.” To obtain the required curve, the wood was naturally bent and fresh. You can bend wood by soaking it and slowly moving it into the desired curve.

Their construction method is known as Lapstrake (or “clinker” construction). A detailed diagram of this construction method can be viewed above. The ship was constructed on the backbone of the keel, stem, and stern. There would then be a “shell” of planks that overlap (hence the “lap” in “lapstrake”) and are then nailed together. These nails are then sealed with wool. There is then a frame inside the hull for additional strength.

The end result was a strong yet flexible ship. All using simple tools such as axes, hammers, wedges, planes, rivets, etc. Large iron anchors and rivets were made separately by smiths. The steering oar was placed on the starboard side, which itself comes from the word stýra (to steer). As for sails, they were adopted just before the Viking Age, from around 800 CE. The oar remained in use, but the sail added an additional advantage. Many agree that the development of the sail is what enable the Viking Age to begin so strongly.

Navigational Techniques

In general, there are no navigational tools that we have confirmed without doubt. By that, I mean that the evidence and scholarship remains very contested about them. There are a few, though, that have been popularized and could likely have existed. Such tools might be the famous “sunstone” that allowed them to see the location of the sun in the sky even during a cloudy day. This has been shown in Vikings on the History Channel.

Another popular navigation tool could have been the sunboard, also seen in the show. Again, much like the sunstone, the existence and usage of such a tool seems to still be in question, probably due to little archaeological preservation. Yet, that being said, there have been some findings, though only a fragment. Therefore, the sunboard still leaves unanswered possibilities, much like the sunstone.

Both have good probabilities, but they also are very elusive. Good history means remaining skeptical until we can be more confident, so until then, we will leave these methods to possibilities under investigation. As for other navigational methods we can be more confident of, they made use of the starts, coastlines, wind directions, wave directions, and currents to find their way out at sea. After all, Scandinavia had always been very sea-oriented, so their ability to observe natural occurrences to deduce direction would have been very keen.


Wrap-up

“Thorberg the Woodcarver was responsible for the stem and stern, but there were many others involved in the work as well. Some of them felled trees; some shaped the wood; some forged nails; and some hauled timber. All the materials use were of the best quality, and the ship was constructed with large timbers.” (Viking Reader, doc. 32, pg. 152)

Skál og ferð vel,
— Steven T. Dunn.

Next Week’s Lesson: Lesson 14.b - Viking Ships and Seafaring, Part II: Primary Examples.


Sources

General:

  1. Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Ships and Seafaring,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015.

Textual (In Order of Appearance):

  1. Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader (Second Edition). (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 152.

Images (In Order of Appearance):

  1. Lapstrake Construction Diagram: http://www.vikingskip.com/norse-shipbuilding.htm
  2. Vikings Screenshots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl-XdT_ad4c