On the primary motif on the 100 krone banknote – the Viking ship, illustrated by the Gokstad ship

When we think of the Viking Age, daring voyages and epic feats come to mind. Reading the Sagas provides a glimpse into history, but only when we consider both historical texts and archaeological remains together do we begin to understand the distinctive features of the past. The burial ship from the Gokstad burial mound was so well-preserved when it was found in 1880 that it had an immediate effect on the contemporary understanding of Viking Age society. These remarkable ship remains allow us to continue to sail into the past to explore both the Viking Age and the world from the perspective of a Viking. A number of Viking ship replicas have been built and sailed in recent years. These replicas have functioned as "time machines", enabling us to better understand history and prompting new questions about the present and the obscure past.

Based on a text by Terje Planke

The Viking Age lasted from the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th century. This era has become so important to modern Norway chiefly because written sources in the form of the Icelandic sagas and artefacts from large archaeological grave finds have been readily accessible. These texts and artefacts provided an important historical foundation for the Norwegian nation-building project of the 19th and early 20th century.

The Viking ships have been credited with a key role in the three areas of Viking expansion and activity: settlement/colonisation, pillaging/warring raids, and peaceful trading. Three burial ships are exhibited at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. The Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg ships, all found in southeastern Norway, were excavated in 1863, 1880 and 1904, respectively, and proved to hold a rich trove of artefacts. The grave chamber contained a large number objects for use in the afterlife. Preservation conditions were also ideal. The Gokstad ship from Sandefjord in Vestfold county was buried with 16 horses, dogs, tents, sleds, tools and three small boats. The small boats are similar to traditional Norwegian utility boats of the 19th century. The ship and the boats show that the Gokstad man must have been an active seafarer. The man's skeletal injuries indicate that he was a warrior who died in battle. The Oseberg ship was built in southwestern Norway in 820 and was used as a burial ship 14 years later in Tønsberg for two women who were buried with a trove of artefacts and textiles for the afterlife. The Klåstad ship is a fourth Viking ship. It sank in Vestfold county and its load reveals that it was a cargo ship. Together, these ships give us an idea about how goods were transported and about culture and power in Norway and northern Europe in the Viking Age.

The first three Norwegian burial ships share a number of characteristics. They are neither pure warships nor merchant vessels but rather multi-purpose ships for important people to safeguard their valuables, security and honour. They are magnificent and beautifully crafted. The ships are open and have no lower deck. They are fairly low-hulled but their arching stems stretch toward the sky. The ships were fitted with oars and square sails and steering oars were located on the ship's aft starboard side. Slightly forward of the midship, a mast fish holds the mast in place along with the rope rig. Viking ship hulls were flexible, allowing them to twist slightly to follow the movements of the waves, as demonstrated when the replicas of these ships have been sailed.

The ships were constructed using sturdy hand tools in a cultural context where skilled craftsmen were highly valued. The ships were clinker built with strakes of radially split oak, ie oak logs split lengthwise into 16 "cake slices" before being hewn to an even thickness. The overlapping strakes acted as the skin or "shell" of the hull and were joined together with iron rivets. The ribs and battens, which were cut from the branching elements of a tree, acted as the ships' skeleton. The ribs were lashed to the strakes with tough tree roots and wooden pegs. This method of boat building resulted in relatively lightweight yet strong and supple ships that were easy to sail. The superiority of the Viking ship played a crucial role in the Viking Age. The ship functioned as an efficient platform for swift hit-and-run raids while also being suitable for voyages on the high seas.

The ship's structure provides some indication of how it was used and the social conditions on board. The Gokstad Ship had 16 pairs of oars to a hull length of 23 meters. The mast would be unstepped during rowing. The oars protruded through oarholes in the sides of the ship. Each oarsman sat on his own sea chest. To row efficiently, an oarsman would start each rowing stroke by pushing off with his heels. When the ship was prepared for battle, there would be 32 shields on each side. The starboard oarsman closest to the stern made sure the crew rowed in unison. This oarsman had a good view of the helmsman at the steering oar, but could not see the water or the oars on the sides of the ship. The response of the ship could be clearly felt as it was propelled forward with every stroke of the oars.

A long tradition of rowing along the Norwegian coast had already been established by the Viking Age, but the square sail seems to be a relatively new feature that arose with Viking ships. The Oseberg ship, determined to have been built in 820, is the oldest ship using a square sail known to sail our northern seas. It is usually referred to as a coastal vessel. The Gokstad ship from approximately 900 is more of an ocean-going vessel. A sturdy, fully crewed combination rowing and sailing ship provided considerable flexibility and navigability. The Gokstad ship was rowed by 32 oarsmen and probably also had 32 more in reserve, so that it could be rowed continuously for days as long as the crew had access to drinking water and food. Each oarsmen had time off and the opportunity to rest and eat in half of each 24-hour period. Each oar and sea chest were shared by two men. Rowing is a basic skill that can be done for hours. Fully manned, the ship probably had a minimum crew of 65 men, who could also serve in battle when necessary.

A ship crewed in such a way was a "human machine" that could sail the entire Norwegian coast with ease in the summer season and could easily cross the North Sea or the Skagerrak, weather permitting. When a ship was beached for the night, the mast would be unstepped and the wool sail used as a cover or as a tent for the crew. A fire could be made on board to cook food and provide warmth.

Meeting other people was not the only hazard Vikings could encounter on voyages in North Atlantic waters. Having a large seaworthy boat that could carry goods and equipment necessary for settlement or trade was crucial. Towards the end of the first millennium, higher-capacity cargo ships appeared. Skuldelev 1, which was a cargo ship discovered in the Roskilde fjord in Denmark, was originally built in Sognefjord towards the end of the Viking Age. These cargo ships had masts that were stepped at all times and were equipped with only a few sets of oars to manoeuvre in harbours. The rope rig and sail allowed the ships to carry a larger cargo, though with a smaller crew. However, this also meant that voyages were dependent on fair winds. Square sails were effective for sailing with the wind, but could also be used to sail against the wind or to tack to generate lift. These specialised cargo ships seem to have appeared when state formation and the centralisation of power eliminated the need for full crews to ensure the security of the ship and its cargo. The chieftain society of the early Viking Age must have had an economy based on piracy, where both valuables and honour would need defending. In such an economy the Gokstad ship was better suited than a vessel designed for cargo.

Skuldelev 1, for example, would have been well-suited for westward colonising expeditions launched from the west coast of Norway. Then as now, low pressure systems arrived from the west. If winds were fair, ships could put out to sea and sail between islands without a map or compass. Navigating the route was based on oral lore or tradition. Voyages started from a known location at a known "latitude". By measuring the height of the sun at midday, or by using a sundial, a westward course in the direction of the Midgard Serpent could be sailed towards the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. This served as an expanded version of coastal navigation or island hopping. If there was inclement weather, a ship and its crew could sail back with the weather until they reached the Norwegian coast. Although seemingly treacherous with its reefs and skerries, the waterways behind the shoals (shallows in the sea where waves would break) were calm, and the summer nights were short. Conditions for eastward expeditions were quite different. To travel to Constantinople, Vikings would first sail to Staraya Ladoga or Novgorod. From there, they would have probably continued by either horse-drawn sleigh in winter or by rowing smaller boats up rivers in the summer.

Viking Age seafarers engaged in trade, piracy, battle or colonisation. A combination of these purposes is fairly certain, and journeys brought renown, riches and death. Today, the Viking ship allows us to travel in entirely different ways. We can sail into the past, whether it be in a practical, intellectual or a more mystical and imaginative sense. Having to survive along the coast on fishing, shipping and trade has given the Norwegian people an extensive knowledge base. This knowledge, with its roots in Viking Age society, helps to shed light on the Vikings and their way of life. At the same time, their culture, mentality and society, which were centred on kinship, chiefdom and piracy, is difficult for us to fathom.


Published 27 July 2017 09:55