People of the sea
The Vikings were originally seafaring raiders of Norse origin. The Norse people made their homes in the unforgiving landscape of Scandinavia. The terrain ranged from steep mountains with dense forests to swampy lowlands. The geography made travelling by land difficult for the Norse. Rather than contend with the rugged land, the Norse often took advantage of Norway's fjords (inlets with steep walls), and travelled by boat. Refer Image 1
Since the Norse people were dependent on the sea, boats were an important part of their lives. By the Viking Age, the Norse had developed their shipbuilding skills which resulted in the striking, swift and well-constructed ships that they are renowned for even today.
The Vikings were best known for their raiding, through popular stories of barbaric invasions in Europe. As a result, the longship, or the drakkar as it is also known, is the most famous of all Norse seacraft. Designed to be a ship of war, it was easily identified by the dragon carvings which often adorned either end of the longship to scare away evil spirits. Refer Image 2 and animation
Built for war and for travel, the longship needed to be able to travel hundreds of kilometres, while being fast and strong. Estimates, using modern replicas, suggested that the ships could reach speeds of more than 10 knots per hour (18.5 kilometres per hour). The average longship was 28 metres in length and had seats for between 32 and 36 rowers. Speed was also achieved through woven wool masts that could be raised or lowered. The ship itself was made of a single oak beam for the keel and a hull which was strengthened by overlapping planks of timber. One of the most ingenious parts of the longship was the shallow draught which enabled it to pull up in the shallow waters of bays and rivers.
This careful scrutiny of the construction of the longship gave the Vikings a clear advantage in invasions. It allowed them to swiftly sneak up on the enemy, not only in coastal villages, but also further inland since they could also row the ships up shallow creeks. Not surprisingly, one of the first Viking invasions of England, which occurred in AD 789, was in a Viking longship.
Not all Vikings were raiders and pillagers (thieves). There were also Viking merchants who were successful traders. To assist their trading, the Norse built boats called knarrs, which were especially designed to carry cargo. On average, the knarr was 16 metres long and 5 metres wide. Shorter and wider than the longship, the knarr could carry up to 35 tonnes of cargo which often included livestock, timber and bales of wool. The cargo was often loaded into the middle of the ship for greater stability. This meant that the rowers had to situate themselves at either end of the ship. The knarr did not require many rowers, since they were only required when the knarr was departing or entering a port.
The construction of the knarr was similar to that of the longship, since they both comprised a single oak beam for the keel and oak or pine planks. Both ships boasted a woven wool mast. In the knarr, however, the mast was attached to the keel and could not be taken down as it could on the longship.
The knarrs enabled the Viking merchants to travel long distances. New trade routes were opened in the east and in the west. The Vikings traded in wheat from the British Isles, rye from Russia and wine from Germany.
Despite being slower than the longship, the dimensions of the knarr made it seaworthy in rough conditions. It is thought that Viking explorers such as Lief Erikson used the knarr to travel the great distance to North America. Without these remarkable ships, many believe that the Norse would never have travelled and explored so far away from their Scandinavian homes.
Ships to sustain life and ships to commemorate death
Since some parts of the Scandinavian land were too rugged to be prosperous farmland, the Norse people revered the sea. The ocean provided them with food and a path to wealth and prosperity through trade. Ships were also considered to be highly symbolic. Despite the humble fishing boat being a common part of Norse life, it ensured the survival of the people. Small boats such as the faering, which only had four oars, were often used for a day of fishing.
The Norse also used ships to commemorate the deceased. The royal Gokstad ship, which was excavated in 1880, is one of the most famous Viking burial ships. Some historians believe that during the Viking Age the dead were sometimes placed on burning ships and sent out to sea. Evidence suggests that, for the less wealthy, the deceased were put in boats or even simply buried in a grave with stones outlining the shape of a longship. Refer Image 3