The northerners looked to the seas as a convenient and accessible way to explore and trade. This focus allowed the development of extremely skilled ship-building techniques and advanced sailing skills that were far ahead of their time.
The epitome of viking ship design was the Longship. Made mostly out of timber, the vessels elongated design ensured it was able to handle the roughest waters and carry people across vast distances. Various sagas tell us much about their history while recent excavations has revealed even more about their specifications and build.
Longships tended to fall into four main groups, each serving a different purpose. There were, obviously several more kinds of longships, but the next four are the most famous ones. Let's take a look at each in turn, starting with the smallest.
One of the smaller longship vessels in the Viking fleet was the karvi (or karve). This type of ship had various uses, for trade, fishing and as a transportation vessel. Additionally, it is also said to have been used for military purposes.
The typical karvi had 13 rowing benches, but all ships with 6 to 16 benches were (typically) categorized as a karvi. Due to the unique structure of this ship, it was able to handle very shallow waters, making it it an ideal transport and cargo ship.
The most famous karvi vessel to have been discovered to date, is the Gokstad ship. It was excavated in 1880 and dated sometime around the ninth century. It measured around 23 meters (75 feet) in length which is considered one of the larger karvi ships.
Gokstad ship, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo
The next type of Viking longship is one of the most common and one that has an interesting name. The snekkja (or snekke), which translates as “snakes” in English, was a sleek and dynamic vessel. It was this streamlined shape that made it perfect for combat.
The snekkja had a minimum of 20 rowing benches and could carry about 40 oarsmen. It came in various sizes, but a standard snekkja is said to have been about 17 meters (56 feet) in length.
Snekkja excelled in deeper waters, making them perfect for use in the fjords and on Atlantic expeditions. Because it was light and had a gentle curvature of the hull, it could easily land upon sandy or pebbled beaches.
The Snekkja also had the ability to handle stormy weather and rough, open seas, both of which ensured their popularity during the Viking age.
24 Oars Snekkja
The skeid longship, which translates as “slider”, is one of the larger Viking vessels. It was used primarily as a warship, often with 30 or more rowing benches.
One of the largest discoveries of a skeid ship came in the mid 1990s, when a 37 meters (121 feet) long vessel was unearthed in Roskilde harbor in Denmark.
It was labelled the "Roskilde 6" and said to have been built towards the end of the Viking era around 1025. It was one of nine Viking ships discovered in the area.
Another type of longship was the drakker (drakar). Meaning "dragon", this ship contained many carvings, from dragons to snakes, which is said to have been used a way to ward off evil sea monsters.
Another theory is that the carvings, like large dragon heads at either end of the ship, helped to intimidate the victims on raids and pillages. As the ships landed on beaches, they perhaps appeared to be great serpents emerging from the dark waters.
The drakker often contained rowing benches of 30 or more. But aside from the carvings and estimate of rowing benches, it is a vessel from the Viking era that we know very little about.
The Vikings' longship builders are said to have had no or very little design plans ahead of a build. Instead, they relied on previous vessels as a guide.
Ships relied on timber as a natural resource for construction and many different types were used in the building process. Oak was a popular choice for the more important vessels due to its durability, pliability and strength when wet or unseasoned.
All longships consisted of a keel, stems and a hull. A keel is the base of ship that runs along a central line on which a hull is built. The stem is the main upright timber of a ships bow, from which the ship’s sides are attached, they also had a sail and a mast.
Although, less is known about the size and materials used to make the sails, largely because no Viking age sails have ever been recovered intact.
The Vikings' seafaring skills are as impressive as their shipbuilding techniques.
The Norsemen were confident seafarers, with things like distance, bad weather or the strength of the sea proving no obstacle to them. They had an excellent knowledge of sea currents and excelled in the judging of wind speeds.
Relatively little is known about the navigational instruments on board the longships, but recent discoveries by archaeologists suggest things like sundials were in use. This signifies that the Vikings could have used them as a compass to chart their route and direction.
There is a very popular theory that the Norsemen also used a semi-transparent stone called Sunstone to navigate. The stone, today known as Iceland spar, is a type of mineral attested in several 13th–14th-century written sources in Iceland, one of which describes its use to locate the Sun in a completely overcast sky. This theory claims that the sunstone light-polarizing attributes were used as a navigational instrument to locate the Sun in the sky when clouds obstruct it from view during the Viking Age.
Research in 2011 by Ropars et al., confirms that one can identify the direction of the sun to within a few degrees in both cloudy and twilight conditions using Iceland spar and the naked eye, but attempts to replicate this work in both Scotland and off the coast of Turkey by science journalist Matt Kaplan and mineralogists at the British Geological Survey in 2014 failed.
The very earliest origins of ships of this kind are dated broadly between 500 and 300 BC and are believed to be fairly small in comparison to the four major longships reviewed in this article. More than mere transport, the longship was an integral part of the Viking culture, and an impressive feat of engineering.
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