Viking Ships: More than Havoc-Wreaking Raiders

When Vikings are mentioned, two images come to mind. The first is of bloodthirsty marauders pillaging villages during the European Dark Ages, while the second is of Leif Eriksson discovering Greenland. A whole industry dedicated to advanced shipbuilding made both images historical realities.

It was the lack of farming resources in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden that led the Vikings to raid other lands. Their shipbuilding skills allowed them to land in extremely shallow waters. The Vikings so revered their boats that many were buried with them.

History of Viking Ships

The period between 800 AD and 1066 constituted the Viking Age. It coincided with the European Middle Ages, which lasted for 1000 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Ottoman kingdom.

During the Viking Age, the Vikings would raid monasteries in Europe. Between the 9th and 10th centuries, architects and builders began fortifying monasteries or moving them further inland to avoid Viking raids. These defenses, coupled with changing political and religious environments in Europe, were thought to have made Viking raids less frequent in occurrence. The last record of a Viking raid in Europe was in 1066, which is the year scholars believe the Viking Age ended.

Viking Shipbuilding

The Scandinavian terrain is dominated by waterways. Fjords, lakes, rivers, seas and straits: every sort of waterway imaginable is found across the Northern European landscape.

Shipbuilding became an industry out of necessity, however. The two most common styles of Viking vessels were warships and merchant vessels. 

  1. Warships, called langskips.
  2. Merchant ships, called knorr.

The earliest example of a Viking warship is the Hjortspring boat of Denmark. It was made from planks of wood and is an example of shipbuilding techniques dating back to the Bronze Age. The boat was built of lime-wood, or Linden, from the genus Tilia. This particular type of wood is considered softwood, rather than hardwood.

Later, oak and maple woods were used to build boats. The Viking langskips were sleek and light. The Hjortspring, which is considered to be a war canoe, was 20 meters long and capable of transporting up to 24 men and their gear. Viking warships also had a reputation for swiftness on the water.

Meanwhile, merchant ships were wider, deeper and shorter than langskips. The higher sides of the knorr ships were meant to protect the cargo. On the other hand, the langskip was built for speed. The faster a langskip could get its men ashore, the better the opportunity for a successful raid. 

Decoration and Viking Ships

Viking warships were not only the fastest ships on the water at the time, but many also displayed intricate decorative elements. The bows of the langskips were intricately carved into whorls. Highly skilled craftsmanship can be seen in the Hjortspring boat framework.

A long piece of timber extends to the bow, with another parallel to it below. This design element reduces the surface area of the bow, which allows the boat to divide the waters with maximum efficiency.

The Hjortspring boat itself had few decorative elements. More emphasis was put on decorations in later warships, however. The latter often featured carvings of animal heads or dragons on the bows. Meanwhile, Viking Skuldelev ships discovered in the shallow waters of Denmark provide more insight into Viking shipbuilding practices. The Skuldelev ship looks much like the Hjortspring boat but with only one protruding bow timber. Historians have also learned much by examining the Oseberg and Gokstad ships.

Viking raids eventually stopped in 1066. In all, Viking ships are beautiful examples of excellent craftsmanship.