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The fascinating history of Viking ships

No history of Norway is complete without mention of the Vikings. The Vikings were Scandinavian seafarers who raided and traded goods across a wide swath of Europe from the 8th to the 11th century. Much of the Vikings’ ability to expand can be credited to their ships. Viking ships were used for transport, trade, and warfare.
Vikingship on the fjord - Norway
Steinar Engeland / Unsplash
Navigating Norway and the rest of Scandinavia required vessels that could handle a variety of different types of bodies of water. From lakes to rivers to fjords to the open sea, the Vikings built ships that could handle it all. Here are a few fascinating features and facts about the Vikings and their incredible vessels!
Gokstad Viking ship on the Vikingship Museum - Oslo, Norway
VISITOSLO/Didrick Stenersen

Early Viking Ships

Much of what we know about the earliest Viking ships was pieced together through the inspection of what remains of shipwrecks found in Norway’s Oslo Fjord. Some of the earliest ships discovered were the Oseberg, the Gokstad, and the Tune. These ships were not as specialized as the ships that would be created after them. So, it appears that they were used for everything from transport to battle.
By the end of the 9th century, specialization of the ships had begun. Around this time, the Vikings started to create warships. Warships were longer and slimmer than previous boats the Vikings had built, and although the name might inspire visions of epic sea battles, the warships were actually used for something altogether different. Due to their shape and size, these vessels were able to navigate sheltered waters where they would drop off the Vikings at a point of interest. From there, the Vikings could discreetly enter their target location. The warships were designed for a quick getaway once the Vikings had obtained the loot from their target location.
Rod Costa

The Longship and the Cargoship

Specialization appeared to really take off in the 10th century. At this time, warships became even longer and more narrow and became known as longships. Old Norse terminology further differentiated between different types of longships. Vessels that were especially long and narrow were called skeiðar. Vessels with dragon or serpent heads were called drakkar. Finally, longships that were slightly smaller were known as snekke.
While warships became more and more specialized, so did cargo ships. Not surprisingly, these ships had a large carrying capacity. Furthermore, these cargo ships, which relied on sails for movement, could be manned by a very small team. This is in stark contrast to longships, which used both sails and oars to reach rapid speeds that allowed them to ambush their targets with very little warning time.
The Viking ship history - Compass
Jordan Madrid / Unsplash
While the Vikings traveled long distances across open seas, astonishingly, they appeared to do so without the use of compasses, sea charts or logs. It is believed that the Vikings primarily relied on their knowledge of the sun and stars as well as wave and wind and cloud patterns to navigate.
They primarily used sundials to show the direction of the North Pole. Although, more recent science hypothesizes that the Vikings may have even used crystals categorized as sunstones to help navigate on foggy days. It is believed that these crystals shine the brightest when pointed towards the sun, even on a cloudy day. Although the science on this is still unclear it is one additional navigational tool that may have been used by the Vikings. Finally, the Vikings also took note of the behavior of birds and sea mammals to guide their way.
Viking ship
Georg Hansen
The Vikings played a pivotal role in Scandinavian and European history. Much of their ability to control various regions of Northern Europe and contribute to trade and transport relied on their ability to craft incredible vessels. From stone ship burial grounds to replica ships, there are plenty of ways to explore Viking history first-hand in Norway!
If this has made you more curious about the history of the Viking ships in Norway, a visit to the Viking Museum in Oslo is highly recommended

Get active like the Vikings


Welcome to a captivating exploration of the legendary Vikings in Norway!
Wiking Museum - Oslo, Norway

The history of Norwegian Vikings

Though the Vikings lived long ago, their strong legacy lives on and there’s no shortage of interest in their history and traditions. There are plenty of ways for interested travellers to experience Viking life and traditions in modern Norway. For history buffs and families with kids, a trip to Norway is a fantastic way to explore Viking history – all over the country, you’ll find museums, tours, Viking villages and more just waiting to be discovered.

Lofotr Vikingmuseum, Lofoten - Norway

Viking villages in Norway

It’s no secret that there’s a strong Viking history in Norway. Even though the Viking era came to an end during the 11th century, the legacy of Vikings lives on. For those interested in learning more about Viking history, culture and tradition, there are several attractions ranging from museums and historical sites to Viking villages that bring history to life and give you a sense of stepping back in time to the Viking Age.

Viking  - Norway

Viking Travels

Many tourists who travel to Norway are eager to learn more about the history of the Vikings. And, we can’t blame them. The Vikings were fascinating, complex people. Although they are primarily known as fierce warriors, they also engaged in trade and transport across much of Europe and built incredibly advanced ships that fascinate historians to this day. Here is some of what we know about how and where the Vikings traveled during the late 8th to the 11th century.

Viking  - Norway

Medieval Viking feasts

A feast is a huge celebratory dinner with everything served in abundance. The Vikings were famed for their glutinous indulgence of food and habit of eagerly drinking beer or mead wine with every meal.