Photo: Steinar Engeland / Unsplash
Fjord Tours Articles / 28 Jan 2020

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.

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!

Photo: 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.

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.

Jordan Madrid Idzkdni7qgc Unsplash
Photo: Jordan Madrid / Unsplash

Navigation

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.

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Photo: 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 Muesum in Oslo is highly recommended. Also check other tours and activites in Norway where you can "Go Viking" HERE.