Viking Ships

Norway, along with Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, is famous for its Viking past.  Individual, autonomous districts each ruled by its own Jarl coalesced at the end of the first millennia into a larger kingdom.  As a result, overseas trade and exploration became more organized (Bent 2012).  The most famous type of Scandinavian vessel, and one of the most famous types of vessels in the world, is the Viking longship.  These vessels, propelled by oar or paddle, were used in Scandinavia long before the Vikings.  The Hjortspring, Nydam, and Sutton Hoo ships are three predecessors of the longboat (Hortspring and Nydam were found in Denmark, Sutton Hoo in England).  The longship has become an easily recognizable symbol of the Viking Age.  Not only did it carry the famous raiders throughout Europe, modifications of the longboat were the vehicles of expansion for those hoping to establish new settlements outside of Scandinavia (such as on the northern islands of Scotland, the east coast of England, scattered throughout Ireland, and in Normandy, France) (Crumlin-Pedersen, 2010).

The intact Viking longships that have been discovered in Norway, such as the Oseberg and Gokstad vessels, are some of the largest and most complex artifacts ever recovered by archaeologists in Norway.  Other, less intact vessels have been discovered, such as the Tune ship now housed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo along with the Oseberg and Gokstad ships.  These boats were all found as part of elite burials rather than shipwrecks.  In addition to the boats themselves, information about seafaring can be found in the sagas and laws preserved from Norway and Iceland’s Viking period.  Iconography preserved on the Gotland picture stones, coins, or town seals has also been helpful in reconstructing life at sea in the medieval period (Christensen, 1982; 20-21).

In addition to the Tune, Oseberg, and Gokstad boat burials found near Oslo, there have been other Viking ship finds in recent years.  In 1970, a shipwreck was excavated at Klåstad in Vestfold; despite its fragmentary condition, it was later reassembled at the museum in Tønsberg. Another small medieval wreck was excavated at Sørenga, in Oslo’s medieval harbor, and at Sjøvollen in Asker on Oslo fjord’s western side.  Fragments of other vessels were uncovered at Bryggen in Bergen (Christensen, 1982; 24).

Iconography indicates that Viking ships were rigged with a single mast placed amidships and fitted with a square sail until after AD 1400 (Christensen, 1982; 26).  But when did the Vikings adopt the sail? Carvings on the stones in Gotland from AD 700 provide some of the best Scandinavian evidence for sails.  The earliest example of the T-shaped keel (a strong keel is integral to supporting the mast) can be found on the Kvalsund ship from approximately AD 700 (Their, 2003; 184).  To date, the Oseberg and Gokstad vessels are the only Viking ships to retain evidence of rigging.  Oseberg, buried in AD 834, is the oldest.  Mast-steps have been found on these vessels as well as the Skuldelev wrecks from Denmark.  The mast-step, which supported the mast and could stretch to cover as many as half of the frames, replaced the keelson in Viking shipbuilding.  The strength of the mast-steps suggests that the Viking boats were rigged with free standing masts (Roberts, 1990; 124-126).

Laced Boats

The laced boats of Scandinavia, sometimes called sewn boats, consist of overlapping clinker-style wooden planks.  Laced boats have been found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Estonia.  In general, widespread use of these vessels predates the 4th century AD.   In some parts of Scandinavia, laced vessels existed side by side with the riveted clinker hulls, likely due to specialized function or lack of iron nails (Westerdah, 1985).

At least 14  laced boats have been found in Norway, many of them in the far north.  It is very likely that those boats found in northern Norway were built by Saami boat builders, the native people of northern Scandinavia (Westerdah, 1985).  Based upon an analysis conducted of the Scandinavian laced boat finds prior to 1985, Christer Westerdahl published a preliminary ethnic classification of laced boat building traditions.  He determined that the Scandinavian Iron Age tradition was characterized by lightly built vessels laced in running stitches with bast or gut strings.  They were calked with wool or animal hair drenched in tar.  The craft were generally used inshore on the Atlantic coast, though could also be found on the inland waterways of the Baltic coast.  They date from the 3rd century BC to the 9th century AD and include such famous vessels as the Hjortspring boat from Denmark (ca. 300 BC), Norway No. 12 Valderøy (ca. AD 250) and Norway No. 5 Halsnøy (ca. AD 350).

Treenails do not appear in Scandinavian boat building (though they may have been utilized in other forms of woodworking) until they were used to plug the lacing holes to stop water from leaking into the boat.  They may have replaced the lacing entirely, though there is not presently much evidence for this. Alternately, lacing was replaced by iron nails.  In some cases, such as with the Sand boat from Norway, iron nails and lacing coexist in the same boat.  The transition from lacing to treenails and iron nails was likely varied for different regions in Scandinavia and more boat finds are necessary to shed light on the transitional process  (Westerdah, 1985).  Though tree roots and branches were used to lace vessels from Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, bast strings, horse hair, cobbler’s thread, reindeer sinews, and gut string were used to lace the boats from Norway.  It should be noted that the not all of the boat finds have had their laces analyzed; very few vessels have had their caulking material analyzed. Laced boat Norway No. 5 from Halsnoy had a tar-drenched woolen textile, while tarred animal hair, tarred moss and birch bark, and resin were used in other parts of Denmark.

For more information about the citations, a short bibliography about Norwegian Seafaring can be downloaded here.

Petroglyphs – Evidence of the First Norwegian Boats

The first evidence of boats in Norway is in the form of petroglyphs – the rock carvings created by prehistoric people from the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages.  In fact, the only evidence of Bronze Age seafaring is in the form of petroglyphs – there have been no boat finds from this period.  Unfortunately, petroglyphs are very difficult to date.  Some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world were discovered at Slettnes on the northern Island of Soroya in northern Norway.  Due to sea level changes, the carvings of people, animals, and four boats can be securely dated to between 8,000 and 10,000 years before present.  Some of the carvings are detailed enough that structural features of boats, such as a raking or rounded sterns, can be determined.  One of the boats is clearly a fishing vessel, with a fishing line connected to a large fish (Sigfried, Stolting, 1997:).  It is likely that the crafts depicted in the petroglyphs were skin boats – a frame of wood with the tanned hide of an animal wrapped around it.  The waters upon which these vessels were used could become very rough at times.  Though it might have been possible to utilize a logboat on the open sea, a skin craft could be built with a broader beam, and thus be more stable.  Though logboats may have existed at the same time, they were used in different places and for different purposes (Brogger and Shetlig, 1951).

For more information about the citations, a short bibliography about Norwegian Seafaring can be downloaded here.