A Short History of Seafaring and Boats in Norway

Norway’s dynamic landscape – characterized by tall mountains, plunging fjords, and many inland rivers – has created a country with a strong maritime heritage and identity.  Spanning thousands of years, the history of boats and seafaring in Norway is both complex and fascinating.   While some techniques have changed little over the past centuries – such as the use of lapstrake construction for wooden boat hulls – others have changed enormously as a result of great advances in technology.  Below are links to more information about Norway’s dynamic maritime past and the boats that tell its story.

Petroglyphs – Evidence of the First Norwegian Boats

Laced Boats

Saami Boat Builders

Viking Ships

Late Medieval Vessels in Norway

Jekts and Inter-Norwegian Trade in the Post-Medieval Period

The Skyss System

The Postal Service

Saami Boat Builders

The Arctic indigenous people of northern Scandinavia are known as the Saami; they live in far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.  Primarily fishermen, nomads, and reindeer herders in the past, they lived near the northern fjords in heavily forested areas, though they could often migrate as far as 1,000 km a year to the Gulf of Bothnia.  They were gifted shipwrights, focusing their craft on sewn boats that they often sold to their Norwegian neighbors in the past.   Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241), an Icelandic historian, wrote of two 24-oared sewn vessels built by the Saami for King Sigurd Slembadiaekn when he was in the north.   Written sources from the 16th century onwards have referenced the Sea Saamis who regularly constructed vessels for their neighbors in Norway(Westerdah, 1985).

Saami who lived in different regions of Scandinavia had different lifestyles and boat building techniques.  The coastal Saami migrated every year across northern Norway and Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia in the northern Baltic Sea. The few laced boat finds from the northwest are thus from their summer habitation sites and it is theorized that these Saami transitioned earlier to iron fastened boats than their inland counterparts.  The Forest Saami, who lived farther inland and well into what is now northern Sweden, built a very light laced vessel used on the interior lakes and rivers.  An 18th century account records that the vessels were small but suited to the rapids and currents of the local water; they were so light that they could be carried upon the head of one man who used his birch bark bailer as a cushion.  These vessels were used for a comparatively long time and their dissapearance may have coincided with the collapse of the Forest Saami culture  (Westerdah, 1985).

Scandinavians and Russians began to immigrate to Saami territory in the Medieval period, bringing with them their boat building traditions based on riveted clinker technology.  As a result, the two techniques co-existed for centuries (Jasinski, 1991).

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 Saami built their light craft between the 9th and 19th centuries AD.  They were different from their Scandinavian predecessors in that they were laced with root fibers and reindeer sinews  (Westerdah, 1985).

The Postal Service

Initially called breybarer, the national postal service developed at the same time as the skyss system. Obligation to transport the mail fell once more to private citizens who lived along the route.  As with the skyss system, they were not paid for their labors.  A more formal system was introduced by the Governor of Norway in 1647.  Departures were rare and much of the journey was made overland.  In 1804, an official postal vessel was introduced.  As was used for the skyss system, an åttring painted with the royal monogram and crown, flying a postal flag, was introduced to take mail north from Terråk in northern Norway.  Though weather did not stop the båtpost from sailing, delays by government official preparing missives created a regularly tardy system that played a role in handicapping Norway’s economic development (Bent).

Skyss and the Transport of Government and Church Officials

From early Medieval times and into the Post-Medieval period, government and church business often required officials to travel along the coast on official business.  Due to the fact that neither the government nor the church owned their own transportation, a system known as Skyss was developed in order to transport these officials to and from their business.  Skyss was a system of relay transportation provided by members of local seaside communities with stops generally located at the gjestgiveri.   Much to their angst, the individuals called upon to provide Skyss were not rewarded for their labors.  The system became more structured with the development of the tilseiingskyss network in 1648.  Officials stationed along the route were in charge of obtaining the transport for those requiring it (Bent).

It wasn’t until 1816 that the system was altered.  Though local communities still bore the burden of transporting those on official business for the state or church with no remuneration, other individuals could hire the service at a price based upon distance traveled and the number of men required.  The new skyss-skifte system was managed by the gjestgiveri, now called the skysstajoner, who were no longer required to guarantee the exact hour of the availability of the transport.  By 1860, those providing skyss for members of state and clergy were paid for their labor.  Use of the service gradually declined due to the introduction of steamships and railroads, with the last disappearing in the 1930’s (Bent).

The boat most often used for skiss was the attiring, which looked like a small medieval longship with a fixed mast.  Manned by eight rowers, it could also be used as a fishing vessel (Bent).

Jekts and Inter-Norweigian Trade in the Post-Medieval Period

Between 1450 and 1850, the Nordland Jekt was the primary means of transportation along the Norwegian coast for both people and cargo.  The Jekts, which were generally 100 feet long with a 30 foot beam, could carry 35-100 tons of cargo amidships. The bow was high and blunt and a small deckhouse occupied the stern. One or two square sails were hung from a single mast amidships. Awkward to handle and requiring large crews, some Jekt owner’s replaced the square sails with the more manageable for and aft rig by the 19th century.  In the late Medieval period, the northernmost of the two Bergen harbors would be filled with over 1,000 Jekts and other small craft between May and September (Bent 2012).

Because the expense involved in owning such a large craft was generally too great for any single family, the inhabitants of a village would often be jointly responsible for the cost and upkeep of a single vessel.  The skipper would take personal responsibility for the delivery of the cargo while the mate would manage navigation.  Knowledge of the intricate coastline was handed down orally through seafaring families, and few charts existed.  Sailors relied primarily on natural landmarks, though a book of navigation titled Opskrift paa Coursen og Havene fra Senjen til Bergen was published in the early 19th century that became a standard reference for Jekt pilots.  Though the summer sun allowed for sailors to operate the Jekts around the clock and make long voyages in record time, the short days of winter greatly increased travel time.  No one dared to operate upon the sea in the dark due to the complex and dangerous nature of the coastline.  A journey that could take four days in the summer – such as the 550 mile trip from Saltdal to Bergen – could take four to five weeks in the winter (Bent 2012).

By the end of the 17th century, the Norwegian government, understanding the importance of a well developed national trade network, began encouraging trade by establishing refuge ports and trading centers at a number of villages along the coast.  A law required that the villages have a gjestgiveri, which provided inexpensive meals and accommodation for travelers.  One of the primary appeals of the gjestgiveri was its ability to obtain a liquor license and sell spirits to the weary travelers.  Fortunately, the majority of the villages were located one day’s sail apart and included such towns as Selsøyvik, Støtt, Kvaløy, Bjorn, Grundset, and Sel.  Traders visiting Bergen often stayed in the lofts above the warehouses owned by the merchants they traded with, or in the bondestovene.  Cooking on board the jekts was forbidden by law due to a fear of widespread fire in the harbor (Bent 2012).

Types of Late Medieval Vessels in Norway

Evidence for the ships in Norway that came after the Vikings is scarcer, and more complex, than for Viking vessels. That isn’t to say that there aren’t archaeological examples.  There are, and comparative studies have been conducted of many of them to determine the characteristics of late medieval vessels in northern Europe.  Three major types of cargo ships would have sailed in Norway’s waters between the 12th and 17thcenturies: Nordic ships, cogs, and hulcs (Crumlin-Pedersen 2000, 230-233).  The ships shared construction features, however, particularly the Nordic ships and cogs during the 12th-13th centuries, and the cogs and hulcs during the 14th-15th centuries.  In some cases they could look so similar that during the 1400’s the same vessel could be called a hulc in one place and a cog in another.

Historical sources can provide context for the archaeological remains and reveal previously unknown information.  This is the case with cogs.  However, N. A. M. Rodger raises an excellent point when he states that while abundant, contemporary historical sources “were mostly the work of chroniclers and administrators who were not familiar with the nautical world, had no incentive to be especially accurate, and were writing in a language (Latin) with a more limited vocabulary than English or French, the dominant written languages among seafarers around the British Isles.  For these reasons, it is often difficult to extract reliable information about the design, construction and handling of ships in peace and war” (Rodger 1999, 62).


For more information on cogs and the Hanseatic League, click here.
For more information on nordic style ships, click here.
For more information on hulcs, click here.
For more information about the citations, a short bibliography about Norwegian Seafaring can be downloaded here.

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.