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What was so special about Viking ships? - Jan Bill


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As the Roman Empire flourished, Scandinavians had small settlements and no central government. Yet by the 11th century, they had spread far from Scandinavia, gaining control of trade routes throughout Europe, conquering kingdoms as far as Africa, and building outposts in North America. What was the secret to their success? Jan Bill dives into the history of the formidable Viking longship.

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The Vikings came from the sparsely populated outskirts of Northern Europe. Through their seafaring skills, they were nevertheless able to have a tremendous impact on history. Why were they so exceptional seafarers?

The Viking Age is a modern name for the period ca. AD 700-1066 in Northern Europe. The word “viking” was used already then to describe the act of travelling out on sea to plunder and gain riches, but could also be used to describe a person doing this. Today, “Vikings” are often taken simply to mean Scandinavians from this period. Scandinavia is the area today covered by the three kingdoms Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

The Viking ships are known from a number of archaeological finds, mostly from Norway and Denmark. The oldest and best preserved ones are on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. The oldest is the Oseberg ship, built ca. AD 820 and used as grave ship in a burial for two women in AD 834. It is almost completely preserved, and the 21.5 m long ship is decorated with beautiful carvings on the stem and stern. The Gokstad ship, from the years just before AD 900, is almost as well preserved, but not as beautifully decorated. It was 23 m long, with 16 pairs of oars, and was a seagoing vessel that could well have sailed all the way to Iceland and back. It, too, had been used for a burial, but this time of a man.

Finds of Viking ships from the late 10th and the early 11th century shows that the Scandinavians continued to improve their ships. In this period, specialised cargo ships like Skuldelev 1 was developed. These could carry more, but be sailed with a much smaller crew than the longships, and were thus more economical. Also the longships developed, mainly by growing longer and faster. The longest longship found so far is the 37 m long Roskilde 6 ship. The complicated sequence of constructing an 11th century longship can be seen on this fantastic video from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

It was the travels to the West that put the Viking ships on their greatest challenges, manoeuvring the unforgiving waters of the North Sea and the North Atlantic to reach Western and Southern Europe, as well as Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. But they also used their ships to travel east, across the Baltic and into the big river systems of what is today Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine. Along these waterways, they went as far as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. However, as to yet there is no evidence that Scandinavian ships were actually used all the way, and it appears more likely that seagoing ships were exchanged for locally adapted vehicles – boats and even sledges – along the way.

If you want to learn more about Viking shipbuilding and navigation, visit the homepages of the Viking ship museums in Oslo and Roskilde – or read the chapter about this in Stefan Brink (ed.): The Viking World, Routledge 2007, ISBN 10: 0-415-33315-6.

Further Read:
On Scandinavian ship construction before the Viking Age:
CRUMLIN-PEDERSEN, O. E. & TRAKADAS, A. E. 2003. Hjortspring : a Pre-Roman Iron-Age warship in context, Roskilde.

RIECK, F., RAU, A., RIECK, F., MAGNUS, O., SEEBERG, A. & JYSK ARKÆOLOGISK, S. 2013. Nydam Mose : 3-4 4 : Die Schiffe Beitrag zu Form, Technik und Historie, Århus, Aarhus universitetsforlag, cop. 2013.

On Scandinavian ship construction in the Viking Age:
CRUMLIN-PEDERSEN, O. 1997. Viking-Age Ships and Shipbuilding in Hedeby/Haithabu and Schleswig, Schleswig & Roskilde, Archäologisches Landesmuseum der Christian-Albrechts-Universität & The National Museum of Denmark.

CRUMLIN-PEDERSEN, O., OLSEN, O., BONDESEN, E., JENSEN, P., PETERSEN, A. H. & STRÆTKVERN, K. 2002. The Skuldelev Ships I. Topography, Archaeology, History, Conservation and Display, Roskilde, The Viking Ship Museum & The National Museum.

On the use of ships in burials
BILL, J. 2020: The Ship Graves on Kormt – and Beyond. In Dagfinn Skre (ed.): Rulership in 1st to 14th century Scandinavia. Royal graves and sites at Avaldsnes and beyond. Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, Ergänzungsbände, vol. 114. De Gruyter. Berlin. Pp. 305-392

SØRENSEN, A. C. 2001. Ladby. A Danish Ship-Grave from the Viking Age, Roskilde, The Viking Ship Museum.

Further reading on the Vikings in the East
LEONTEV, A. E. & NOSOV, E. N. 2017. Osteuropäische Verkehrswege und Handelsbeziehungen vom Ende des 8. bis zum 10. Jahrhundert. In: MAKAROV, N. A. (ed.) Die Rus' im 9.-10. Jahrhundert. ein Archäologisches Panorama. Schleswig: Wachholtz.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Jan Bill
  • Director Franco Barroeta Fonseca
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Franco Barroeta Fonseca
  • Animator Vidal Barrera, José Ali Sánchez, Santiago Carreto, Angélica Morales, Sebastián Castillo, Mariana Maza, Daniela Leal
  • Compositor Julián André
  • Art Director Carolina Porrero
  • Sound Designer Julián André
  • Music Julián André, Blas Cernicchiaro
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo, Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal, Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler, Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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