The Viking Longship
Best known of all the Viking ships is the Longship. Longships were used during the Viking Age for trading, commerce, exploration and warfare. Undoubtedly they were major factors in the violent expansion of the Norse men from 793AD onwards. Longships were the epitome of naval power between the 8th and 11th centuries and were highly valued items and were expensive. It is probable that most would have been communally owned by coastal farmers and commissioned by kings in time of war to assemble large and powerful fleets.
Schematic of a typical Longship (source: Wikipedia)
The Longship can be divided into four types, roughly by the amount of rowing positions on the ship. The Karvi had between 6 and 16 rowing benches. These were the smallest ships used for warfare, but were most likely used for fishing and trade most of the time. The Gokstad ship is the most famous example of a Karvi.
The Gokstad Longship (Source: modelshipworld.com)
The Snekkja had at least 20 rowing benches and carried 41 men (40 rowers and 1 cox). Snekkjas were most common type of Longship and Canute the Great is said to have amassed a fleet of 1,200 in Norway in 1028. With a shallow draft they were easily beached and perfect for surprise raids on coastal communities.
A modern replica of a Viking Snekkja from Poland (Source: Wikipedia)
The next largest ship was the Skeid, of 30 rowing benches. In 1962 in Roskilde a Skeid was discovered along with two other boats. It was named Skuldelev 2 and had been built in Dublin around 1042AD of oak. The ship could have carried a crew of about 70-80.
Skuldelev 2 (Source: Wikipedia)
The last classification of the Longship is the Drekar. No archaeological remains of Drekar have ever been discovered but they are known from historical sources which describes them as highly decorated with carvings of dragons and other mythical beasts. These would have been used in raiding and plundering and were most likely Skeids, but with no archaeological examples it is impossible to say for certain.
Carved Dragon's Head from the Oseburg Ship Burial, similar to the kind of carvings on a Drakar (Source: BBC)
There were many types of wood used to construct the Longships, but oak seems to be the preferred type, possibly for its strength, but also due to the fact oak was associated with Thor during the Viking Age. Other timbers used were ash, elm, pine, spruce and larch. The ships were built in the clinker style which means that each hull plank overlays the one below and this is a tradition that is still continued in Scandinavian boat building today. Each overlap was stuffed with animal hair, wool or occasionally hemp soaked in pine to aid with waterproofing.
Typical clinker construction on the Gokstad ship (Source: Wikipedia)
No surviving examples of a mast and sail have ever been found on a Longship, but accounts and illustrations of the time show ships with masts and square woollen sails. Sails measured perhaps 11 m (35 feet) to 12 m (40 feet) across and would have added to the speed of the sleekly designed ships.
Modern reconstruction showing a probably typical sail (source: irisharchaeology.ie)
For the impact that the Longship had on the Viking Age very few examples have been found archaeologically, but that doesn't mean to say there aren't any out there, just waiting to be found!
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