Viking Ship Burial Unfolds into Nordic Center of Power

Viking Ship Burial Unfolds into Nordic Center of Power

Archaeologists in Norway have made an amazing discovery without even digging. Using breakthrough radar technology, they have found an elite settlement and burial ground from the Nordic Iron Age (550-1050 AD). Initially the most significant find at the site was a rare Viking ship burial, the first in decades. But now, in addition to this, archaeologists have located a “possible” Nordic center of religion or politics at the same location. This site is providing insights into the evolution of Nordic society as it transitioned from the Iron to the Viking Age. The remarkable archaeological complex was found near the Jell Mound in Gjellestad, Østfold, in southern Norway and is described in a journal report published by Antiquity.

The Norwegian site is one of the biggest burial mounds from the Iron Age and it has previously yielded a treasure trove of artifacts. The owner of the land applied for permission to put a drainage ditch on his land. In accordance with Norwegian law, archaeologists surveyed the area to ensure that the ditch would not damage anything of historical importance.

Gold pendant: a so-called “berloque” found by metal-detectorists near the Jell Mound (© 2020 Kirsten Helgeland, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo/CC BY-SA 4.0 / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

Viking Burials And Much More Found With Radar!

Some trail trenching and metal detecting was carried out at the site and this prompted Norwegian experts to use ground-penetrating radar ( GPR), which was employed to map features below the surface. “The initial results announced in 2018, revealed that the seemingly non-descript field next to the Jell Mound was actually home to a significant archaeological site,” the research team wrote in an Antiquity press release. The GPR technology collected data from the site and allowed the archaeologists to map the area underground the surface of the field. In effect, the archaeologists could see what was below the ground without having to dig into the earth.

The archaeologists knew that three funeral mounds had once been at the site and that they had been ploughed under in the 19 th century AD, but it turns out that there was much more to find. The GPR survey revealed anomalies and evidence for post holes and hearths and this allowed the researchers to develop a picture of what lay beneath the soil. In the Antiquity journal report, the experts wrote that “The GPR showed 13 burial mounds once existed at Gjellestad, some over 30 meters wide [98 feet wide].”

Left image: The interpretation map of the mound cemetery based on the full depth-range of the GPR dataset; Right image: The corresponding depth slices from the depth-range 0.3-0.8 meters below the surface. (Source: © Kartverket/CC-BY-4.0; figure by L. Gustavsen/ Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

Iron Age Viking Center

Most of the mounds are burials because they are circled by ring ditches and it seemed that they were used over centuries during the Iron Age . It is believed that there were also four longhouses at the site. Some of the buildings that were discovered were exceptionally large: up to 30 meters long (90 feet long). It seems likely that they were feasting halls, religious structures, or possibly cult centers where rituals and initiation ceremonies used in the Viking religion took place.

Lars Gustavsen, lead author of the research report, informed Ancient Origins in an email that a large building found at the site could have had political “functions such as representation and the maintenance of social and political alliances.”

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However, the mound known as M13 proved to be something really special. In it, they found some anomalies including “a large, elliptical anomaly that we interpret as a ship grave,” the researchers wrote in Antiquity. They had identified a ship that had been placed in the mound, as part of a burial ritual. In the interview with Ancient Origins, Lars Gustavsen said that: “the person buried could have been a man or a woman, someone rich or a slave, or perhaps there was no one buried in the ship.”

Combined interpretation map of the Gjellestad site based on the geophysical survey. Gustavsen / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Mysterious Burial Area Was Further Analyzed

Based on the measurement of the features of the anomaly, the data suggests “an original length of approximately 22m [72 feet]” according to the authors. The discovery of a Viking ship burial is an astonishing find. Very few have been uncovered in the last 100 years.

It is believed that the vessel was a sailboat rather than a rowboat. Also found in the mound with the Viking ship was a mysterious anomaly about which the researchers said, “for the moment we interpret it as a later intrusion into the mound.”

It is believed that the Viking ship burial tradition originated in what is now modern Sweden in the first century AD. Research shows that elites in Norway adopted the practice possibly because of interactions with royalty in England . Several hundred boat burials have been found over a wide area of northern Europe. Based on similar finds, they believe that the most recent Norwegian Viking ship burial dates to the 10 th century AD, the highpoint of the Viking Age .

Iron Age Center Of Power

In the Antiquity press release, Mr Gustavsen stated that “The site seems to have belonged to the very top echelon of the Iron Age elite of the area.” And it is similar to other sites found elsewhere in the region. It appears that it originated as a common burial mound that later became a burial ground for the elite, with the halls and the Viking ship burial added later. In an email to Ancient Origins the lead author stated that it was “A site where political and societal influence was displayed and maintained, and from which political and societal control could be exerted.”

The structures and the mounds would also have been used for political purposes. This was a turbulent age in southern Scandinavia when rival group fought for scarce arable land. According to Antiquity the “the emergence of Gjellestad must be considered—as a clear statement by a community reinforcing its ties to the landscape.” There is evidence that the Viking ship burial would have been seen for miles and it would have been a statement by the community that they owned the land.

The site’s location probably meant that it was also a trade center. Mr Gustavsen told Ancient Origins that given its location near the shore, it is likely that “sea-borne trade would have been important for the development of the site.” Test excavations were carried out in 2019 at the Gjlellestad site by Norwegian archaeologists. A full excavation of the Viking ship burial is expected to take place shortly. The researchers also anticipate that the excavations will reveal harbor facilities at the site.

The full report, “Gjellestad: a newly discovered ‘central place’ in south-east Norway” by Lars Gustavsen will be published 11-11-2020, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.39


The Complete History of the Vikings

The history of the iconic Viking Age, in Norway, Scandinavia and beyond.

Over the course of around 250 years, seafaring Norsemen left their homes to pursue riches abroad. The era has become almost legendary and left a lasting legacy on the world. But how much do you know about the long history of the Vikings?

When it comes to the history of Norway and Scandinavia, few times are more iconic than the Viking Age. The fascination with this time in history continues at pace, and its cultural legacy lives on.


Jelling Stones

The Jelling Stones are visual records of the transitional period between Norse paganism and the process of Christianization in Denmark.

Learning Objectives

Examine the function and symbolism of the Runic Stones in Jelling

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Jelling Stones are strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both feature one of the earliest records of the name “Danmark.”
  • The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity.
  • The runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones are the best-known in Denmark.
  • Originally the stones were brightly painted in polychromatic palettes . The tendency to paint runestones appears throughout Scandinavia.
  • The styles in which humans, animals, and abstract interlace designs appear on Harald’s Stone bear striking similarity with popular styles in illuminated manuscripts and decorative arts in the British Isles. Contact between the cultures resulted in these parallels.

Key Terms

  • The Jelling Stones: Massive carved runestones from the 10th century found at the town of Jelling in Denmark.

The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Prior to the 10th century, stone carving was extremely rare or non-existent in most parts of Scandanavia. Subsequently, and likely influenced by the spread of Christianity, the use of carved stone for permanent memorials became prevalent.

The older of the two Jelling Stones is attributed to King Gorm the Old, thought to have been raised in memory of his wife Thyra. King Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth raised the larger of the two stones in memory of his parents, in celebration of his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and to document his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Art historians consider the runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones the best-known in Denmark.

Jelling Stones: The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Here they are seen protected behind glass.

Scholars have long considered the Jelling Stones visual records of the transitional period between the indigenous Norse paganism and the victory of Christianization in Denmark. The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. The Jelling Stones are also strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both stones offer the earliest examples of the name Danmark (in the form of tanmaurk on the large ston, and tanmarkar on the small stone).

The runestone of Gorm, the older and smaller of the Jelling Stones, has an inscription that reads: King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” The larger runestone of Harald Bluetooth is engraved on one side with an inscription that reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother. That Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Harald’s stone has a figure of Jesus Christ on one side and on another side a serpent wrapped around a lion. The depiction of Christ standing in the shape of a cross and entangled in what appear to be branches is of note. One scholar suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

Harald’s Stone: Carving of Christ: The figure of Christ on Harald’s runestone. One scholar has suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

Harald’s Stone: Inscription: This Jelling Stone, with its depiction of Christ and celebration of the Conversion of the Danes, is widely regarded as Denmark’s “baptismal certificate.”

Remnants of red pigment show that the Jelling Stones were once brightly painted. This practice was apparently widespread across Scandinavia, with runestones at locations such as Strängnäs Cathedral (Sweden) and Oppland (Norway) bearing similar hues . Replicas made from plaster casts in the twentieth century recreate the stones’ polychromatic appearances.

Replica of Harald’s Stone: This plaster-cast replica gives us an idea of the original polychromatic appearance of the Jelling Stones. National Museum of Denmark

The reliefs on Harald’s Stone bear a striking resemblance to the styles of humans, animals, and abstract patterns that appear in illuminated manuscripts and on decorative arts in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages . This common thread is a result of contact between the cultures through migration and invasion.

Animal relief on Harald’s Stone: The drawing of this stone depicts a colorful, stylized animal that bears a striking resemblance to similar forms found in the British Isles, such as in the hoard found at Sutton Hoo.


A king's grave?

Sue Brunning, Curator of Early Medieval European Collections, says the burial was the final resting place of someone who had died in the early seventh century, during the Anglo-Saxon period – a time before 'England' existed.

She highlights the effort and manpower that would have been necessary to position and bury the ship – it would have involved dragging the ship uphill from the River Deben, digging a large trench, cutting trees to craft the chamber, dressing it with finery and raising the mound.

Ship burials were rare in Anglo-Saxon England – probably reserved for the most important people in society – so it's likely that there was a huge funeral ceremony. She continues:

'It's this effort, coupled with the quality and the quantity of the grave goods from all over the known world at that time, that has made people think that an Anglo-Saxon king may have been buried here.

'We can't name that king for certain, but a popular candidate is Raedwald, who ruled the kingdom of East Anglia around this time in the early seventh century. He may have held power over neighbouring kingdoms too, which may have earned him a good send off.'


A Viking Burial Described by Arab Writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Norse funerals, or the burial customs of Viking Age Norsemen (early medieval Scandinavians), are known both from archeology and from historical accounts such as the Icelandic sagas, Old Norse poetry, and notably from the account of Arab Muslim writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan.

Throughout Scandinavia, there are many remaining burial mounds in honour of Viking kings and chieftains, in addition to runestones and other memorials. Some of the most notable of them are at the Borre mound cemetery in Norway, and Lindholm Høje and Jelling in Denmark.

A prominent tradition is that the ship burial, where the deceased was laid in a boat, or a stone ship, and given grave offerings in accordance with his earthly status and profession, sometimes including sacrificed slaves. Afterwards, piles of stone and soil were usually laid on top of the remains in order to create a burial mound.

It was common to leave gifts with the deceased. Both men and women received grave goods, even if the corpse was to be burnt on a pyre. A Norseman could also be buried with a loved one or slave (Norwegian: trell), who was buried alive with the person, or in a funeral pyre. The amount and the value of the goods depended on which social group the dead person came from. It was important to bury the dead in the right way so that he could join the afterlife with the same social standing that he had had in life, and to avoid becoming a homeless soul that wandered eternally.

Ibn Fadlan’s Account

A 10th century Arab Muslim writer named Ahmad ibn Fadlan produced a description of a funeral of a Scandinavian, Swedish, chieftain who was on an expedition on the eastern route. The account is a unique source on the ceremonies surrounding the Viking funeral, of a chieftain.

The dead chieftain was put in a temporary grave which was covered for ten days until they had sewn new clothes for him. One of his thrall women volunteered to join him in the afterlife and she was guarded day and night, being given a great amount of intoxicating drinks while she sang happily. When the time had arrived for cremation, they pulled his longship ashore and put it on a platform of wood, and they made a bed for the dead chieftain on the ship. Thereafter, an old woman referred to as the “Angel of Death” put cushions on the bed. She was responsible for the ritual. Then they disinterred the chieftain and gave him new clothes. In his grave, he received intoxicating drinks, fruits and a stringed instrument. The chieftain was put into his bed with all his weapons and grave offerings around him. Then they had two horses run themselves sweaty, cut them to pieces, and threw the meat into the ship. Finally, they sacrificed a hen and a cock.

Meanwhile, the thrall girl went from one tent to the other and had sexual intercourse with the men. Every man told her “tell your master that I did this because of my love to him”. While in the afternoon, they moved the thrall girl to something that looked like a door frame, where she was lifted on the palms of the men three times. Every time, the girl told of what she saw. The first time, she saw her father and mother, the second time, she saw all her relatives, and the third time she saw her master in the afterworld. There, it was green and beautiful and together with him, she saw men and young boys. She saw that her master beckoned for her. By using intoxicating drinks, they thought to put the thrall girl in an ecstatic trance that made her psychic and through the symbolic action with the door frame, she would then see into the realm of the dead. The same ritual also appears in the Icelandic short story Völsa þáttr where two pagan Norwegian men lift the lady of the household over a door frame to help her look into the otherworld.

Thereafter, the thrall girl was taken away to the ship. She removed her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. Thereafter she removed her finger rings and gave them to the old woman’s daughters, who had guarded her. Then they took her aboard the ship, but they did not allow her to enter the tent where the dead chieftain lay. The girl received several vessels of intoxicating drinks and she sang and bade her friends farewell.

Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they put her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife. Thereafter, the relatives of the dead chieftain arrived with a burning torch and set the ship aflame. It is said that the fire facilitates the voyage to the realm of the dead, but unfortunately, the account does not tell to which realm the deceased was to go.

Afterwards, a round barrow was built over the ashes and in the center of the mound they erected a staff of birch wood, where they carved the names of the dead chieftain and his king. Then they departed in their ships.

Editor*s note: Bottom photo shows the ‘Wagon’ from the Oseberg burial mound and is the only one of its kind in Norway. It was already old when it was placed in the mound, and probably made before the year 800 AD. Photo: The Museum of Cultural History, Oslo.

The Oseberg ship and ‘the Wagon’ are both displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.


Grave as a mark of nobility

Mr Rodsrud told the BBC that "the ship clearly relates to the older graves and especially the large Jell Mound - it is clear that the Vikings wanted to relate to the past".

The ship burial could have been for a king, queen or jarl, he said. Jarls were noble warriors - the Anglo-Saxon equivalent was an earl.

Unlike this prestigious landmark, much smaller boat burials were common among the Vikings.

So far the team have found bones from a large animal - probably a horse or bull - in the ship grave, but no human bones.

There are signs that well-organised robbers removed grave artefacts, pointing to a political act intended to "affirm dynastic power", a research paper about the site says.

Read more on related topics:

At that time the coast was closer - about 500m away. There was a sheltered bay, making the site easily accessible by sea. Norwegian research shows that sea levels were then as much as 6.5m higher than today in the region.

"I'm sure this society had contacts far away, and the person buried in the ship might have travelled long distances," said Mr Rodsrud, Associate Professor at Norway's Museum of Cultural History. The Vikings traded far and wide - famously with Byzantium, now Istanbul.


Looking for a real-life Viking experience?

Viking enthusiasts can find a host of Viking festivals and gatherings to visit throughout Scandinavia. A great example is that of the Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg, a small settlement north of the village of Bøstad in Vestvågøy Municipality in Nordland, which features the largest Viking-era house ever found and showcases Viking feasts and activities that visitors can join.

Shooting bows and arrows, rowing in Viking ships, joining a Viking feast… The Museum caters to even the most demanding Viking fans. There is also a five-day Viking festival featuring a market, Viking roleplayers, game shows, competitions, lectures, theater, concerts, and much more.

The festival usually takes place during the summer, by the Viking ship harbor. The first Viking festival was organized in 2004 and has been growing in popularity ever since. Thousands of guests visit every year to join the fun.

If you’re curious about learning more Viking history, we’ve also got you covered. Find out all about Viking religion here, see what Vikings’ homes looked like here, and discover a possible ancient Viking “GPS” here.

We love to hear from our readers – if you have any cool Viking name ideas that you’d like to share, let us know!


Art of the Viking Age

Animal head post found in burial mound near Tønsberg (Oseberg ship burial), 9th century, Oseberg style, wood and paint (no longer existing) (The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo photo: Kirsten Helgeland, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Modern representations of the Vikings can be fun, but are often limited to sensationalized depictions of violent, raiding warriors. In reality, Vikings were a small group of a larger community of people called the Norse (or Norsemen) . Few of these Norsemen raided, and many more were merchants, farmers, and craftsmen. Political and mercenary work were among their enterprises, but exploration, colonization, and mercantilism also fueled their expeditions.

Areas of early Vikings (underlying map © Google)

What initiated the Viking Age? Scholars typically identify the Viking raid of the wealthy monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 793 (off the coast of England) as its starting point. During the Viking Age, which lasted from the late 8th century through the 11th century, p eople from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden employed their maritime skills to journey around the globe. In addition to western Europe, they traveled to Byzantium , West Asia, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Greenland, and even North America. Interacting with many cultures and settling in many geographic regions, the Norse were more cosmopolitan than they receive credit for.

The Norse visual world

The visual world was of great importance to the Norse. Significant resources were devoted to the creation of astonishing objects and the acquisition of foreign goods (through plunder and trade alike), and because of their highly mobile endeavors, Norse-made and Norse-influenced objects have been found across a wide geographic expanse.

An array of sophisticated, meticulously crafted objects survive. Fine imported materials were used, but local materials were also expertly handled by highly skilled craftspeople. Woodworking, for example, was an essential skill, and detailed wood carvings have been uncovered and restored. This material is susceptible to rot and fire, and so we can conclude that what survives today is a small fraction of the woodwork that once existed.

Objects made from more tenacious materials—like metal and stone—comprise the majority of what art historians have left to examine. Metal jewelry, storage vessels, and other utilitarian objects have been uncovered from burials and hoards. Ivory and bone carvings have also been found, as have a limited number of precious textiles and stone carvings.

The styles of Viking Art

Many objects served practical and symbolic purposes and their complex decorative patterns can be a challenge to untangle. Highly-stylized motifs weave around and flow into one another, so that following a single form from one end to the other can be difficult—if there are end points at all. Imagery was created to communicate ideas about social relations, religious beliefs, and to recall a mythic past. Although many objects served pagan intentions, Christian themes began to intermingle with them as new ideas filtered into the region. Viking art is visually distinct from contemporaneous cultures (as traded objects and integrated customs demonstrate), and represent s a unique way of thinking about the world.

Various beasts are carved into the Oseberg ship’s stern: a ribbon-animal (in blue, also called a streaming-animal) gripping-beasts rendered with humanoid heads (in red) and more ambiguous forms that echo the bodies of creatures seen at the prow (in green). Oseberg oak longship and detail of prow with ribbon-animal and gripping-beast motifs, 9th century, found in burial mound near Tønsberg (Viking ship museum, Oslo photo: Chad K, CC BY 2.0)

The animal motifs that frequently embellished objects are actually a continuation of artistic traditions from previous periods. Two were particularly widespread: the “ribbon-animal” and the “gripping beast.” We see both of these on the stern of the Oseberg longship.

The ribbon-animal was typically pictured as a highly abstracted creature with an elongated body and simplified features, appearing individually and in pairs . In contrast, the gripping beast—a fantastical creature with clearly defined limbs—was anchored to the borders of designs and surrounding creatures. Other animal motifs developed throughout the period, and human figures were also present. These elements, which are thought to have had particular assigned meanings, are central to the categorization of Viking Age art styles.

The Viking Art styles are:

Oseberg style

The Oseberg style was popular throughout mainland Scandinavia. Some of the most remarkable wood carving from the Viking Age was created in this style. A spectacular oak longship—found within the burial mound from which the style’s name was derived—is one of the most studied works of the period. Featuring carvings of the ribbon-animal and gripping-beast motifs in fluid combinations on its prow, it served as an elite funerary vessel for two women.

Oseberg oak longship and detail of prow , 9th century, found in burial mound near Tønsberg (Viking ship museum, Oslo left photo: Petter Ulleland, CC BY-SA 4.0 and right photo: mararie, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bearded man, detail on the cart, before 800, wood, found in the Oseberg burial mound (Museum of Cultural History, photo: Helen Simonsson, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Oseberg style shows a strong interplay between zoomorphic and geometric patterns that continues artistic traditions predating the Viking Age.

In Oseberg art, animal motifs—which included birds, human faces sometimes thought to be masks (such as we see on the Oseberg burial cart), and the gripping beast—appear short and stocky, nearly equal in size, have rounded eyes, and tendril-like limbs. These schematic figures are situated within fields that divide surfaces into clear segments and emphasize the balance and organization of images. With mixtures of high- and low-relief carvings flooding their surfaces in tightly interlacing ornament, very little background is visible.

The “Academician’s” animal head post, 9th century, wood, found in burial mound near Tønsberg (Oseberg ship burial) (Museum of Cultural History, Oslo photo: Kirsten Helgeland, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Oseberg ship burial included carved wooden posts, decorated sleds , and an oak wagon that may have been made by master craftsmen from a nearby workshop. For example, the “Academician’s” animal head post is one of five wooden animal-headed posts found in the Oseberg ship burial. Although the purpose of these objects remain unclear, their detailed carvings demonstrate advanced woodworking skills.

Also included was a set of tapestries that, despite their poor condition, are believed to depict battle scenes and a religious procession. They illustrate many objects found in the grave, indicating that material goods were important for performing customs in life and in death.

Borre style

Overlapping with the Oseberg style is the Borre style, which was also popular on the mainland. However, unlike the Oseberg style, Borre artistic conventions spread to the British Isles and the Baltic region as the Norsemen traveled both East and West. Exchanges between local and foreign artistic customs can be seen on objects found in these areas (with less overt characteristics appearing in the British Isles and more emphatic characteristics appearing to the east of the Baltic Sea).

Animals with their tongues licking their backs, alternating with four human figures who face the object’s center, gripping unidentified protrusions from their necks. Silver disc brooch, Borre style, late 9th–10th century, silver, 7.8 cm in diameter, found in Gotland, Sweden (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Side view: Animal licking its back (detail), silver disc brooch, Borre style, late 9th–10th century, silver, 7.8 cm in diameter, found in Gotland, Sweden (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Borre objects swarm the viewer with décor. Forms are arranged in closed compositions with tight, knot-like interlacing that almost fully obscures the background. Animal motifs appear comparatively more naturalistic, with squat, relaxed bodies. Spirals are introduced to represent hip joints, and figures may be reduced to decorative heads or appear as fully in-the-round forms.

On a silver disc-brooch from Gotland, a series of animal and human figures protrude outward into space. In a motif rarely seen outside of this style, the animals’ heads are oriented backward, their tongues licking their backs. Alternating between them are four human figures who face the object’s center, gripping as of yet unidentified protrusions from their necks.

Gold spur from Verne Kloster in Norway, 10th century, Borre style, gold (The Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)

The “ring chain” pattern, which combines ribbon shapes to create a continuous band, is another Borre style trend. It is seen on small metal objects, such as the gold spur from Verne Kloster, and seems to have influenced stone carving traditions on the Isle of Man and in northwest England. This gold spur allowed a rider to control the movements of a horse. Featuring granulation and filigree details, along with the “ring chain” pattern, it is far more complicated than what is normally found in the Borre style.

Silver Cup, 958/959, Jellinge style, found in Jelling, Jutland, Denmark (National Museum of Denmark)

Jellinge style

Sitting chronologically between the Borre style and the soon-to-be-discussed Mammen style, the Jellinge style is a malleable one. It appears on a diverse body of objects and can share features with the previous and subsequent styles, leaving it difficult to define as a separate movement. It was named for a cast silver cup that was found in a royal burial mound in Jelling, Jutland, Denmark (an “e” was accidentally added to the style’s name in the nineteenth century). Despite this mishap, this unique spelling helps art historians differentiate the style from the place.

Red annotations show the wrist/ankle segments. Silver Cup, 958/959, Jellinge style, found in Jelling, Jutland, Denmark (National Museum of Denmark)

We can see this style’s main motif around its belly: a set of interlacing creatures that form a row of fluid, S-shaped forms. Within their bodies are single rows of beading (dot-like metal forms) and their feet resemble mitts. Lappets, the protrusions that look like ponytails, extend from their heads, distinguishing them from creatures of the Borre style.

Compositions in this style open up and expand, with the backgrounds becoming more visible. The anatomy of animal and human figures is simpler, with bodies portrayed as solid masses defined by individual or double contour lines. Hip joints are represented by spirals, while ankles and wrists are defined by small, geometric segments like those seen on the Jellinge cup . Heads have round or almond-shaped eyes and lips are apt to curl, while ribbon-animals are more prominent and the gripping beast fades.

Mammen-style axe (side with a possible tree), 970–71, inlaid with silver, from Mammen (National Museum of Denmark)

Mammen style

Named for a ceremonial axe head found near the Danish village of Mammen, this innovative style was popularized as the “court” style of King Harald Bluetooth (King of Denmark and Norway who ruled from c. 958–986). Its compositions span elongated waves and terminate in loose tendrils. We also see foliate motifs that were borrowed from other European traditions . A few of the qualities associated with the Jellinge style are exaggerated in it, like geometric shapes that segment the wrists, ankles, and other body parts of animals .

Top: a bird with a prominent hip joint bottom: a set of winding tendrils, possibly depicting a tree. Mammen axe head. D iagram from Mette, Iversen, Ulf Näsman, and Jens Vellev, Mammen. Grav, kunst og samfund i vikingetid (1991).

This can be seen at the base of the bird’s neck on the Mammen axe, along with ornamental beading throughout its body. Its limbs and wings are represented as expanding coils. Some background is visible, with glimpses of the underlying surface peeking out from beneath lively, energetic designs.

Each side of the Mammen axe head is inlaid with silver: on one side, a set of winding tendrils and, on the other, a fabulous bird loops through even more tendrils and has a prominent spiral hip joint. Axes were very important to the Norsemen, who used them for domestic purposes and in battle, but the inlays of the Mammen axe indicate that it was a ceremonial object.

Jelling stone with traits of the Mammen style, 970 and circa 986, raised by King Bluetooth. Left: side B with Great Beast motif (photo: Casiopeia, CC BY-SA 2.0) right: diagram of side B showing Great Beast motif

Often discussed are the runestones at Jelling (in Denmark), which feature traits of the Mammen style. It is in this style that a magnificent motif emerges: the Great Beast. We can see it on one side of the Jelling Stone, standing above a runic inscription that references his conquest of Norway and the religious conversion of Denmark.

The Great Beast is an amalgamation of several animals it has features that appear similar to horns or antlers protruding from its head, and what appears to be a mane falling from its long neck. Its feet are segmented with claws, and in some representations—like the greater Jelling stone—serpents may wind around its body to create a dynamic interplay between the two motifs. The creature has been interpreted as a symbol of power.

Jelling stone with traits of the Mammen style, 970 and circa 986, raised by King Bluetooth. Left: side A showing Christ bound in tendrils (photo: Casiopeia, CC BY-SA 2.0) right: side A with reconstruction of original polychromy (National Museum of Denmark)

Carved with runic inscriptions, these monumental stones were raised by King Bluetooth in memory of his deceased parents. As a Christian convert, Bluetooth was responsible for Denmark’s increasing acceptance and adoption of the religion. He had one side of the larger stone depict Christ bound in tendrils that end in pronounced foliates (leaf forms). With an inscription surrounded by serpentine ornament on its third side (not illustrated), this object is exceptionally detailed for a runestone.

A replica of the Cammin Casket (also called the Cammin shrine), a masterwork of Viking Age art, c. 1000, found in Kamen Pomorski, Poland. The original disappeared during World War II (Hamburg Archaeological Museum)

Bamberg Casket (or so-called Casket of St Kunigunde), c. 1000, oak with mammoth ivory, 13.3 x 25.7 cm (from St. Stephans in Bamberg, now in the Bavarian National Museum, Munich)

Three particularly fine examples of the Mammen style survived into the modern era: the Cammin casket found in Kamen Pomorski, Poland, the Bamberg casket of southern Germany (now located in Munich), and the León reliquary of Spain, which is the only known Viking object to be found on the Iberian Peninsula. These three examples demonstrate how Mammen-style objects have been found in many regions, attesting yet again to the far reach of Norse visual culture.

Heggen weathervane (left) and drawing of the designs which include the Great Beast (right) (Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ringerike style

The Mammen style was short-lived, but the subsequent style—called Ringerike—was energized by its ingenuity. Continuing to use the double contour lines and spiral hip joints seen previously, Ringerike ornament is tightly composed. Bird motifs become more common and the Great Beast appears in full force, but neither feature the beaded ornamentation of Jellinge and Mammen creatures.

The adoption of European influences into Norse artistic conventions are visible in the Ringerike style. Diverse uses of foliates and tendrils, for example, are features that were taken from Frankish and British influences and modified to suit Norse sensibilities. Appearing in clusters of varying thicknesses, tendrils grow outward from animal bodies. This can be seen on several weathervanes (such as the Heggen weathervane), which were customarily gilded, fixed to the prows of ships, and later, repositioned on the roofs of churches. Their borders feature friezes of vegetal motifs, and on their plates are beasts—including birds and the Great Beast—tangled within foliates.

Stone from sarcophagus at St. Paul’s churchyard, London (photo: David Beard MA)

New variations on the Great Beast appear in the Ringerike style. The Great Beast may be shown with other Great Beasts, with multiple snakes, or with monsters we cannot always identify. A carved stone slab that was found at St. Paul’s churchyard in London, for instance, shows the Great Beast with long tendrils that curl at the far end (a variation of the lappets seen in the earlier Jellinge style) forming tendril-like horns and tongue. It also has spiral hip joints. Its body is entwined with a serpent and another, smaller creature wraps around its forelimb. The carved stone slab comes from the end of a box-tomb. The runic inscription carved into its side suggests that the carver was Swedish.

Ringerike-style runestones that only feature inscriptions were common. For example, Runestone Sö 130 from Södermanland County, Sweden, has only bands of runic text. These commemorate a man who died in what would be modern-day Russia (photo: Berig, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Due to the growing popularity of Christianity, funerary customs shift and there are fewer grave goods in the Ringerike style. Architecture, weapons, and ivory carvings become the more prevalent remains, and runestones—although less detailed than the greater stone raised at Jelling—become more common.

The Great Beast motif is in blue, a snake-like creature is in green, and a ribbon is in red. The Urnes Stave Church north portal, c. 1132, wood, Ornes, Norway (photo: Micha L. Rieser)

Urnes style

In the last phase of Viking Age art, the Urnes style, there is a turn to elegant, schematic forms. Animals are portrayed with tapered anatomical features and in regal stances.

The Urnes style has three primary motifs: a standing, four-legged animal resembling the Great Beast a snake-like creature but with a single foreleg and/or hind leg and a thin ribbon. Perhaps associated with the growth of Christianity, there was an increased esteem for this style across mainland Scandinavia. Surviving examples of it can be seen on architecture and runestones, each of which could use pagan and Christian iconography simultaneously .

Left: the Urnes Stave Church with a view toward the north portal (photo: Evelina Ander, CC BY-NC 2.0) right: detail from the Urnes Stave Church north portal, c. 1132, wood, Ornes, Norway (photo: Bjørn Erik Pedersen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Although its origins are likely Swedish, this style is associated with a stave church in the Norwegian village of Urnes. Its relief carvings, which fully embody the style’s characteristics, have been the subject of art-historical interpretation for some time. Their rhythmic compositions have elegant swooping, symmetrical, and interlace designs, and the background is more clearly visible.

The Urnes Stave Church north portal, c. 1132, wood, Ornes, Norway (photo: Micha L. Rieser)

Although the use of spiral hip joints persist, the proportions of creatures’ bodies curve and swell in a fashion that differentiates them from previous styles. Eyes are enlarged, nearly filling the heads, and lower jaws are given hook-like extensions. The feet of the Great Beast standing next to the door gracefully end in wisps that rest between delicate vegetal motifs. Although the structure is Christian in function, these decorative forms remain indebted to pre-Christian styles.

The Pitney disc-brooch, late 11th century, Urnes style, copper alloy and gold, found in Pitney, England (© The Trustees of the British Museum) The Bell Shrine of St. Patrick, c. 1100, bronze, silver-gilt frame, 30 gold filigree panels (some now missing), rock crystal (National Museum of Ireland photo: Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank)

As the Norsemen traveled, traded, and settled across new regions, t his style’s influences were carried with them. Urnes-styled objects appear in the Baltic, and examples such as the Pitney Brooch demonstrate a localized adaptation of it in England. I n Ireland, the Norse re-occupation of Dublin fueled artistic interest in the Urnes style, with metal and stone objects exhibit ing its features . When looking at gold filigree ornamenting the bell shrine of St. Patrick, for example, precisely-crafted patterns demonstrate interest in geometry and rhythmic compositions. The style’s acceptance there, however, came just as it was dying in Scandinavia.

The Viking Age comes to an end

Prior to the 10th century, Scandinavian regions were considered peripheral to western Europe. It was from the 10th through the 13th centuries that the introduction of Christianity and the introduction of European-style monarchy eventually brought the Viking Age to a close. The Ringerike and Urnes styles described above flourished through this time, until the European Romanesque style was popularized , displacing pagan traditions.

There is much more to Norse art than style. While objects were made by skilled workers, they were also situated within a complex society whose endeavors affected a vast geographic expanse. Those discussed here provide only a small window into the Viking Age.

Additional Resources

Susan Braovac, “The Long Soak .” The Museum of Cultural History, The University of Oslo. November 3 rd (2018).

Signe Horn Fuglesang, Some Aspects of the Ringerike Style: A Phase of 11th-Century Scandinavian Art (Odense: Odense University Press, 1980).

James Graham-Campbell, Viking Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford: Oxbow, 2019).

Paul D. Sturtevant, “Schrödinger’s Medievalisms.” The Public Medievalist (blog). December 28 (2017).

Sverre Bagge, Cross and Scepter: The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation (Princeton Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Nancy L. Wicker, “The Scandinavian Container at San Isidoro, León, in the Context of Viking Art and Society.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies vol. 11, no. 2 (2019), pp. 135–156.

David M. Wilson and Ole Klindt-Jensen, Viking Art (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1966).

Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).


Contents

The longships were characterized as graceful, long, narrow and light, with a shallow-draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one meter deep and permitted arbitrary beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages or used bottom-up for shelter in camps. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without a turn around this trait proved particularly useful at northern latitudes, where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation. Longships were fitted with oars along almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions had a rectangular sail on a single mast, which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys. [2] The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship, but lay in the range of 5–10 knots (9.3–18.5 km/h) and the maximum speed of a longship under favourable conditions was around 15 knots (28 km/h). [3] One longship in particular can be seen in Oslo, Norway [4] in The Viking Ship museum.

The Viking longships were powerful naval weapons in their time and were highly valued possessions. Archaeological finds show that the Viking ships were not standardized. Ships varied from designer to designer and place to place, and often had regional characteristics. For example, the choice of material was mostly dictated by the regional forests, such as pine from Norway and Sweden, and oak from Denmark. Moreover, each Viking longship had particular features adjusted to the natural conditions under which it was sailed. [5]

They were often communally owned by coastal farmers or commissioned by kings in times of conflict, in order to quickly assemble a large and powerful naval force. While longships were used by the Norse in warfare, they were mostly used as troop transports, not warships. In the tenth century, longships would sometimes be tied together in offshore battles to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. During the 9th century peak of the Viking expansion, large fleets set out to attack the degrading Frankish empire by attacking up navigable rivers such as the Seine. Rouen was sacked in 841, the year after the death of Louis the Pious, a son of Charlemagne. Quentovic, near modern Étaples, was attacked in 842 and 600 Danish ships attacked Hamburg in 845. In the same year, 129 ships returned to attack up the Seine. [6] They were called "dragonships" by enemies such as the English [7] because they had a dragon-shaped bow. The Norse had a strong sense of naval architecture, and during the early medieval period they were advanced for their time. [8] [9]

Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details, and prestige. The most common way to classify longships is by the number of rowing positions on board.

Karvi Edit

The Karvi (or karve) is the smallest vessel that is considered a longship. According to the 10th-century Gulating Law, a ship with 13 rowing benches is the smallest ship suitable for military use. A ship with 6 to 16 benches would be classified as a Karvi. These ships were considered to be "general purpose" ships, mainly used for fishing and trade, but occasionally commissioned for military use. While most longships held a length to width ratio of 7:1, the Karvi ships were closer to 9:2. [ citation needed ] The Gokstad Ship is a famous Karvi ship, built around the end of the 9th century, excavated in 1880 by Nicolay Nicolaysen. It was approximately 23 m (75 feet) long with 16 rowing positions.

Snekkja Edit

The snekkja (or snekke) was typically the smallest longship used in warfare and was classified as a ship with at least 20 rowing benches. A typical snekkja might have a length of 17 m (56 feet), a width of 2.5 m (8.2 feet), and a draught of only 0.5 m (1.6 feet). It would carry a crew of around 41 men (40 oarsmen and one cox).

Snekkjas were one of the most common types of ship. According to Viking lore, Canute the Great used 1,200 in Norway in 1028. [10]

The Norwegian snekkjas, designed for deep fjords and Atlantic weather, typically had more draught than the Danish ships designed for low coasts and beaches. Snekkjas were so light that they had no need of ports — they could simply be beached, and even carried across a portage.

The snekkjas continued to evolve after the end of the Viking age, with later Norwegian examples becoming larger and heavier than Viking age ships. A modern version is still being used in Scandinavia, and is now called snipa in Swedish and snekke in Norwegian.

Skeid Edit

Skeid (skeið), meaning ‘slider’ (referring to a sley, a weavers reed, or to a sheath that a knife slides into) and probably connoting ‘speeder’ (referring to a running race) (Zoega, Old Icelandic Dictionary). These ships were larger warships, consisting of more than 30 rowing benches. Ships of this classification are some of the largest (see Busse) longships ever discovered. A group of these ships were discovered by Danish archaeologists in Roskilde during development in the harbour-area in 1962 and 1996–97. The ship discovered in 1962, Skuldelev 2 is an oak-built Skeid longship. It is believed to have been built in the Dublin area around 1042. Skuldelev 2 could carry a crew of some 70–80 and measures just less than 30 m (98 feet) in length. They had around 30 rowing chairs. In 1996–97 archaeologists discovered the remains of another ship in the harbour. This ship, called the Roskilde 6, at 37 m (121 feet) is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and has been dated to around 1025. [11] Skuldelev 2 was replicated as Seastallion from Glendalough at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde and launched in 2004. In 2012, a 35-metre long skeid longship named Draken Harald Hårfagre was launched in Norway. It was built from scratch by experts, using original Viking and experimental archaeological methods.

Drakkar Edit

Drakkar, or dreki [12] 'dragon', are the type of ship, of thirty rowing benches and upwards [13] that are only known from historical sources, such as the 13th-century Göngu-Hrólfs saga. Here, the ships are described as most unusual, elegant, ornately decorated, and used by those who went raiding and plundering. These ships were likely skeids that differed only in the carvings of menacing beasts, such as dragons and snakes, carried on the prow of the ship. [14]

The earliest mentioned drakkar was the ship of unstated size owned by Harald Fairhair in the tenth century. [ citation needed ] The first drakkar ship whose size was mentioned in the source was Olav Tryggvason's thirty-room Tranin, built at Nidaros circa 995. [ citation needed ] By far the most famous in this period was his later ship the Ormrinn Langi ('Long Serpent') of thirty-four rooms, built over the winter of 999 to 1000. [13] No true dragon ship, as described in the sagas, has been found by archaeological excavation. [ citation needed ]

The city seal of Bergen, Norway, created in 1299, [12] depicts a ship with a dragon's head at either end, which might [15] be intended to represent a drakkar ship.

The first longships can trace their origin back to between 500 and 300 BC, when the Danish Hjortspring boat was built. [16] It was fastened with cord, not nailed, and paddled, not rowed. It had rounded cross sections and although 20 m (65 feet) long was only 2 m (6 feet) wide. The rounded sections gave maximum displacement for the lowest wetted surface area, similar to a modern narrow rowing skiff, so were very fast but had little carrying capacity. The shape suggests mainly river use. Unlike later boats, it had a low bow and stern. A distinctive feature is the two-prong cutaway bow section.

The first true longship that was rowed was the Nydam ship, built in Denmark around 350 AD. It also had very rounded underwater sections but had more pronounced flare in the topsides, giving it more stability as well as keeping more water out of the boat at speed or in waves. It had no sail. It was of lapstrake construction fastened with iron nails. The bow and stern had slight elevation. The keel was a flattened plank about twice as thick as a normal strake plank but still not strong enough to withstand the downwards thrust of a mast.

The Sutton Hoo longship, sometimes referred to as the ghost ship of the Wulflings, is about 27 m × 4.5 m (89 by 15 feet) maximum beam and built about 625 AD. It is associated with the Saxons. The ship was crushed by the weight of soil when buried but most details have been reconstructed. The ship was similar in hull section to the Nydam ship with flared topsides. Compared to later longships, the oak planks are wide—about 250 mm (9.8 inches) including laps, with less taper at bow and stern. Planks were 25 mm (0.98 inches) thick. The 26 heavy frames are spaced at 850 mm (33 inches) in the centre. Each frame tapers from the turn of the bilge to the inwale. This suggests that knees were used to brace the upper two or three topside planks but have rotted away. The hull had a distinctive leaf shape with the bow sections much narrower than the stern quarters. There were nine wide planks per side. The ship had a light keel plank but pronounced stem and stern deadwood. The reconstruction suggests the stern was much lower than the bow. It had a steering oar to starboard braced by an extra frame. The raised prow extended about 3.7 m (12 feet) above the keel and the hull was estimated to draw 750 mm (30 inches) when lightly laden. Between each futtock the planks were lapped in normal clinker style and fastened with six iron rivets per plank. There is no evidence of a mast, sail, or strengthening of the keel amidships but a half-sized replica, the Soe Wylfing, sailed very well with a modest sail area.

Sails started to be used from possibly the 8th century. The earliest had either plaited or chequered pattern, with narrow strips sewn together. [17]

About 700 AD the Kvalsund ship was built. It is the first with a true keel. Its cross sectional shape was flatter on the bottom with less flare to the topsides. This shape is far more stable and able to handle rougher seas. It had the high prow of the later longships. After several centuries of evolution, the fully developed longship emerged some time in the middle of the ninth century. Its long, graceful, menacing head figure carved in the stern, such as the Oseburg ship, echoed the designs of its predecessors. The mast was now square in section and located toward the middle of the ship, and could be lowered and raised. The hull's sides were fastened together to allow it to flex with the waves, combining lightness and ease of handling on land. The ships were large enough to carry cargo and passengers on long ocean voyages, but still maintained speed and agility, making the longship a versatile warship and cargo carrier.

Keel, stems and hull Edit

The Viking shipbuilders had no written diagrams or standard written design plan. The shipbuilder pictured the longship before its construction, based on previous builds, and the ship was then built from the keel up. The keel and stems were made first. The shape of the stem was based on segments of circles of varying sizes. The keel was an inverted T shape to accept the garboard planks. In the longships the keel was made up of several sections spliced together and fastened with treenails. The next step was building the strakes—the lines of planks joined endwise from stem to stern. Nearly all longships were clinker (also known as lapstrake) built, meaning that each hull plank overlapped the next. Each plank was hewn from an oak tree so that the finished plank was about 25 mm (0.98 inches) thick and tapered along each edge to a thickness of about 20 mm (0.79 inches). The planks were radially hewn so that the grain is approximately at right angles to the surface of the plank. This provides maximum strength, an even bend and an even rate of expansion and contraction in water. This is called in modern terms quartersawn timber, and has the least natural shrinkage of any cut section of wood. The plank above the turn of the bilge, the meginhufr, was about 37 mm (1.5 inches) thick on very long ships, but narrower to take the strain of the crossbeams. This was also the area subject to collisions. The planks overlapped by about 25–30 mm (0.98–1.18 in) and were joined by iron rivets. Each overlap was stuffed with wool or animal hair or sometimes hemp soaked in pine tar to ensure water tightness. Amidships, where the planks are straight, the rivets are about 170 mm (6.7 inches) apart, but they were closer together as the planks sweep up to the curved bow and stern. There is considerable twist and bend in the end planks. This was achieved by use of both thinner (by 50%) and narrower planks. In more sophisticated builds, forward planks were cut from natural curved trees called reaction wood. Planks were installed unseasoned or wet. Partly worked stems and sterns have been located in bogs. It has been suggested that they were stored there over winter to stop the wood from drying and cracking. The moisture in wet planks allowed the builder to force the planks into a more acute bend, if need be once dry it would stay in the forced position. At the bow and the stern builders were able to create hollow sections, or compound bends, at the waterline, making the entry point very fine. In less sophisticated ships short and nearly straight planks were used at the bow and stern. Where long timber was not available or the ship was very long, the planks were butt-joined, although overlapping scarf joints fixed with nails were also used.

As the planks reached the desired height, the interior frame (futtocks) and cross beams were added. Frames were placed close together, which is an enduring feature of thin planked ships, still used today on some lightweight wooden racing craft such as those designed by Bruce Farr. Viking boat builders used a spacing of about 850 mm (33 inches). Part of the reason for this spacing was to achieve the correct distance between rowing stations and to create space for the chests used by Norse sailors as thwarts (seats). The bottom futtocks next to the keel were made from natural L-shaped crooks. The upper futtocks were usually not attached to the lower futtocks to allow some hull twist. The parts were held together with iron rivets, hammered in from the outside of the hull and fastened from the inside with a rove (washers). The surplus rivet was then cut off. A ship normally used about 700 kg (1,500 pounds) of iron nails in a 18 m (59 feet) long ship. In some ships the gap between the lower uneven futtock and the lapstrake planks was filled with a spacer block about 200 mm (7.9 inches) long. In later ships spruce stringers were fastened lengthwise to the futtocks roughly parallel to the keel. Longships had about five rivets for each yard (90 cm or 35 inches) of plank. In many early ships treenails (trenails, trunnels) were used to fasten large timbers. First, a hole about 20 mm (0.79 inches) wide hole was drilled through two adjoining timbers, a wooden pegs inserted which was split and a thin wedge inserted to expand the peg. Some treenails have been found with traces of linseed oil suggesting that treenails were soaked before the pegs were inserted. When dried the oil would act as a semi-waterproof weak filler/glue.

The longship's narrow deep keel provided strength beneath the waterline. A typical size keel of a longer ship was 100 mm × 300 mm (3.9 by 11.8 inches) amidships, tapering in width at the bow and stern. Sometimes there was a false outer keel to take the wear while being dragged up a beach. These large timbers were shaped with both adze and broadaxe. At the bow the cut water was especially strong, as longboats sailed in ice strewn water in spring. Hulls up to 560 cm (18.4 feet) wide gave stability, making the longship less likely to tip when sailed. The greater beam provided more moment of leverage by placing the crew or any other mobile weight on the windward side. Oceangoing longships had higher topsides about a 1 m (3.3 feet) high to keep out water. Higher topsides were supported with knees with the long axis fastened to the top of the crossbeams. The hull was waterproofed with animal hair, wool, hemp or moss drenched in pine tar. The ships would be tarred in the autumn and then left in a boathouse over the winter to allow time for the tar to dry. Evidence of small scale domestic tar production dates from between 100 AD and 400 AD. Larger industrial scale tar pits, estimated to be capable of producing up to 300 litres of tar in a single firing have been dated to between 680 AD and 900 AD. [18] A drain plug hole about 25 mm (0.98 inches) was drilled in the garboard plank on one side to allow rain water drainage.

The oars did not use rowlocks or thole pins but holes cut below the gunwale line. To keep seawater out, these oar holes were sealed with wooden disks from the inside, when the oars were not in use. The holes were also used for belaying mooring lines and sail sheets. At the bow the forward upper futtock protruded about 400 mm (16 inches) above the sheerline and was carved to retain anchor or mooring lines.

Timber Edit

Analysis of timber samples from Viking long boats shows that a variety of timbers were used, but there was strong preference for oak, a tree associated with Thor in Viking mythology. Oak is a heavy, durable timber that can be easily worked by adze and axe when green (wet/unseasoned). Generally large and prestigious ships were made from oak. Other timber used were ash, elm, pine, spruce and larch. Spruce is light and seems to have been more common in later designs for internal hull battens (stringers). Although it is used for spars in modern times there is as yet no evidence the Vikings used spruce for masts. All timber was used unseasoned. The bark was removed by a bark spade. This consisted of a 1.2-metre long (3.9 ft) wooden handle with a T crossbar at the upper end, fitted with a broad chisel-like cutting edge of iron. The cutting edge was 60 mm (2.4 inches) wide and 80 mm (3.1 inches) long with a 120-millimetre long (4.7 in) neck where the handle was inserted. It appears that in cold winters wood work stopped and partly completed timber work was buried in mud to prevent it drying out. Timber was worked with iron adzes and axes. Most of the smoothing was done with a side axe. Other tools used in woodwork were hammers, wedges, drawknives, planes and saws. Iron saws were probably very rare. The Domesday Book in England (1086 AD) records only 13 saws. Possibly these were pit saws and it is uncertain if they were used in longship construction.

Sail and mast Edit

Even though no longship sail has been found, accounts and depictions verify that longships had square sails. Sails measured perhaps 11 to 12 m (35 to 40 feet) across, and were made of rough wool cloth. Unlike in knarrs, a longship sail was not stitched.

The sail was held in place by the mast which was up to 16 m (52 feet) tall. Its base was about 250 mm × 180 mm (9.8 by 7.1 inches). The mast was supported by a large wooden maststep called a kerling ("old woman" in Old Norse) that was semicircular in shape. (Trent) The kerling was made of oak, and about 700 mm (28 inches) wide and up to 6 m (20 feet) long in the larger ships. It usually heavily tapered into a joint with the internal keelson, although keelsons were by no means universal. The kerling lay across two strong frames that ran width-wise above the keel in the centre of the boat. The kerling also had a companion: the "mast fish," a wooden timber above the kerling just below deck height that provided extra help in keeping the mast erect. It was a large wooden baulk of timber about 3 m (9.8 feet) long with a 1.4-metre long (4.6 ft) slot, facing aft to accommodate the mast as it was raised. This acted as a mechanism to catch and secure the mast before the stays were secured. It was an early form of mast partner but was aligned fore and aft. In later longships there is no mast fish-the mast partner is an athwartwise beam similar to more modern construction. Most masts were about half the length of the ship so that it did not project beyond the hull when unstepped. When lowered the mast foot was kept in the base of the mast step and the top of the mast secured in a natural wooden crook about 1.5–2.5 m (4 feet 11 inches–8 feet 2 inches) high, on the port side, so that it did not interfere with steering on the starboard side.

There is a suggestion that the rig was sometimes used in a lateen style with the top cross spar dipped at an angle to aid sailing to windward i.e. the spar became the luff. There is little or no evidence to support this theory. No explanation is offered as to how this could be accomplished with a square sail as the lower reefed portion of the sail would be very bulky and would prevent even an approximation of the laminar flow necessary for windward sailing. There is no evidence of any triangular sails in use. Masts were held erect by side stays and possibly fore and aft stays. Each side stay was fitted at it lower end with a 150-millimetre long (5.9 in) toggle. There were no chain plates. The lower part of the side stay consisted of ropes looped under the end of a knee of upper futtock which had a hole underneath. The lower part of the stay was about 500–800 mm (1.6–2.6 feet) long and attached to a combined flat wooden turnblock and multi V jamb cleat called an angel (maiden, virgin). About four turns of rope went between the angel and the toggle to give the mechanical advantage to tighten the side stays. At each turn the v-shape at the bottom of the angels "wings" jambed the stay preventing slippage and movement.

Rudder Edit

Early long boats used some form of steering oar but by the 10th century the side rudder (called a steerboard, the source for the etymology for the word starboard itself) was well established. It consisted of a length of timber about 2.4 m (7 feet 10 inches) long. The upper section was rounded to a diameter of about 150 mm (5.9 inches). The lower blade was about 1.8 m × 0.4 m (5 feet 11 inches by 1 foot 4 inches). The steerboard on the Gokstad ship in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway, is about 20 cm (8 inches) wide, completely flat inboard and with about a 7.6 cm (3 inches) maximum width at the center of the foil. The head of the rudder shaft had two square holes about 200–300 mm (7.9–11.8 inches) apart. When the rudder was in its normal position the tiller was inserted in the upper hole so that the tiller faced athwartwise. The shaft was attached to the gunwale by a U shaped joint. Near the stern, about halfway down the starboard topsides, was a rounded wooden block about 150 mm (5.9 inches) in diameter and 100 mm (3.9 inches) high, with a central hole for a rope. This corresponded to a hole in the midsection of the rudder blade. From the outside the rope ran through the blade, through the round block and topsides and was fastened inside the hull. The flexibility of the hemp rope allowed the blade to pivot. When beached or in shallow water the tiller was moved to the lower hole, the blade rope was slackened and the rudder head pulled up so the rudder could operate in shallow waters. Modern facsimiles are reported to steer quite well but require a very large amount of physical effort compared to the modern fore and aft tiller.

Anchors Edit

Longships for the most part used two different kinds of anchors. The most common was a natural wood yoke formed from a tree branch. The weight was supplied by a stone passing laterally through the U of the yoke. The top of the yoke was closed by either a length of hardwood or a curved iron head, which kept the stone in place. One side of the head stuck out so it could dig into mud or sand. In the Ladby ship burial in Denmark, a unique iron anchor has been found, resembling the modern fisherman's anchor but without the crossbar. The cross bar may have rusted away. This anchor—made of Norwegian iron—has a long iron chain to which the hemp warp was attached. This construction has several advantages when anchored in deep waters or in rough seas. [19]

Ship builders' toolkit Edit

At the height of Viking expansion into Dublin and Jorvik 875–954 AD the longship reached a peak of development such as the Gokstad ship 890. Archaeological discoveries from this period at Coppergate, in York, show the shipwright had a large range of sophisticated woodwork tools. As well as the heavy adze, broad axe, wooden mallets and wedges, the craftsman had steel tools such as anvils, files, snips, awls, augers, gouges, draw knife, knives, including folding knives, chisels and small 300 mm (12 inches) long bow saws with antler handles. Edged tools were kept sharp with sharpening stones from Norway. One of the most sophisticated tools was a 25 mm (0.98 inches) diameter twist drill bit, perfect for drilling holes for treenails. Simple mechanical pole wood lathes were used to make cups and bowls.

Replica longships Edit

Since the discovery of the original longships in the 1800s, many boat builders have built Viking ship replicas. However, most have not been able to resist the temptation to use more modern techniques and tools in the construction process. In 1892–93, a full-size near-replica of the Gokstad ship, the Viking, was built by the Norwegian Magnus Andersen in Bergen. It was used to sail the Atlantic. It had a deeper keel with a 1.5 m (4 feet 11 inches) draught to stiffen the hull, a range of non-authentic triangular sails to help performance, and big fenders on each gunwale filled with reindeer hair to give extra buoyancy in case of swamping. The skipper recorded that the keel bowed upwards as much as 20 mm (0.79 inches) and the gunwale flexed inwards as much as 150 mm (5.9 inches) in heavy seas. [20] A half-size replica of the Sutton Hoo longship has been equipped with a substantial sail, despite the original having oar power only. They took a year to make. [ citation needed ]

Navigation Edit

During the Viking Age (900-1200 AD) Vikings were the dominant seafarers of the North Atlantic. One of the keys to their success was the ability to navigate skillfully across the open waters. [21] The Vikings were experts in judging speed and wind direction, and in knowing the current and when to expect high and low tides. Viking navigational techniques are not well understood, but historians postulate that the Vikings probably had some sort of primitive astrolabe and used the stars to plot their course.

During an excavation of a Viking Age farm in southern Greenland part of a circular disk with carvings was recovered. The discovery of the so-called Viking Sundial suggested a hypothesis that it was used as a compass. Archaeologists found a piece of stone and a fragment of wooden disk both featuring straight and hyperbolic carvings. It turned out that the two items had been parts of sundials used by the Vikings as a compass during their sea-crossings along latitude 61 degrees North. [21]

Archaeologists have found two devices which they interpret as navigation instruments. Both appear to be sundials with gnomon curves etched on a flat surface. The devices are small enough to be held flat in the hand at 70 mm (2.8 inches) diameter. A wooden version dated to about 1000 AD was found in Greenland. A stone version was also found at Vatnahverfi, Greenland. By looking at the place where the shadow from the rod falls on a carved curve, a navigator is able to sail along a line of latitude. Both gnomon curve devices show the curve for 61° north very prominently. This was the approximate latitude that the Vikings would have sailed along to get to Greenland from Scandinavia. The wooden device also has north marked and had 32 arrow heads around the edge that may be the points of a compass. Other lines are interpreted as the solstice and equinox curves. The device was tested successfully, as a sun compass, during a 1984 reenactment when a longship sailed across the North Atlantic. It was accurate to within ± 5°. [22]

The Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested in 1967 that the "sun-stones" referred to in some sagas might have been natural crystals capable of polarizing skylight. The mineral cordierite occurring in Norway has the local name "Viking's Compass." Its changes in colour would allow determining the sun's position (azimuth) even through an overcast or foggy horizon. [23] The sunstones are doubly refracting, meaning that objects viewed through them can be seen as double because of positively charged calcium ions and negatively charged carbonate ions. When looking at the sun the stone, it will project two overlapping shadows on the crystal. The opacities of these shadows will vary depending on the sunstone's direction to the sun. When the two projected shapes have exactly the same opacity, it means the stone's long side is facing directly toward the sun. Since the stone uses light polarization, it works the best when the sun is at lower altitudes, or closer to the horizon. It makes sense that Norsemen were able to make use of sunstones, since much of the area they travelled and explored was near polar, [24] where the sun is very close to the horizon for a good amount of the year. [25] For example, in the Vinland sagas we see long voyages to North America, the majority sailed at over 61 degrees north. [21]

An ingenious navigation method is detailed in Viking Navigation Using the Sunstone, Polarized Light and the Horizon Board by Leif K. Karlsen. [26] To derive a course to steer relative to the sun direction, he uses a sun-stone (solarsteinn) made of Iceland spar (optical calcite or silfurberg), and a "horizon-board." The author constructed the latter from an Icelandic saga source, and describes an experiment performed to determine its accuracy. Karlsen also discusses why on North Atlantic trips the Vikings might have preferred to navigate by the sun rather than by stars, as at high latitudes in summer the days are long and the nights short.

A Viking named Stjerner Oddi compiled a chart showing the direction of sunrise and sunset, which enabled navigators to sail longships from place to place with ease. Almgren, an earlier Viking, told of another method: "All the measurements of angles were made with what was called a 'half wheel' (a kind of half sun-diameter which corresponds to about sixteen minutes of arc). This was something that was known to every skipper at that time, or to the long-voyage pilot or kendtmand ('man who knows the way') who sometimes went along on voyages . When the sun was in the sky, it was not, therefore, difficult to find the four points of the compass, and determining latitude did not cause any problems either." (Almgrem) [ citation needed ]

Birds provided a helpful guide to finding land. A Viking legend states that Vikings used to take caged crows aboard ships and let them loose if they got lost. The crows would instinctively head for land, giving the sailors a course to steer.

Propulsion Edit

The longships had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas with far less manual effort. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly. In a modern facsimile the mast can be lowered in 90 seconds. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion. The ship was steered by a vertical flat blade with a short round handle, at right angles, mounted over the starboard side of the aft gunwale.

Longships were not fitted with benches. When rowing, the crew sat on sea chests (chests containing their personal possessions) that would otherwise take up space. The chests were made the same size and were the perfect height for a Viking to sit on and row. Longships had hooks for oars to fit into, but smaller oars were also used, with crooks or bends to be used as oarlocks. If there were no holes then a loop of rope kept the oars in place.

An innovation that improved the sail's performance was the beitass, or stretching pole—a wooden spar stiffening the sail. The windward performance of the ship was poor by modern standards as there was no centreboard, deep keel or leeboard. To assist in tacking the beitass kept the luff taut. Bracing lines were attached to the luff and led through holes on the forward gunwale. Such holes were often reinforced with short sections of timber about 500 to 700 mm (1.6 to 2.3 feet) long on the outside of the hull.

The Vikings were major contributors to the shipbuilding technology of their day. Their shipbuilding methods spread through extensive contact with other cultures, and ships from the 11th and 12th centuries are known to borrow many of the longships' design features, despite the passing of many centuries. The Lancha Poveira, a boat from Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal is one of the last remnants from the longship, keeping all the longboat features but without a long stern and bow, and with a lateen sail. It was used until the 1950s. Today there is just one boat: Fé em Deus.

Many historians, archaeologists and adventurers have reconstructed longships in an attempt to understand how they worked. [28] These re-creators have been able to identify many of the advances that the Vikings implemented in order to make the longship a superior vessel.

The longship was a master of all trades. It was wide and stable, yet light, fast, and nimble. With all these qualities combined in one ship, the longship was unrivalled for centuries, until the arrival of the great cog.

In Scandinavia, the longship was the usual vessel for war even with the introduction of cogs in the 12th–13th centuries. Leidang fleet-levy laws remained in place for most of the Middle Ages, demanding that the freemen should build, man and furnish ships for war if demanded by the king—ships with at least 20 or 25 oar-pairs (40–50+ rowers). However, by the late 14th century, these low-boarded vessels were at a disadvantage against newer, taller vessels—when the Victual Brothers, in the employ of the Hansa, attacked Bergen in the autumn of 1393, the "great ships" of the pirates could not be boarded by the Norwegian levy ships called out by Margaret I of Denmark, and the raiders were able to sack the town with impunity. While earlier times had seen larger and taller longships in service, by this time the authorities had also gone over to other types of ships for warfare. The last Viking longship was defeated in 1429.

Preserved originals Edit

Several of the original longships built in the Viking Age have been excavated by archaeologists. A selection of vessels that has been particularly important to our understanding of the longships design and construction, comprise the following:

  • The Nydam ship (c. 310–320 AD) is a burial ship from Denmark. This oaken vessel is 24 m (80 feet) long and was propelled by oars only. No mast is attached, as it was a later addition to the longship design. The Nydam ship shows a combination of building styles and is important to our understanding of the evolution of the early Viking ships.
  • "Puck 2" is the name given to a longship found in the Bay of Gdansk in Poland in 1977. It has been dated to the first half of the 10th century and was 19–20 metres long in its day. It is peculiar and important because it was constructed by Western Slavic craftsmen, not Scandinavian. The design only differs very slightly from the Scandinavian built longships. [29]
  • "Hedeby 1" is the name given to a longship found in the harbour of Hedeby in 1953. At nearly 31 metres long, it is of the Skeid type, built around 985 AD. With a maximum width of just 2.7 metres it has a width-to-length ratio of more than 11, making it the slimmest longship ever discovered. It is made of oaken wood and its construction would have required a very high level of craftsmanship. [30]
  • The Oseberg ship and the Gokstad ship – both from Vestfold in Norway. They both represent the longship design of the later Viking Age.
  • "Skuldelev 2" is the name given to the longest longship ever found at approximately 30 metres. It was discovered in 1996–97 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. The ship was built near Dublin around 1042. Longships were constructed progressively longer near the end of the Viking Age. [31]
  • The Gjellestad ship, built in Norway around 732, was discovered in 2018. Excavations are ongoing as of June 2020. [32]

Historical examples Edit

A selection of important longships known only from written sources includes:

  • The Ormen Lange ("The Long Serpent") was the most famous longship of Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason.
  • The Mora was the ship given to William the Conqueror by his wife, Matilda, and used as the flagship in the Norman conquest of England. It is said to be of the drakar type.
  • The Mariasuda, flagship of Norwegian king Sverre at the Battle of Fimreite, the largest recorded longship.

Replicas Edit

There are many replicas of Viking ships - including longships - in existence. Some are just inspired by the longship design in general, while others are intricate works of experimental archaeology, trying to replicate the originals as accurately as possible. Replicas important to our understanding of the original longships design and construction include:


What are the best Viking sites, museums and ruins to visit?

1. The Viking Fortress Trelleborg

The Viking fortress at Trelleborg is one of the best preserved of four circular fortresses in Denmark. The collection of circular fortresses in Denmark is believed to date back to the tenth century and would have been heavily defended by an army of warriors led by Harald I, who was the son of Gorm the Old.

In addition to the fortress, visitors can see a large Viking cemetery, a Viking village and a museum housing numerous excavated objects, a museum shop and café. Trelleborg is very child-friendly, with demonstrations, costumed-guides and activities.

2. Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre in York hosts a reconstruction of a Viking city as it would have looked in approximately 975 AD. The reconstruction of the city comes complete with figures representing the Vikings whose likeness is based on skulls found at the site. From market scenes to those showing the Vikings at home and at work, Jorvik recreates the Viking life as it would have been in what is now York.

3. The Viking Museum at Ladby

The Viking Museum at Ladby houses the Ladby Burial Ship, a Viking ship grave found there in 1935. Dating back to around 925 AD, it is believed that the ship is the burial site of a prince or other leader, such as a chieftain.

Displaying the Ladby Burial Ship amidst a series of other excavation finds, the museum offers an insight into the history of the Vikings and their lives in the area.

4. Jelling

Jelling is an impressive and significant Viking archaeological site containing a series of important tenth century finds. Originally the royal home of the Gorm the Old, Jelling remains a vital part of Denmark’s history, particularly as this Viking king was the first of the royal line which still rules the country today.

Gorm and his son, Harald I Bluetooth, erected several monuments at Jelling, including a pair of enormous grave mounds, which are the largest in Denmark. These are still incredibly well-preserved and can be viewed at the site. Gorm was buried in the larger one, although the second one is not thought to have been used. Runic stones also stand before Jelling Church, which dates back to around 1100. The site has a visitor centre with a series of exhibits telling the story of the monuments.

5. The Viking Ship Museum

The Viking Ship Museum displays five Viking vessels and offers an incredible insight into the world of the Viking people and their era of between 800 AD and 1100 AD.

The ships are known as the “Skuldelev Ships” due to the fact that they were found sunk in Skuldelev, a deliberate act by the Vikings to form a barrier – the Peberrende blockade – to enemy vessels. The ships range from a 30 metre long warship known as “wreck 2” to an 11.2 metre fishing boat. Each one has been carefully reconstructed. The museum also has an exhibit telling the story of a Norwegian attack and there are even summer boat trips available for an authentic Viking experience.

6. The Settlement Exhibition

The Settlement Exhibition displays the remains of Iceland’s first known Viking settlement set in its original location in Reykjavik. Visitors to the Settlement Exhibition can see an array of artefacts excavated at the site as well as the stone foundations of a Viking Longhouse.

The site of the Settlement Exhibition dates back to 871AD, while the longhouse is believed to be from the 10th century.

7. L’Anse aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows is the only-known site of Viking settlement in North America, these also being the earliest European visitors to the region.

Today, visitors can tour reconstructions of a trio of reconstructed 11th century wood-framed Viking structures as well as viewing finds from archaeological digs at the interpretative centre.

8. Hedeby Viking Museum

Hedeby Viking Museum is located on the site of an important Viking settlement and offers great insight into the lives of the Vikings. The museum is located just across from the original settlement site and displays the results of over a hundred years of archaeological discovery. What’s more, several nearby Viking houses have been reconstructed and the fortifications are also in evidence.

9. Fyrkat

Fyrkat is an archaeological site made up of nine reconstructed Viking houses and a ringfort as well as a Viking cemetery. It is thought that the fort at Fyrkat was established during the reign of Harald I Bluetooth in around 980 AD. There are also exhibitions about the history of the Vikings.

10. Lindholm Hoje

Lindholm Hoje is a large archaeological site housing Denmark’s most impressive Viking and Germanic Iron Age graveyard. With over 700 graves of various shapes and sizes found in 1952, Lindholm Hoje offers a fascinating insight into burial customs of the time. Guided tours can be arranged in advance. Lindholm Hoje also has a museum displaying archaeological finds and telling the story of the Viking and Iron ages.


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