|Vikingeskibsmuseet Bygdøy, Oslo, (foto: Google)|
We face the technical skill and knowledge of the Viking in their ships - the ship is the finest they have achieved in the material culture. They developed the best ships of their time, ships which were a precondition for their journeys around the world. The ship was his instrument of power, his joy, his dearest possession - whether the ship slipped quietly from land on its splendid keel or it was figthing the waves with its ornamented stem - the ship was his favourite child, created by his skilled hand and spoken of in affectionate words in songs and poetry of the scald.
In spite of the indissoluble connection of the Viking and his ship only few ship wrecks have been found, compared to the number of ships the Vikings had according to contemporary sources.Three of the most remarkable ships from the Viking Age rest together in the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy, Oslo, in Norway. They were discovered and excavated separately between 1867 and 1904, and they all date from the ninth century AD. All were used as burials of important people from the Viking Age. Each of the three ships — the Tune, the Gokstad and the Oseberg - was hermetically sealed and, thus, preserved by the blue clay, stones and turf which covered them. Mounds were then built over the ship burial. The Tune, the Gokstad and the Oseberg ship have all the attributes of the longship: the mast can be laid down and the ship can be rowed, but they are not made just because of the speed - spaciousness and good seamanship were also a priority.
The Viking ships were famous for their construction. During the Viking period there was no ship, which could be compared to a Viking ship. It was so superior to other ships that the equipment was copied by ship-builders all over Europe. The Viking ships were clinker-built, which means that the planks were not placed upon each other, but were overlapping. In contrast to ship-constructions from earlier times the Viking ships were equipped with a keel. The keel caused that the Vikings had benefit from the square sails and made it possible to cross against the wind. Now it was also possible to develope trading ships, since there was no need for a big crew - and the ships could travel over greater distances, since they were not dependent on rowers all the time. The trading ships were short, broad and deep, with a deck front and back, and midship was the open store room. They were stable ships and they made a moderate headway.
The war ships were long and slender, and they had a shallow draught, and they could be driven both with sails and oars. They were ideal for a quick assault on klosters and fragile towns along the coast. The war ships were extremely fast, and because of the shallow draught they could be sailed almost up upon the beach, and the Vikings could just walk ashore and start an attack, before the poor inhabitants were able to escape or organize a defense. But there were other types of ships - like the Oseberg ship, which might be described as a luxury ship. It was incredibly beautifully shaped, but not fit to operate in the open sea. A ship like that must have made a great impression, when it was sailing into a Norse fjord on a pretty summer's day.
There was not much comfort upon a Viking ship. There were no cabins, and the Vikings were sitting, eating and sleeping under the open sky. It was not a problem while sailing between local districts, but worse if the journey went to Greenland in biting cold and terrible storm. But the journeys were made - both to Iceland, Greenland and all the way to America. Thanks to their ships the Viking went far and wide. The ships could sail into almost every river, they could handle the tough sea in the Atlantic, and they were not more heavy than they could be carried across land by the crew, if this was necessary on a short stretch.
In the European ship-history the Nordic ships from the Viking period are not in a starting position, but a final position. They mark the end of a century and the long development of the clinker-built rowing boat, which gradually gets a keel, a mast and a sail. Through the Viking period these longships were enlarged, Cnut the Greats largest ships were possibly twice as large as the Gokstad ship. But it was still the same type: a ship which might be used both in battle and in mercantile transport. The Baeyux-tapestry from the late Viking period shows the same type of war ship in all situations. But from the end of the Viking period and forward two main accounts were taken, speed and movement in war and broadth and space in peace.
The war fleet continued to be built after the same schedule, long narrow ships with appromixately equal use of oars and sail, pointed in front and stern and with both bows a little above midships. This was the ship of magnates and kings, while the private conscripted war ships might have been shorter and broader. The trade ships were a new development in the beginning - they became broader and more round in order to load more, and they went deeper into the water, the front and the back were higher, where the crew and the rowers were, while the low midship was used for storing wares high up along the mast. A trade ship like this was probably the so-called knarr, which went from Norway to Greenland and Iceland, while the word byrding was used for a short, broad transport ship, used as a provisioning ship in larger fleets.
|Viking ship decoration in Fåborg, Funen|
Until the findings of the Danish Viking ships, the knowledge about Viking ships in general came from especially the three Norwegian ships: Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg. All three findings were burials. Common to all three is that they were reasonably well-preserved. They are three different types of ship - and they show the development from Iron Age ship to Viking ship. The first achievement in this period was the introduction of the keel. The Norwegian findings are from the beginning of the Viking period, and the Skuldelev findings (from Denmark) are from the late Viking period. This means there are now ship-examples from the whole period, and it has been possible to identify the development in the ship-building history from Iron Age over Viking period till the Middle Ages.
The Norwegian Viking Ships
(on exhibition at the Viking Ship Museum, Bygdøy, Oslo)
|The Tune ship, Bygdøy|
In 1993 was made dendrochronological examinations of the oak of the Tune ship and of the rests of the burial chamber, which was also built in oak. Samples were taken from the ship, where one sample still had the sapwood. The result of the examinations dated the wood - which was used for the ship-building - and it showed that it was felled ab. 910 AD. The Viking ships were built of fresh wood, therefore the building time of the ship is 910 AD. Two samples were taken from the timber of the burial chamber, but here was no sapwood. The samples showed that the wood of the chamber might have been felled earliest 910 AD. The burial took probably place, when the ship was 10-15 years old , ab. 920-925 AD. The ship was relatively new, when it was used as a burial ship, which is the same for the other burial ships, the Gokstad and the Oseberg ship. In all three cases the ships were no more than 10-15 years old, when they were placed in the mounds.
|The Gokstad ship|
The Gokstad ship itself is well-preserved, built completely of oak, it is about 23,30 m long from stem to stem, 5,25 m broad in the middle, ab. 1,95 m deep from rail to the lower edge of the keel. The weight is calculated to be ab. 20,2 tons. In 1893 a copy was built which crossed the Atlantic successfully. Compared to earlier ships from Nordic Iron Age the Viking period ship shows a progress: the flat bottom planks are replaced by a real keel, which is the backbone of the ship and at the same time gives it strenght enough to resist the water pressure from outside. The keel and each stem of the Gokstad ship are made from one piece of oak. The joining technique was clinching and sealing with tarred woolen cords. The ship had besides mast and sail 16 pairs of oars. When it stood in the mound it had along each rail 32 shields at each side; two in each oar-hole, the shields - painted black and yellow - formed a coherent set from front to back. This was meant for decoration when the ship was in port, not when it was out. The rudder had the shape as a large oar-blade cut in one piece of oak, 3,30 m long and placed outside on starbord side. The captain who sailed the copy of the Gokstad ship said that "the rudder was one of the evidences of the insight and experience of the Viking ship-building and seamanship. The rudder is ingenious," he said. "without any inconvenience a man could be steering the tiller in all kinds of weather and in the roughest sailing".
The mast was made of fir and was about 13 m high. The sail was probably a large square sail. The Sagas and other literature mention blue and redstriped sails or completely red. The Gotland picture stones often show diamond patterned-sails. In the front of the Gokstad ship was the iron anchor. Here were the oars too, made of fir and with a lenght of 5,30 - 5,85 m, the oar-blades were small and lancet-shaped, the level of the oars was 0,48 above water level midship and a little more towards the ends of the ship. There wasn't any seats for the rowers, neither in the Gokstad or the Oseberg ship, maybe the rowers in Viking period used some loose ship-chests, a part of their own private equipment, as a seat.
|The Gokstad ship|
Replicas of the Gokstad ship: The Viking, an exact replica of the Gokstad ship, crossed the Atlantic ocean from Bergen, Norway, to be exhibited at the world's Columbian Exposition in Chicago during 1893. Other replicas include the Gaia, which currently has Sandefjord as its home port, the Munin, (a half scale replica) located in Vancouver, B.C., the "Islendingur" in the Viking World Museum in Iceland, the Hugin in Kent, England and the replica housed at the Hjemkost Museum in Moorhead, MN.
|The Oseberg ship|
It is not clear which one was the more important in life or whether one was sacrificed to accompany the other in death. The opulence of the burial rite and the grave-goods suggests that this was a burial of very high status. One woman wore a very fine red wool dress with a lozenge twill pattern (a luxury commodity), and a fine white linen veil in a gauze weave, while the other wore plainer blue wool dress with a wool veil, showing some stratification in their social status. Neither woman wore anything entirely made of silk, although small silk strips were appliqued onto a tunic worn under the red dress. Dendrochronological analysis of timbers in the grave chamber dates the burial to the autumn of 834. Although the high-ranking woman's identity is unknown, it has been suggested that it is the burial of queen Åsa of the Yngling clan, mother of Halfdan the Black (Halvdan Svarte) and grandmother of Harald Fairhair (Harald Hårfager). Recent tests of the women's remains suggest that they lived in Agder in Norway, just as queen Åsa of the Yngling clan. This theory has been challenged, and some think that she may have been a völva.
Already in 1960 the Norwegian archaeologist A.W.Brøgger put forward the theory that the Oseberg-princess was queen Åsa, which did fit well with the dating, and according to the finding of plant rests the burial must have taken place in August-September. .
There were also the skeletal remains of 14 horses, an ox and three dogs found on the ship. Examinations of fragments of the skeletons have provided more insight into their lives. The younger woman had a broken collarbone, initially thought to be evidence that she was a human sacrifice, but a closer examination showed that the bone had been healing for some time. Her teeth also showed signs she used a metal toothpick, a rare 9th century luxury. Both women had a diet composed mainly of meat, another luxury when most Vikings ate fish. However, there was not enough DNA to tell if they were related, for instance a queen and her daughter.
More mundane items such as agricultural and household tools were also found. A series of textiles included woolen garments, imported silks and narrow tapestries. The Oseberg burial is one of the few sources of Viking Age textiles, and the wooden cart is the only complete Viking age cart found so far. A bedpost shows one of the few period examples of the use of what has been dubbed the valknut symbol.
The Oseberg ship itself was well-preserved and built completely of oak, except part of the rail, which is beech. It is ab. 21.45 long from stem to stem, 5,10 m broad in the middle, ab. 1,60 m deep from rail to under the edge of the keel. Although the Oseberg ship is constructed and built according to the same schedule as the other two burial ships, it is obvious that it was more slender and weaker than these. It has few rooms inside ship for provisions, and the oar-holes were not made to be closed from outside, which is necessary in high seas. The oars, 15 couple, were short 3.70- 4 m - they were elegant and decorated, made of fir and all quite new; they were obviously made for the burial. The rudder seemed also new and not very practical in use, the same for the mast. So the experts believe that the Oseberg ship at the time of the burial was a put away ship, which now had to be completed for its last use.
But even when the Oseberg ship was new, it was not meant for rough long voyages or hard use. It was a luxury ship and built like a luxury ship from the beginning. The Oseberg ship is captivating with its grace and purity and with its magnificent and wellkept ornamental decoration. The shape is absolutely perfect, the front of the ship is on both sides decorated with a pretty upwards rising frieze in elegant shaped ornaments, the friezes look like plant vines, but they are not vegetarian elements, they are genuine old Norse animal ornamentation as it looked like around year 800, a free and yet scholarly academic drawing, an old ornamental art and never failing, like the almost threehundred-year old Nordic animal ornamenation in the beginning of the Viking period, when it was done by a master's hand.
Another ornamentation at the Oseberg ship is also in animal style, but of another character. Its animals are Baroque heavy plastic creatures, they are not gracious, on the contrary they are ugly and with a robust humour. They form a new style in the young Viking period, probably inspired by a fresh unconventional Viking perception from Frankish, Carolingish decorative classical lion-images, they have amused the Vikings and were re-shaped into unprecedented tumbling clown animals and foolish creatures, the socalled "gripping beasts" (gribedyr). The bow and stern of the ship are elaborately decorated with complex woodcarvings with those characteristic "gripping beasts". The stem o f the Oseberg ship ends in a high spiral with a snake's head, the upper section of the sternpost is missing, but it might have been shaped as the snake's tail. The ship appeared as a fabulous beast with a shining head and tail and with a broad stomach filled with humans, plowing the waves.
Other sources: Vikingaskeppet Oseberg - Sverre Kruger, Dronning Åsa av Oseberg - Per Holck, The Oseberg Ship Burial - Norwegian National League - Vikingeskibsmuseet, Oslo - Vikingeskibsmuseet, Roskilde - Wikipedia.
photo: grethe bachmann and photocopy from Johannes Brøndsted: Vikingerne.
photocopy from wikipedia.
Later: 2) The Viking and his Ship:The Danish Viking ships.