Viking Longship

All About Viking Ships

Written By: Frank Bongiorno

The Vikings were an early medieval people who used ships to seize lands and property. The Viking Age lasted from 700 to 1100. They were fierce and rightfully feared, and their presence played a significant role in forming medieval culture. Not only was this culture shifted by the Vikings, but so was the genetic makeup and history of all of the Scandinavian countries as well as the rest of the world. Many Vikings were sailors, but many others were craftsmen and farmers. There are countless stereotypes of the Vikings as bloodthirsty marauders, but many of these ideas are unsupported by the historical evidence.

How Do We Know About the Vikings?

Through archaeological research, there have been many large and small discoveries about how the Vikings lived. Graves and sunken ships as well as artifacts found at archaeological digs have provided many clues about the tools and other possessions of the Vikings. Many important Vikings were buried with their prized possessions, and the discovery of Viking ships has allowed researchers to learn about the technology they used when sailing.

What Sort of Ships Did the Vikings Have?

The Vikings made and used a variety of water vessels. The most well-known is the longship, but they had larger cargo ships and smaller fishing boats as well. Almost all Viking boats were made of oak planks that were overlapped and nailed together. The Vikings would then use animal hair or wool mixed with tar or tallow to waterproof the seams. In addition to the long and shallow shape of all their boats, this craftsmanship allowed them access to more shallow waters than other boats.

How Did Viking Ships Move?

Viking ships moved using either wind or manpower. Oars were used when the wind was low or not blowing in the needed direction. One large square sail, typically made of wool, was hoisted up, and leather straps allowed it to hold its shape when wet. A steering oar was fastened to the back right of the ship to help direct it.

What Was Life Like at Sea for Vikings?

Viking ship voyages were not for the faint of heart and required determination and grit. The main food was dried meat or fish, and no food was cooked on board the ships. The sailors drank water, beer, or sour milk and often slept on the deck under animal-skin blankets. The Vikings would often find a shore to shelter on at night, and the sailors would disembark to camp on land. Voyages were only planned in the summer months, since the winter weather would have made traveling much more difficult.

How Did the Vikings Navigate?

Without maps, Vikings had to use many other skills to know which way to head out in the open waters. They knew how to look at the sun and stars as well as the color of the sea, the wind, and the waves to navigate. Vikings had a nose for finding land and were familiar with watching birds to judge how far from land they were. Some Vikings also had sun compasses to assist with navigation.

Where Did the Vikings Travel?

Vikings would most commonly travel up and down the coastline of Eastern Europe. The lakes and rivers within Germany and Russia allowed them to meet with Arabian and Eastern traders, but when they wanted to take over land as their own, they would often travel much farther. The Vikings went as far as North America at times, looking for conquerable lands.

What Goods Did They Trade?

The Vikings did a lot of trade with different countries. They sent animal skins and furs, ivory from walruses, and whalebones into Britain, Russia, France, Italy, and other places. Amber was also a highly desired export of the Vikings; it was used to make jewelry. In return, the Vikings wanted wheat, honey, wool, salt, wine, and tin, and they would also sometimes trade for luxuries like spices, silver, and silk.

Additional Viking Information