Viking - 11: Njord's Ploughmen - Norse Seafarers, Marine Technology (1) Shipbuilders to the Gods
"Rise early, set to work if there is no helping hand forthcoming. The morning sleeper leaves much undone. The quick will catch the prize".
Buried in the latter part of the 9th Century in Norway...
at Gokstad and Oseberg, two ships were found almost intact late in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. In the latter half of the 20th Century five further ships were found in Denmark in the Roskilde Fjord silt, having been sunk by the Danes as deterrents to landing by their West Norse neighbours during the long 11th Century war between two kingdoms vie-ing for regional mastery.
Most ship finds had been found as burials in Norway until then, only one in Denmark at Ladby. The earliest ship burial to be found was at Tune in Norway in 1867 but was less successfully preserved than those of Gokstad or Oseberg. From these finds we have a fair impression of ship-building techniques in mediaeval western Scandinavia. From many variables used to describe vessels found we understand differences between trading and warships that came about largely in the 10th Century. Not only were different demands made on merchant vessels, but the same era brought about great advances in warship design. What rang the changes was the setting up of 'Ledingen'; like the English 'fyrd' system, 'Ledingen' were a wartime defence measure to ensure enough men were available in a given area to fend off an attack from outside. In Norway the best way of reaching another area was by sea. By reason of its many islands, Denmark found itself 'in the same boat', so to speak.
Of references that come down to us through chronicles, 'knarr' and 'kaupskip' are used as trading vessels; 'snekkja' (tapered and projecting), 'skeid' (wave cutter) and 'drakkar' or 'drekkar' (serpent/dragon) are terms used for warships, the latter referring to the detachable carved dragon heads seen on the prows of Viking vessels.
'Run-about' vessels used for conveying passengers were also 'karfi/karve' and 'skuta' . Whereas trading vessels were short and broad, higher-sided for carrying cargo and many fewer oars, warships tended to be sleeker and longer, with less draught - thus enabling crews to manoeuver and row faster. Thus was the understanding of the term 'langskip/langskib' reinforced.
Warships were measured by the number of rowing positions - 'sessa' - or gaps between deck beams - 'rum/spantrum' - allowed for in their construction. By the 10th Century Gulathing Law, a thirteen-bench (threttan-sessa) was the shortest war vessel measured by benches, anything shorter being unsuitable as a fighting ship. The A.S. Chronicle tells us of ships of sixty oars and more being built for Aelfred of Wessex in AD896, almost twice the length of those of his foes. The Gokstad ship, dating back to about this time was a sixteen bench vessel. At the time of the Gulathing legislation in Norway the levy ship was on average of 20-25 benches - still less than Aelfred's - and lower in the water. Levy ships were of thirty benches but only built in small numbers (Gulathing Law tells us of Norway's mid-10th Century ships as being 120X20 benches and 116X25 bench vessels. Now and then bigger warships were built at the tail end of the 10th Century. Olaf Tryggvason's 'Ormen Lange' (Long Serpent) of thirty-four benches was the first and best-known, built possibly in the winter of AD998. This was still not the biggest yet. That honour goes to Harald Sigurdsson's 'Store Orm' (Great Dragon) , built at Nidaros in the winter of AD1061-2. King Harald's Saga from the 'Heimskringla' series (written later by Snorri Sturlus-son) tells us she was 'much broader [in the beam] than most warships of the same size and measurements as Long Serpent and each component part built painstakingly. At the stern a dragon's tail and at the prow the dragon's head were gilded. Thirty-five pairs of oars powered the ship ahead when the sail was furled ... indeed large for its size, and a magnificent ship'.
Flateyjarbok claims Knut 'the Great' had a ship of sixty 'rooms', which was unlikely, being more like sixty oars, as otherwise the ship would have been 230 foot long! The biggest Viking ship found yet is one of the Skuldelev ships. In a sad state of disrepair when found, this vessel is said to have measured ninty-two foot in length by fifty broad. The Ladby ship was seventy foot long by eight foot six inches wide - short by comparison, albeit a warship despite being only twelve pairs of oars in length. The one at Tune may well have been sixty-five foot long with a beam of fourteen foot six inches. The Oseberg ship could have been a 'royal yacht', at seventy-one foot six inches long and seventeen foot wide with fifteen pairs of oars. Gokstad measuring seventy-six foot had sixteen pairs of oars. A knarr located at Skuldelev - the first of the type found so far - measured fifty-four foot long by fifteen foot nine inches in the beam.
Both longships and generally functional ships had raised decks fore and aft, loose planks that could be lifted to make baling easier - a must in heavy weather to avoid being swamped in the North Sea or Atlantic - even the turbulent Irish Sea - swell. When riding at anchor or in a haven the main deck would be covered with a loose awning over a lightweight frame - or over the mast between the mast trees - so the crew were not exposed to the elements in the fore- or after-year. Light was by candle or taper. when the king was about, or expected, the men's shields might be hung over the oar-holes in a form of display. On the Oseberg ship the shields were set in slots in a timber rail on the outside wall of the ship above the oar-holes, enabling the crew to row whilst on 'review'. According to saga writers ships were rowed into battle with the shields thus displayed, such as at the Battle of Hafrsfjord. The sides of the ships were said to 'glitter with burnished shields'. At the River Nissa in AD1062 the warriors 'made a bulwark of shields along the walls of the ships'. Gotland picture stones show the shields in this manner on ships under sail.
'Havhingsten' - pron. 'howhingsten' - 'Sea Stallion (of Glendalough) completed tough sea trials in 2007...
Masts were stepped into a socket in the keelson...
This is a longitudinal timber 'sub-deck' on top of the keel. The keelson rested on the keel but was not secured to it. It was connected to multiple ribs on either side. The keelson transferred all the forces of propulsion generated by the sail to the ship's hull, a substantial body of oak timbering.
The Mast Partner, sometimes known by its shape as the 'mast-fish', is the part of the mast support visible in the diagram and in the pictures above and below. There were some ships that had no mast partner, and stress on these was not defrayed as it should have. The mast partner relieved the stress on the mast socket in the keelson.
Some years ago I bought a copy of the book, 'Welcome on board! The Sea Stallion from Glendalough' when doing research for this page and other Viking seafaring material such as the HUNDING'S SAGA series. The book is well-presented with copious illustrations, terminology explained with diagrams and a history of this ship from research to reaching Dublin. Produced by the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde (Sjaelland, DK)
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© 2012 Alan R Lancaster