No description or story of the Viking people can be undertaken without a reasonable in-depth study of the longboat. So much of their culture and legend surrounds them, but what are they and how were they built?
The first boats made were probably skin-covered frames dating back 3000 years. The next development was the clinker or planked boat. The earliest was discovered in a bog in southern Denmark. Named the Als boat or Hjortspring boat, it was a long, narrow bottomed with five overlapping planks tied together and probably made waterproof with pitch or tar soaked skin and would have been constructed around 350 B.C.
It would be powered by paddles rather than oars. The next development was the Bjorke boat, found close to Stockholm. Dating to 100 A.D, this was a departure, as it was a carved-out log with clinker board attachments. This would have been much stronger. From a bog in Jutland in 1864 was found a boat dating back to 400 A.D. Called the Nydam boat, This was a departure from anything that predated it. It was quite a large boat, much larger than would be required to simply ferry backward and forwards between islands. It was clinker-built out of oak with a single one-piece keel. It had thirty positions on each side for oarsmen and a paddle on the starboard side to act as a rudder.
The find is in Jutland would indicate that it was constructed by the Jutes who originated from this area. Nevertheless, it was the forerunner of the famous longboat that is popularly known today. This style of the boat would have been used by the pirates who invaded Britain following the departure of the Romans in 410 A.D.
With that many oarsmen, it was probably capable of at least ten knots. This boat can be seen today in the Schleswig-Holstein museum in Schloss Gotturp. The most famous of all discoveries in England was of the Anglo Saxon longboat found at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It was a longboat 24 metres in length enclosed in soil ( barrow).
Within the boat were found golden artifacts and other precious treasures. Strangely, no remains were found inside. It was thought to have been buried as a cenotaph to Raedwald, a powerful East Anglian king of the 7th century.
The next example of a pre-Viking longboat was discovered in Kvalsund in southern Norway. Dating back to around 700 A.D. In a rotted state, it had a more complex keel. Designed to be rowed, as no evidence of a sail, mast, or mast mounting was found in it. This clinker, build design can be seen as the progression to the full-blown Viking longship.
Two fine examples of the definitive Viking longboat were found in Gokstad and Oseberg. The Gokstad ship as an example was found in 1880 in blue clay which preserved it in excellent condition. The boat dates to the mid 9th century and was preserved as a deliberate act.
Unlike the Sutton Hoo burial mound, it was placed into a pre-dug trench and the clay piled on top. It contained the body of a large Viking and many of his possessions including horses, dogs, a peacock, and various weapons. The boat measured just over 23 meters long by 5 meters wide by 2 meters high.
Clinker built out of oak weighed about 7 tons unloaded. This ship was a departure from the earlier examples because it was fitted with a central mast of pine which was used for a square sail of woven cloth. It had a starboard paddle for steering and holes in the sides for 32 oars ( 16 on each side ). The oars were made of spruce and of different lengths to compensate for the profile of the boat so that they would be able to row in synchronicity.
There were no seats or benches fitted because they would sit on their possessions which may have been contained in a sea chest of sorts. There were 64 circular shields found on the Gokstad boat. This would indicate two men per oar which would give the boat a good turn of speed if required. It was more likely that the crew were split into two. One would row whilst the other rested, ate, and slept. The introduction of the sail opened up the northern hemisphere to these people.
What made the Vikings intrepid explorers invade Britain and other countries is open to speculation.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Viking Longboat" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/viking-longboat/, February 7, 2022