The ships of the Vikings were the supreme achievement of their technical skill, the pinnacle of their material culture; they were the foundation of their power, their delight, and their most treasured possession. What the temple was to the Greeks, the ship was to the Vikings: the complete and harmonious expression of a rare ability. Whether the black ship was on its ‘cool keel’, gliding peacefully away from land, or, like ‘the goat of the sea’, butting the waves with its stem, it was always the Vikings’ favourite creation, made by his skilful hand and affectionately remembered in his poetry. It is appropriate that Norway in particular should have preserved for us several specimens of its vessels from the Viking Age, as, because of their extensive coastline, the Norwegians know the sea as do few other nations. An Icelandic poet from the Viking period, Egil Skallagrimsson, called the breakers that beat against the rugged, rocky Norwegian coast ;the island-studded belt round Norway’. Here, by the sea’s edge, three great mounds were built in viking times, each of which bequeathed a Viking ship to posterity. The three ships were found in the Oslo Fjord: at tune on the eastern side, and at Gokstad and Oseberg on the western side. All three can be seen today in the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdo outside Oslo.
The Tune ship was excavated in 1867, in a large grave-mound about 260 ft/79.2m in diameter. The ship was lying north-to-south, embedded in blue clay which had preserved its timbers through the centuries. Athwart the stern was a platform of poles, their ends penetrating into the clay beyond the ship’s bulwarks, and on this platform had been built a burial-chamber of oak, covered by a flat roof. The chamber had been robbed and ransacked in ancient times, but within it the excavators found the remains of a man and a horse, the latter apparently buried in a standing position. Little else had survived: a wooden spade, some carved bits of wood, fragments of clothing and weapons, and a few beads. The ship itself, poorly preserved in the ground, was about 65 feet/19.8m long, 14 feet/4.2m in the beam, and about 4 1/2 feet/1.37m from its gunwale to the underside of the keel. It was made from oak, with a rudder of pine. It had been placed in the mound with its mast erect, but its eleven pairs of oars had been removed before the burial ceremony. Shetelig describes this Tune ship as a good workmanlike vessel, devoid of decoration; sitting low in the water, and very suitable for navigating shallow water such as estuaries. It is dated approximately to the end of the ninth century.
The Gokstad ship, in a mound 162 feet/49.3m wide and 16 feet/4.8m, was excavated in 1880. It was deeply buried in blue clay, which had preserved it, with its bow towards the sea. The mast had been cut off level with the roof of the timbered burial-chamber which was built athwart the stern of the vessel. this chamber, too, had been pillaged long ago, as a large hole in the ship’s side and in the wall of the chamber showed. Within there had been buried a chieftain lying, elegently dressed and armed, in his bed. An examination of the skeleton showed him to have been a powerfully-equipped built man of middle-age, almost six feet/1.8m tall. He was well equipped for his journey: there were three rowing-boats and five beds in the prow of the ship; amidships there was a abundance of kitchen utensils, such as bronze and iron cauldrons, plates, cups, candlesticks, barrels, and wooden spades; and a wooden gaming board and a carved sledge were also included. In the burial-chamber there were fragments of woolen cloth and of silk enriched with gold threadwork, the remains of a leather purse, an axe, an iron belt-buckle, and strap-mounts of lead and gilded bronze. Outside the chamber were found the bones of a peacock, and near the ship the remains of eighteen slaughtered animals- twelve horses and six dogs. The burial dates from around the year 900.
The ship, which was composed entirely of oak, is well preserved; it is about 76 feet/23.1m long, 17 1/2 feet/5.3m wide, and nearly 6 1/2 feet/1.9m deep from the gunwale to the bottom of the keel, and with equipment weighs a little over twenty tons/20,321kgs net. A fascimile of the ship of nearly 32 tons/32,513kgs, made in 1893, successfully crossed the Atlantic. The main components of the Gokstad ship are keel, stem, stern-post, ribs, and planking. Compared with the older vessels of the Scandinavian Iron Age, the Viking ships show several improvements in construction: the flat bottom plank is replaced by a true keel which serves as a backbone and is strong enough to resist the pressure of the water outside. The keel, stem, and stern-post are each made of a single piece of timber; of the sixteen rows of planking, nine are below the water-line, and the straks are riveted together, each overlapping the one below, caulked with tarred rope, and lashed to the ribs by withies passing through cleats cut from the material of the strakes. This construction gave the vessel considerable elasticity n rough weather. Amidships was a heavy block of oak in which the mast was set, and on top of this block was yet another, shaped like a fish (hence the name ‘mastfish’), with a hole in the middle, to support the erected mast.
Apart from mast and sail the ship was equipped with sixteen pairs of oars. As it stood in the mound where it was discovered, it bore along each gunwale thirty-two shields, two for each oar-hole, hung in such a way that each shield half covered the next. The shields were painted alternately black and yellow, and formed a continuous line from bow to stern. This display decorated the ship only in harbour when we come to consider the original significance of the ship-burial. The rudder was a single piece of oak, shaped like the blade of a huge oar, about 11 feet/3.3m long, fastened to the starboard quarter of the vessel by a stout riveted cleat. Through the rudder, through this cleat, and finally through the ship’s side and the rib, ran a hole for a thick rope of osiers. In the rudder-neck the tillar was put in at a height to suit the steersman on the rising poop. When the Norwegian Captain Magnus Anderson sailed the facsimile of the Gokstad ship to America in 1093 he reported: ‘This rudder must be regarded as one of the conclusive proofs of our forefather’s acumen and skill in shipbuilding and seamanship. The rudder is a work of genius . . . a man could steer with this tiller in all kinds of weather without the least discomfort.’
The ship’s mast, estimated to have been about 40 feet/12.1m high, was made of pine. The sail was probably square, but further details of its shape and colour are not given by the find. The sagas, and other literary sources, tell of blue and red striped sails, or of entirely red ones. The Gotland stones usually depict chequered sails. In the bows of the Gotstad ship lay its iron anchor completely rusted; and here too were the pine oars: some 17 feet/5.1m long, and some a little longer (up to 19 1/4 feet/5.8m), their blades small and lancet-shaped. The oar-holes were a little higher toward the prow and stern they they were amidships. In neither the Gokstad nor the Oseberg ship were there any traces of thwarts for the oarsmen, and there was no chance, says Shetelig, to test the ship’s qualities under oars during the voyage of the facsimile, simply because no adequate trained rowers were available. It is possible that the rowers used their own sea-chests, fastened in some way, as seats.
The gangway of the Gokstad ship also came to light: a narrow plank of spruce, some 24 feet/7.3m long, with a hole at one end for securing it, and cut-out steps on its top-side. There were also found in the ship four strong planks, ending in carved animals’ heads; these are thought to be the gables of a tent intended to be pitched on shore when the ship lay moored. The animals’ heads were not intended only for decoration. They were also thought effective in putting to flight anything eerie which might come to attack those sleeping in the tent. No fewer than eight beds, or fragments of them, were provided for the Viking buried in the Gokstad ship, two of them with beautifully carved animals’ heads to protect the sleeper. Presumably these two belonged with the tent, Fragments of blankets and eiderdowns came to light, too, of which the surviving colours were mainly black and yellow and, in a few cases, red. Both Shetelig and Captain Magnus Anderson testify to the remarkable attention to detail which distinguishes the Gokstad ship.
Finally we come to the Oseberg ship, that celebrated revelation of the art and spirit of the Vikings. It was found in 1903 ,and excavated in the following year from a mound originally nearly 20 feet/2m high and over 120 feet/36.5m in diameter, made of peat which, with the subsoil of blue-clay, acted as the preservative which kept the ship’s wonderful wood carvings intact. This vessel, like the other two, faced north-south, the bow pointing south to the sea. Subsidence and pressure in the mound had somewhat damaged the ship, and grave-robbers had been busy in antiquity. The ship was moored to a large stone inside the mound, and the timbered grave-chamber in the stern contained the remains of two women. The skeleton of one of them, a young woman of twenty-five to thirty, was broken up; only a little of it was inside the chamber, rather more of it outside. The grave-robbers had evidently been particularly interested in removing her body. The other woman was older, sixty to seventy, and her skeleton showed signs of some such bone disease as arthritis. It is reasonable to conclude that the younger woman was the mistress, the noble lady (since it was her body the robbers had tried to remove), and the older one her servant. The Norwegian archaeologist, A. W. Brogger, has advanced the attractive theory that the lady in the grave was Queen Asa, mother of King Halfdan the Black and grandmother of King Harald Finehair, on hos father’s side. The theory fits the dating of the Oseberg find, for the burial must have taken place some time in the second half of the ninth century. Examination of plant deposits indicates that the event occurred one August or September. The ship, however, was an old one for that time, for its ornamentation belongs on stylistic grounds to about 800, the very beginning of the Viking period. On this basis the Oseberg ship would be a hundred years older than those from Tune and Gokstad.
The two women had been given a splendid burial: beds, pillows, blankets, eiderdowns, several chests and barrels (one of which contained wild apples), four magnificent carved head-posts adorned with animal heads, the wall-hanging described in detail above, a couple of looms, and some iron ‘rattles’ probably intended, like the animal-headed posts, to frighten off evil spirits. The grave-robbers had broken in from the south, having dug out a 9 foot/2.7m tunnel to the prow of the ship, cutting away from its great spiral finial, they finally reached the burial-chamber, which they entered through a hole broken in its roof. In the bow of the ship lay many things of great historical and artistic value: first of all a four-wheeled wooden cart or carriage with carved panels, and four sledges – three of them ornamented with magnificent carvings. Then there were two tents, three beds, a chair, a hand-loom, a round stave inscribed with runes, two wooden barrels, a number of battens and oars, a large baler, an anchor-stock, wooden tubs, gang-planks, and numerous other things. Aft was found kitchen equipment: an iron knife and axes with handles, wooden plates and jugs, two iron cauldrons, one with a stand, and a hand-mill. On a coupe of oak planks was laid out an ox. Here and there in the ship were found fruits, grain, and seed: two kinds of apple, walnuts, hazelnuts, wheat, cress, and the blue dye-plant known as woad.
The Oseberg ship is, for the most part, well preserved. It is built throughout of oak, except for parts of the gunwale which are of beech. The dimensions are about 71 1/2 feet/21.7m long, 17 feet/5.1m wide, and nearly 5 feet/1.5m deep from gunwale to keel. Al though in its design and construction it resembles the other two ships, the Oseberg vessel is clearly less strongly built. It contained fewer store-chambers for supplies; there was no provision for closure of the oar-holes against heavy seas; and the pine oars (fifteen pairs) were short 12 to 13 feet/3.6 to 3.9m), elegant, and decorated , and clearly newly-made for the funeral. The mast and the rudder were new and not designed for practical use. For these reasons Shetelig is inclined to believe that the ship used for the Oseberg burial was an old vessel which had been laid up, and that it was refitted for its last journey. Even when this ship was new, however, it could not been intended for hard work or long journeys; it was a luxury ship, designed as such. Its elegant lines and superb, well-preserved ornamentation still charm everyone who comes to see it, as it stands in its wing in the Viking Ship Museum near Oslo. No one has better described it than Haakon Shetelig, the affectionate interpreter of the Oseberg discoveries. He writes: ‘The gunwales run low above the water in a long straight line, to accommodate the oars at an even height, and then rise at each end of the ship in a steep curve to more then sixteen feet/4.8m above the water-line, finishing in a slender free spiral.’ The lines of the Oseberg ship are inexpressibly fine and pure.
The prow is decorated on each side with elegant friezes which like plant-scrolls but are not. They are in fact composed of true Scandinavian animal-ornament of the kind produced about 800, freely rhythmic yet indicative of academic discipline and training. The examples on the Oseberg prow convey a vivid impression of a traditional form of native art which was already nearly 300 years old at the beginning of the Viking period, and even so had not yet begun to degenerate. Elsewhere on the Oseberg ship we see another style of ornamentation, again based on animal forms, but of a different character. Its beasts are powerful, baroque creations made without concern for delicacy of line. The style is devoid of all elegance and relies for its effect upon bizarre presentation and grotesque humour. An innovation of the later Viking period, it was surely inspired by the Vikings’ fresh, unconventional apprehension of the decorative classical lion-motifs of Carolingian France. These creatures seem to have attracted and amused the Vikings, who converted them into new types of tumbling, posturing comic beasts with broad faces and strong paws, the so-called’gripping beasts’.
The prow of the Oseberg ship rises to a high spiral, ending in a snake’s head. The top of the stern-post of the ship is missing, but presumably it showed the snake’s tail. The whole ship, then, looked like a fabulous monster as it breasted the waves, its head and tail glistening, and its stout body filled with men.
Viewed in a nautical European perspective, the Viking ship represents the completion rather then the beginning of an evolutionary process. It marks the end of centuries of development of the clinker-built rowing-boat, which gradually transformed it into a craft equipped with keel, mast, and sail. Throughout the Viking period this ‘longship’ became steadily larger. The biggest vessels of Cnut the Great were probably twice as big as the Gokstad ship, but they remained the same in principle – vessels designed for battle as well as commerce. The Bayeux Tapestry, whose date coincides with the later Viking period, shows the same type of ship in use for all purposes. With the end of the Viking period this unity of function ceases and two separate types of ship were evolved: one built for speed and mobility in battle, the other for its carrying capacity as a trader; one for war and one for peace.
CARTS AND SLEDGES
The longships may have rules the waves, but how did the Vikings get about on land? The best method of transport for the individual was – and had been for 2,000 years – the horse, and we have already noted the Vikings high regard and affection for his mount. But a horse alone does little to solve the problem of heavy transport. For this the Vikings had two traditional vehicles: the cart and the sledge. In the Oseberg ship was found the famous four-wheeled cart fitted with heavy wheels with a central hub and long shafts. The curved body of the vehicle is completely covered with carvings which are not only decorations but significant illustrations of myths and legends. some perhaps will claim that this is a clear example of a sacred carriage richly decorated for religious use, and therefore no proof that four-wheeled carts were commonly employed as a means of transport in viking Scandinavia, especially as the roads there cannot have been very serviceable. One answer to this argument is that, in fact, good paved roads already existed in Denmark in Roman times; and we must not be tempted to assume from Adam of Bremen’s grim description of Jutland and other northern territories that the north was a trackless wilderness. Other evidence to this effect is found in the Oseberg tapestry which depicts at least two varieties of four-wheeled transport – one open and the other covered. Doubtless it was possible to drive four-wheeled carts and coaches, protected by horsemen, across wide stretches of the Scandinavian lowlands. Yet another conformation of the existence of usable roads in the later viking period is found in the many Swedish rune-stones which, in paying tribute to the man over whom they are raised, often mention that among his good deeds was the making of a bridge; this phrase ‘to make a bridge’ usually meant to lay a firm road across swampy ground. There is good reason for agreeing with Sune Lindqvist that this frequently implies the improvement or renewal of existing routes used by horsemen and carriages. There is every reason to believe that carts and carriages were extensively used in the north during the summer, and in southern Scandinavia in spring and autumn, too, when the snow was absent. But what about the winter. The answer quite simply is that in winter transport was easier still, as the Vikings had their sledges. Among the Oseberg relics were found three well-preserved, finely carved wooden sledges with toboggan-shaped and detachable bodies with carved animal heads and richly decorated sides.
In addition there was a leas ornate fourth, a simple working sledge, also with a detachable body. The remains of a sledge were also found in the Gokstad ship. It is evident that in the long northern winter the extensive tracts of snow and ice-covered lakes and rivers encouraged long journeys by sledge or skis – for the Vikings used skis too. That, in winter, the Vikings preferred to travel by land rather than by sea is apparent from the sagas, For example, on his long journey to Russia and back St Olaf travelled by land during the winter; it was without doubt much easier.