Viking Ships


Viking ships also known as drakkar is the name for the types of ships used mainly during the Viking Age (800-1100) in Northern Europe, but continued to be built and used after the Viking Age. The ships are divided according to their size and function into longships, knorr and smaller ships.

The first archaeological Viking ship finds were ship graves with grave goods for persons of high rank. The grave goods were intended to help the deceased on his journey to the afterlife.

Viking Shipbuilding 

Shipbuilding underwent a great development even before the Viking Age. The main types can be distinguished: The longship and the cargo ship, called Knorr. Longship and knorr were equipped with sails and had a deck.

The space between the frames was called rúm and was where the crew stayed: on deck for rowing, below deck for stowage and sleeping. Some ships also had cabins.

Women generally stayed below deck in case of danger and rain. There was no toilet, people sat on the railing. Going to the toilet on the ship was called ganga til borðs.

The ships were different, although their size followed certain rules. Therefore, they could be identified from afar. In the Egils saga it says: "Kveldulf and his son Skallagrim always spied well on their journey along the coast in summer.

No man saw so keenly as Skallagrim. He caught sight of Hallvard and Sigtrygg on their sail and recognized their ship, having seen it earlier when Þorgils sailed on it."

The king's ships were particularly impressive. They served for representation and were used in battle.

Ormurin langi was the largest ship built in Norway up to that time, but not the largest dragon ship per se. Whether the ship was actually completely gilded may be doubted.

The description is probably due to the increase in tension in the narrative, but gilding is attested. The poet Þorbjörn Hornklofi, in his poem about the Battle of Hafrsfjord, says: "From the east came keels / whispers of battle / with yawning heads / and golden effigy," and the poet Guþorm Sindri, in a poem, calls them "gold-jewelled pillars" and calls the ships of the Danish opponents "dragons."

But they could apparently be well distinguished. In any case, they were partly painted. The skald Sigvat, an eyewitness of the battle at Nesjar, says in a poem that Jarl Sveinn had the heads cut off at the "black stem" to free himself from the grappling hooks of the king's ship.

Knut the Great's ships, on which the fleet leaders sailed, were also painted above the waterline, his own ship had a gilded dragon's head in addition, similarly the dragon's head on the ship of his comrade-in-arms Jarl Haakon was gilded.

Judging by all types of sources, literary, archaeological and pictorial, the dragon heads on the ships were relatively rare.

According to the Landnámabók, it was forbidden to sail to the home port with the dragon head on the stern. The land's guardian spirits could be upset or driven away.

So the dragon head had an aggressive content. When sailing against the enemy, it was supposed to drive away the guardian spirits of the enemy. The one who drove away the guardian spirits of the attacked country and subdued the country was the new local ruler.

That is why in the sources the ships with dragon heads are regularly attributed to the leaders of the undertakings.

The mast was a special place. There the ship's captain communicated his decisions to the crew.

Since the sails were sewn together from woven panels, they could be decorated with different colors, which was apparently also a distinguishing feature.

This speaks against the idea that all sails were red and white striped. The dragon ship Hákon Jarls had a blue, red and green striped sail. The sail of Harek's ship "was white as freshly fallen snow and striped red and blue".

Viking ship types and features

All Scandinavian ship types had in common that they were never designed exclusively for sailing. This meant that the ships designed for carrying cargo had a large crew on board in proportion to the cargo.

The naming of the boats after the number of rowers originates from the time when the ships were exclusively rowed. The earliest evidence of northern European sailing ships are images on Gothic effigy stones from the 7th century.

Classification formed around the year 1000. In the 13th century, the classification in skipslæst, that is, according to the carrying capacity, emerged.

Viking Boat

The boats were named after the number of oars. The pairs of oars were rowed by one man each. Boats rowed by a single man did not have their own name. They were uniformly called bátr. However, in old Swedish laws the name þvæaraþer bater occurs for two-oarsmen.

  • In two places a boat with two pairs of oars used for catching seals is called ferærðr bátr.
  • A boat with three pairs of oars was called sexæringr. This boat was usually rowed, but apparently could also use sails, as one source indicates. If the sexært in the inventory list of Skarð from 1259 is equated with the selabatur in the inventory list of 1327, such a boat was also used to catch seals.
  • A boat with four pairs of oars was called áttæringr or skip áttært.
  • A boat with five pairs of oars was called teinsæringr or skip teinært. However, not always all five were used. But often the manning was larger. In the Grettis saga ch. 9 six men are mentioned on a teinsæringr. The sixth man probably led the helm. In another part of the saga even 12 men are mentioned. In other sagas 15 and 20 men are reported, in the Laxdœla saga ch. 68 even 25 men on such a boat. In the Sturlung period, these boats were also used in sea battles in Iceland.
  • In some sagas a tolfæringr (with 6 pairs of oars) is also mentioned. According to the non-historical Króka-Refs saga, 60 men are said to have sailed from Denmark to Norway on such a boat.
  • Each larger ship carried at least one, but usually two boats. One was pulled in tow, one lay across the deck behind the mast or above the cargo. How the ship was brought out of the water onto the deck or lowered is not known. The merchant ships less suitable for rowing were also towed a certain distance by means of a rowboat.
  • There were also small ferries for crossing rivers and straits. The smallest ones were called eikjur, which means "flat-bottomed boat". According to Landslov VII 45, a rope was to be stretched across small rivers crossed by a land road, to which a raft or eikja was attached. No ferryman was required here. But there were also ferries (farskip) with a ferryman, especially at straits and larger rivers, on which people, livestock and cargo were transported for a fee. In Iceland, the vehicle was called a ferja. These ferjur were larger than the eikjur.

Viking Small Boat

Ships larger than the tolfæringr but smaller than the longships were designated not by the number of oars or oarlocks, but by the number of rowers on one side of the ship. Incidentally, the designations were not always unique.

This is probably due to the fact that the pairs of oars were not handled by one man, and there were no special rowing seats either, but the rowers sat on the deck beams by taking away a deck plank for each rower. Incidentally, there were two basic types:
  • The ship type karfi overlaps now and then in the sources with both the largest boats and the smallest longships with 13 rowers on each side. Once a tolfæringr is called a "karfi," another time a fifteen-oarer. These ships usually also carried sails. They were probably lighter and of lower carrying capacity than the longships of the same size.
  • There was also the skúta. The word corresponds to the word "barge". It also overlaps with the boats and the longships. Sometimes an eight-oarsman (áttæringr), sometimes a fifteen-oarsman (fimtánsessa) is called a "skúta". As a rule, however, skútur and langskip are distinguished. The skútur are named after the rowing seats of one side. They usually carried sails. Sailed were also the léttiskútur and the hleypiskútur, which were used as packet boats or scout ships (njósnarskútur), or as messenger ships. They were light and fast. They were therefore often escort ships of fleets. In the naval battle of Svold, Jarl Eirik laid his smáskútur in a semicircle around King Olav Tryggvason's fleet to prevent the enemy from escaping by swimming. They also served as transport ships for the fleet. Like the karfar, they were also towed overland. Private ships were usually skútur with a crew of 30. They were usually equipped for practical use only and were unadorned.

These small ships had the great advantage of being able to be transported over land. They therefore played a major role in the Civil War, where some battles were fought on Norwegian inland waters.

Viking Longship

Longships (langskip) were warships (herskip). They were designated according to the number of rowing seats (sessa) or spaces (rúm) on one side. The smallest type was the thirteen-seater. The twenty-seater was initially the most common Leidang ship and thus the most widespread.

The ship was also called "Skeide". A ship with 30 oar seats on one side was a "þritugsessa", one with 25 seats halfþritugt skip (a very popular ship because of its maneuverability), one of 35 seats halffertugt skip.

The fact that the thirty-seater had 60 oars, the thirty-five seater 70 oars, is clear from the information about Ormurin skammi (thirty-seater) and the great dragon ship of King Harald Hardrada (thirty-five seater).

Larger ships were rare. Jarl Haakon is credited with a forty-seater, and the Anglo-Scandinavian King Knut the Great with a sixty-seater, but this is thought to be a legend.

Duke Skúli (1239) had a thirty-six seater and Bishop Håkon Erlingsson a forty-five seater. In contrast, the famous Ormurin langi had only 34 seats. However, the number of seats does not give a definite indication of the size of the ship. The "Mariussúð" of King Sverre had 32 seats and yet it was the largest ship in the country.

In 1206, three longships with two rows of oars are said to have been built. The Gokstad ship had 16, Oseberg ship and Ladby ship had 15 oar benches. Hedeby wreck 1 had 24-26 oarlocks.

These large ships, the battleships of the time, had a higher ship's side and castellation, so that enemy ships could be fought from above, but could not be easily boarded by them.

However, this had a disadvantage: they became heavier and were deeper in the water, making them more cumbersome to maneuver. In the battle of Fimreite, the Maríusúð did not succeed in time to direct her bow away from the land, where she had still been fortified, against the enemy.

The Kristsúð was a pure fighting ship, the largest and also the last to be built on this scale of 30 seats and more. It probably became apparent that with the increase in size, the disadvantage of increasing heaviness had apparently already exceeded the usefulness of a capital ship at that size.

In the settlement of Kvitsøy 1209 between the civil war parties Bagler and Birkebeiner, it was agreed that no ships larger than fifteen-seaters could be used in a naval battle. Skúli circumvented this rule by building ships with 15 oar seats, which were as large as twenty-seaters.

The terms Dreki and Snekka (also called "Snekkja" or "Snekke") distinguished the longships by the type of their stern ornament: Dreki had a dragon's head, Snekka a snail-shaped spiral. Barði was possibly the name of a ship with an extended and reinforced stern.

The longships were limited in their seaworthiness. To exaggerate, they were fair-weather ships.

However, numerous replicas proved the seaworthiness of the Viking ships, for example in 1893, when a race was held across the Atlantic between a replica of the Gokstad ship, the "Viking", and a replica of the Santa Maria, with which Columbus discovered America, for the World's Fair in Chicago.

It was reported that the Viking glided easily like a seagull over the crests of the waves and, with an average of 9.3 knots, was considerably faster than the Columbus ship at 6.3 knots.

The clinker construction of the hull favored the formation of air bubbles during the voyage, on which the ship could then glide faster through the water as if on a cushion of air.

In the fjord of Roskilde, Vikings themselves had sunk a longship 30 meters long and 3.80 meters wide with room for 70 warriors, so that enemy boats would get stuck on it when entering the fjord in shallow water.

In 1962, some 900 years after the sinking, archaeologists set about excavating and rebuilding it. With a strong wind and a blown sail and a sail size of 120 square meters, it could reach speeds of up to 20 knots.

Viking Merchant ships

Merchant ships (kaupskip) had a somewhat different design, as they were not built for speed, but for carrying capacity. However, they were used not only for merchant voyages, but also in war.

They were wider, more high-boarded and were not classified according to oarsmen, but according to carrying capacity. This was expressed in læst, where one læst was equal to about 2 tons.

They were designed less for rowing and more for sailing. Thus they had oar holes only fore and aft, but not amidships. There was free space for the cargo. On most of them, the mast was fixed and could not be folded down.

As with warships, there were different types and size classes. Smaller ships were "karven" and "skuten".

Karven were rarely larger than 13-15 rúm (usable space between frames) and were used for both trade and war.

In 1315, the Hålogalanders received permission to fulfill their Leidang duty with this type of ship. The larger types were Knorr, Busse and Byrding.

The largest Knorr found so far, already surveyed but not yet salvaged (Hedeby 3), had a deadweight of about 30 and a water displacement of about 40 tons with a length of 22 meters.

The Busse (Búza) was originally a warship. But in the post-Viking period in the 13th and 14th centuries, this term referred exclusively to merchant ships. This is evident from the English customs lists for Norwegian merchant ships from 1300.

This ship designation soon spread throughout the North Sea. Busse and Knorr were about the same size, but must still have been different types, because the words are never used synonymously for the same vessel.

The difference is thought to be a different bow shape. By the end of the 13th century, the bosse had virtually supplanted the knorr as an overseas vessel.

The Byrding was originally a merchant barge designed for coastal travel. She was also used as a provision ship for the fleet, but she also appears on the routes to England, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

The only thing known about this type is that it was short, wide and smaller than Knorr and Busse.

The crew was 12-20 men. Reports that Byrdinge became longships by lengthening the keel and rebuilding suggest that nevertheless there could not have been much difference between these two types.

In contrast to these ships, which were always propelled by both sails and oars, the post-Viking cogs (kuggi) that called at Norway from the 12th century onward were sailed exclusively, like the Frisian ships. By 1300, the cog was the predominant type of ship throughout Scandinavia.

Viking Ship Crew

The crew was called "skipssögn", "skipshöfn", "sveit", "skipverjar", or "skiparar" in norrøn. This suggests that there was no profession of a seafaring people that could have formed a terminus technicus.

About the crew the Gulathingslov gives in §§ 299 ff. information. According to this, there was a shipmaster ("stýrimaður", "skipstjórnamaðr", "skipdróttinn", "skipherra") (in the case of the warship, if possible, unmarried and without his own household). On warships he was usually appointed by the king and had unlimited command.

There was also a ship's cook (matsveinn, matgerðarmaðr) and the rowing crew ("hásetar", on warships also "hömlumenn") chosen by the ship's master.

Since there was no fireplace on board, the ship's cook only performed his duties during shore leave. According to the bylov of Magnus Håkonsson, he was to be taken ashore three times a day: Once to fetch water, the other two times to cook.

The hásetar had alternately to operate the sails and the helm, to steer the ship and to keep watch. For the lookout for the fairway provided the stafnbúar, for the enemy sjónarvörðr.

There were also other special guard duties: For the archipelago the bergvörðr and the rávörðr for the sail. On land there was the bryggjusporð for the landing stage and the strengvörðr for the anchor rope.

The night watch was decided by lot. There are also cases where, in a dangerous situation, the crew was called together at the mast to vote on how to proceed.

In the case of merchant ships, the captain's authority was not unlimited. This is due to the fact that merchant ships often belonged to several people as part owners. In addition, there were the owners of the cargo and passengers.

Thus, the other parties could object to the departure if they considered the ship unseaworthy or overloaded. The course of the ship could also be discussed.

Only for the Iceland voyage were several helmsmen allowed on board. The crew size here was between 12 and 20 men.

Viking Ship Structure 

Ship equipment

The Frostathingslov specifies the ropes: ropes for hoisting and painting the Ra, two braces, two support ropes, main ropes, two bulkhead ropes, hoisting ropes and over six reefing tapes. Special emphasis is placed on the sail. It was sewn together from several weaves.

The mast also included an "ás", the ropes were made of seal skin. In addition, scoops (a ladle "austr" for low ships, a bucket "austrbytta" for high-sided ones) had to be provided.

This also included a channel (dælea) across the ship into which the bilge water was dumped and through which it then ran outboard.

Small boats had a small hole in the hull with a spigot (farnagli) from which the water could be drained when the boat was pulled up on the shore.

The 13th-century King's Mirror is also likely to reflect the long-established rules of proper boat equipment when it admonishes:

"Take two or three hundred cubits of vadmel (cloth) with thee on board, which may serve to mend the sail, if it becomes necessary, many needles, and sufficient thread or sail-straps; though it seems beside the point to mention such things, yet the need for them often arises. Many nails also thou must always have with thee on board, and such large ones as are suitable for the ship thou hast at the moment, both spieker and rivet nails. Good plumb lines,[63] carpenter's hatchets, gouges and drills, and all other tools necessary for ship's work."

- King's Mirror, ch. 4. edition by Meissner (1944) p. 39.

The list is obviously incomplete as, for example, the hammer is not mentioned. This apparently included an anvil. Because this threw in the battle Jarl Håkons with the Jomswikern on a ship a man against his opponent.

Previously, a fighter had repaired the parry bar of his sword on it.[64] Several grappling hooks were also carried on warships. Their use is mentioned in the naval battle at Svolder.

The mast

The Viking ship had a mast made of a fir or pine trunk that was tarred, as can be seen from the poetic expression "kolsvartir viðir" ("coal-black mast").

With a hull that twisted elastically in swell, fixing the mast was a particular challenge.

The stages of development to a mature technique have not been handed down, but only the finished solution in the Viking ships. From various data it is inferred that the mast of a 20-oarer was 60 feet high and that of a 30-oarer was 80 feet high.

As a rule, it stood amidships or just forward of the middle. It stood vertically or inclined somewhat aft. The latter gave it greater stability in the wind from astern. Therefore, the backstay was missing on some ships.

In smaller ships, the mast passed through a hole in a transverse band and stood in a recess in the keel. In large ships, the base was in a massive beam attached to the keel, the keelson ("kerling")(in the Gogstad ship 40 cm thick and 60 cm wide and reaching over 4 frames).

In them, the transverse band through which the mast passed was reinforced by a beam, because with the height of the mast and the short distance between keel and deck, the load due to leverage was great.

The beam is the heaviest single piece of the entire hull: 5 m long, 1 m wide and 42 cm thick in the middle, but beveled towards the ends, made of the best oak.

The mast was then fixed with a solid wooden wedge. The mast could be removed. For this purpose, the hole in the keelson had a rounded track towards the front, which allowed the mast to be folded down without lifting it up to the first support.

Therefore, the mast could be folded down very often and very quickly. In combat, the mast was not folded down. On top of the mast there was often a mast basket.

A flag flew on the top. In the upright position it was held by shrouds and stage made of hemp or sealskin. It consisted of the bowstay and the main ropes, one or more each on the port and starboard sides.

In addition, there were one or two auxiliary ropes on the windward side ("stöðingar") for windward sailing. The mast stays were usually made of walrus skin, a coveted import from Greenland. Ottar also gives the length that was fixed at the tribute of the Finns: 60 elna = approx. 36 m.


The sail was a so-called square sail and had the shape of a rectangle. There were different types.


The most important fiber materials for weaving sails in the Viking Age were wool, flax and hemp.

In Caesar's time, according to his information, the Venetians had sails made of leather.[67] The Nestor Chronicle mentions in connection with a campaign of Oleg to Constantinople in 907 and later contracts that "pavoloken" was used as the most valuable sail cloth. However, it is not known what it was and is assumed to be fine linen.

Oleg's ship is also credited with silk sails. These may have been made of linen with silk sewn onto them. Silk had been known to the Vikings since the 10th century.

However, pure silk sails have only become known worldwide from novels (e.g., in: Gene Del Vecchio: The Blockbuster Toy! How to Invent the Next Big Thing. Pelican Publishing, 2003.). They probably would not have been stable enough for more northern areas either. They were prestigious showpiece sails.

King Sigurður jorsalafari's sails are said to have been made of "pell", which is often translated as "velvet". Velvet originated in Persia and was not used in Europe until the 13th century. So pell probably means "decorated fine cloth".

They were sewn onto sturdy backing fabrics. In the Skuldelev, the sail was made of wool from a particularly long-haired breed of sheep, which was highly water repellent, and was made into a whalecloth called vadmál, which was a means of payment and a measure of value.

About 1 million square meters of sail were required to equip the Viking fleet. The sails of a Knorr-class merchant ship made of wool weighed about 200 kg, and it took about 10 working years to weave them.

The sails of a warship with a crew of 65 to 70 men required more than 1.5 tons of wool, and weaving required the output of 60 to 70 man-years.


According to the pictorial representations on old seals, the sails often consisted of sewn-together lengths of cloth. The looms of that time allowed the production of long lengths of cloth made of wool. But sails made of smaller pieces of cloth are also shown.

The netting structures shown on the leeward side may have been ropes to absorb the wind pressure on the sail and thus increase its tensile strength. Net structures depicted on the windward side are interpreted as sewn-on reinforcements by additional strips of cloth or leather.

Royal ships had linen sails. The ships depicted on the Hedeby coins are also believed to have had essentially linen sails. A rope was sewn into the hem of the sail for reinforcement.

The depiction of sails on the Bayeux Tapestry is interpreted differently. Some think they were tied together at the bottom to form a point to reduce the sail area. Others think the triangular shape is due to a somewhat awkward perspective representation.

On early images on coins, seals, embroideries and paintings, sails are depicted with different structures. Besides vertical stripes, squares also occur. But it is not possible to tell from them whether they are sewn together from square pieces of cloth, or whether they are sewn-on reinforcing bands.

There were also crossing diagonal stripes ("með vendi"), as they can be seen on Gothic effigies and old coins. It seems that there were also sails with diagonal weaving of the fabric.

But this resulted in two layers of cloth on top of each other, which is unlikely because of the high consumption of material, at least it was very rarely used.

Later, a line of gording was pulled down vertically in the middle of the sail. Different types of ships also had different types of sails, as can be seen from their different designations.

The sails were often refinished with a mixture of ocher, grease and tar, which was an effective impregnation.

The sail was held by the mast and yard and spread with a áss, especially when sailing on the wind. It is said of such an áss that it extended so far over the side of the ship that it could knock a man on a passing ship off the ship.

This means that the sails were very wide at the bottom. The yard and probably also the áss lay on stands amidships when no sails were set. The yard was made of a round piece of fir wood, thickest in the middle.

The halyard, with which the yard was hoisted, passed through the masthead. After hoisting, the other end was then often attached to the back of the rudder as a backstay.

The ropes at the lower corners of the sail could be used to adjust the sail. A passage in the Sigurðar saga jórsalafara proves that the Norwegians knew how to sail so close to the wind that the yard was almost parallel to the keel.

There were several methods for changing the sail area. One was to reduce the size of the sail by tying it together with bands.

These reefing tapes can often be seen in illustrations. There was also the method of tying transverse strips of cloth, called bonnets, at the bottom to increase the size.

Winches were used to hoist the sails. Both frying capstan and gangspill were used.

Later, a foresail was apparently attached to a bowsprit. In any case, such a bowsprit is mentioned in a document from 1308.

The anchor

Originally, a heavy stone with a hole to pull the anchor through served as an anchor for boats. Very early, however, the Scandinavians adopted the iron anchor of the Romans, as can be seen from the adoption of the Latin foreign word ancora into the language: Old Norse "akkeri", Irish "accaire", Old Swedish "akkæri", "ankare", Anglo-Saxon (already in Beowulf) "ancor".

This anchor consisted of a shaft with two anchor claws and a wooden anchor stock inserted at right angles to them. In the Gokstad ship, this was made of oak and was 2.75 m long.

The upper end of the anchor had an eye that held a ring through which the anchor rope or chain was pulled. At the lower end was a fixed eye, to which was tied a rope with a buoy that marked the position of the anchor on the water surface.

This rope was also used to retrieve the anchor in the event that the anchor broke loose. It was also used to release the anchor from the bottom if the ship could not be pulled by the anchor rope over the position of the anchor.

The anchor was placed in the bow of the ship. In later times, an anchor capstan was also used to raise the anchor.

Often several anchors had to be used because the anchors were not very heavy. If there was no room to shoal, a second anchor was deployed in the opposite direction.


For rowing, the ships were equipped with oars. These were usually planed and tarred. In the case of the Gokstad ship, oars made of pine wood were found to be 5.30 to 5.85 m long (shorter in the middle of the ship, longer at the ends).

During rowing, in smaller boats, the oar rested on keips inserted on a reinforcement on the uppermost gangway, the gunwale, or on real vertical cleats with oar loop as an abutment.

The oar loop, which was attached to the cleat and through which the oar was put, was made of walrus skin or willow straps. In larger ships, the oars were put through oar holes in one of the top rows of planks, which was specially reinforced.

The oar holes had a diameter of about 12 cm and a slit so that the wider oar blade could be put through.

When rowing, one third of the oar was inboard. In the Gokstad ship, the oar holes were 48 cm above the waterline amidships. Inboard were oar flaps with which the oar holes could be closed.

Where the deck beams were not used as oar seats, there was an oar bench for each pair of oars. On the longships, each oarsman probably had his own rowing bench, leaving an aisle free in the middle. There is no archaeological evidence for this.

Normally, one man led one oar. However, since the rowing benches were occupied several times, two, rarely even 3 men could lead an oar when rowing strongly.

In Old Norwegian the ships were named after the rowing benches of one side, in Old Swedish after all the seats, so that an Old Norwegian 20-rower was a 40-rower in Old Swedish. The cargo ships of the Saga period had rowing benches only fore and aft.


According to § 300 of the Gulathingslov, the oarsman's equipment consisted of flour and butter for two months for each oar sling and a tent and an oar.

However, it is mentioned that these had to be provided by the bondsmen. But if food became scarce on the way home, then one was allowed to go ashore and slaughter two cattle of a farmer for a fee. From this we can conclude that meat was also part of the supply.

In addition, dried halibut strips (riklingr) and stockfish (skreið) and probably bread were also included. There were storage communities, the mötunautar.

For the Icelandic journey, 3 beer barrels with water were prescribed for two men. But they also took drykkr with them, which used to be beer without further designation, but it was probably whey. There were also boiling kettles (búðarketill) on board.

Overnight stay

On the coastal voyage, sailing was not done at night, but a berth was sought on land. At night, when anchored, the mast was folded down and the ship's deck was covered with tents. There is no archaeological evidence of these tents.

The tents were apparently at right angles to the ship's deck, because the tent opening faced the ship's wall. There were two tents, one on the foredeck (stafntjald) and one on the afterdeck (lyptingartjald), which was assigned to the king on the royal ship.

The tents consisted of several individual pieces that were tied together when camping. They overlapped each other like the ship's planks.

At the ends of the tents were two gable boards, which stood up inside the railing at the bottom, crossed at the top, and through which a long horizontal pole was inserted, over which the tent ceiling was thrown. This ridge pole rested on tent supports.

Lights could also be lit in the tent. One even had tables.

There were also tents for the country. Such land tents were found on both the Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship. They had a floor area of 5.30×4.15 m.

The interior height was 3.50 m and 2.70 m for the other. At the ends of the tents there were two precious carved windboards crossing each other at the top.

The carvings with their dragon motifs suggest magical defensive spells against spirits that might haunt the tent at night. This is suggested by the similarity with the dragon heads on the ends of the ships, whose magical meaning has been handed down.

For, according to the Landnáma, one had to take them off when going to the land in order not to incite the spirits of the land against oneself.

One slept in double sleeping bags (húðfat). The two who slept in them were sleeping companions (húðfatfélagar), a particularly close relationship. Beds have been found in the Gokstad and Oseberg ships, but they are unlikely to have been part of the normal equipment.

One bed was a splendor of carving on the bedposts. Below deck, between a bulkhead on each side, there was also a box used by two men to store their equipment.

Clothing at sea was usually made of skins sewn together (skinnklæði.), but it was taken off when rowing.

The ships also had dinghies, a small one stowed behind the mast and a larger one in tow. One could also sleep under the smaller one.

The fighting equipment, besides the sword and the shield, consisted of the bow with at least two dozen arrows and a spear. However, in reality they carried much more.

For in the battle accounts spears are thrown for a very long time, and it is said of King Olav Tryggvason in the sea battle of Svolder that he always threw spears with both hands during the battle.

To the contemporary reader, it must have seemed plausible that enough spears were stocked on a ship to fight a prolonged battle.

Viking Navigation

Coastal shipping

Shipping in the Viking Age was essentially coastal shipping, even long-distance. When traveling along the Norwegian coast, a distinction was made between the þjóðleið hit ytra, útleið or hafleið located outside the archipelago and the þjóðleið hit innra or innleið located inside the archipelago. On more distant seas (Friesland, Mediterranean) one adopted the local coastal shipping routes. One usually sailed during the day and sought a sheltered bay towards evening.

Sea marks

Landmarks and sea marks have always been important for coastal navigation. They were characteristic landscape formations, islands, mountains and estuaries. Bronze Age burial mounds also served as landmarks.

In addition, many sea marks were artificially erected, lookouts, crosses, towers, special trees. In 1432, the Venetian merchant Pietro Querini traveled south from the Lofoten Islands and reported that while doing so, he steered all the way to Warten.

Sailing instructions

Sailing instructions played a relatively small role in coastal navigation. An early coastal description is found in Ottar and Wulfstan's report to King Alfred the Great about the voyage to the White Sea.

However, the report is very imprecise, both for the distances, which are given as sailing durations without specifying the speed of the ship, and the directions, which are described only very roughly as the main cardinal directions.


Since no one could know the entire cruising area, pilots (norrøn: leiðsögumaðr, old Swedish: lédhsagari) who knew the location of treacherous rocks under water were hired for voyages outside the immediate home area. The helmsman was responsible for appointing the pilot. In Bergen there were so many pilots that they formed a guild.

Depth measurement

Curiously, nowhere is the plumb bob used to measure the depth of water mentioned. Nor is there an Old Norse word for it. This is all the more striking because the Anglo-Saxons knew the plumb bob and the sounding rod, and archaeological finds prove its existence also for the Scandinavian area.

Only Olaus Magnus (16th century) takes the use of the plumb bob for granted in his writing Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. The forkr, a pole used to push the ship off the land or away from other ships, probably served as a sounding pole.


The naust (also nausttuft) is a characteristic building type of Norway. In the naust, the ships of the Iron Age and the Viking Age were stored and maintained, especially in winter.

Traces of these boathouses can be found in large numbers along the coasts, where the shores are shallow enough to pull the relatively light ships ashore. In those times, this was the usual form of landing. In northern Germany, the first hude villages appeared as early as the pre-Viking period.