Schematic drawing of the longship type. They were not always equipped with shields.
Longships were a type of ship invented and used by the Norsemen for trade, commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. The longship's design evolved over many centuries, beginning in the Stone Age with the invention of the umiak and continuing up until the 6th century with clinker built ships like Nydam and Kvalsund. The longship appeared in its complete form between the 9th and 13th centuries. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions until today. The particular skills and methods employed in making longships are still used worldwide, often with modern adaptations. They were all made out of wood, with cloth sails (woven wool) and had numerous details and carvings on the hull.
The longships were characterized as a graceful, long, narrow,double jointed and light wooden boat, with a shallow-draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one metre deep and permitted arbitrary beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages or used bottoms up for shelter in camps. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without a turn around; this trait proved particularly useful at northern latitudes, where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation. Longships were fitted with oarsalong almost the entire length of the boat itself. Later versions had a rectangular sail on a single mast, which was used to replace or augment the effort of the rowers, particularly during long journeys. The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship, but lay in the range of 5–10 knots (9.3–18.5 km/h) and the maximum speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots (28 km/h).
The Viking Longships were the epitome of naval power in their time and were highly valued possessions. They were often communally owned by coastal farmers and commissioned by kings in times of conflict, in order to quickly assemble a large and powerful naval force. While longships were used by the Norse in warfare, they were mostly used for troop transports, not warships. In the tenth century, longships would sometimes be tied together in offshore battles to form a steady platform for infantry warfare. During the 9th century peak of the Viking expansion, large fleets set out to attack the degrading Frankish empire by attacking up navigable rivers such as the Seine. Rouen was sacked in 841, the year after the death of Louis the Pious, a son of Charlemagne. Quentovic, near modern Etables, was attacked in 842 and 600 Danish ships attacked Hamburg in 845. In the same year, 129 ships returned to attack up the Seine. They were called "dragonships" by enemies such as the English because they had a dragon-shaped bow. The Norse had a strong sense of naval architecture, and during the early medieval period they were advanced for their time.
Types of longships
Longships can be classified into a number of different types, depending on size, construction details, and prestige. The most common way to classify longships is by the number of rowing positions on board.
The Karvi (or karve) is the smallest vessel that is considered a longship. According to the 10th century Gulating Law, a ship with 13 rowing benches is the smallest ship suitable for military use. A ship with between 6 and 16 benches would be classified as a Karvi. These ships were considered to be "general purpose" ships, mainly used for fishing and trade, but occasionally commissioned for military use. While most longships held a length to width ratio of 7:1, the Karvi ships were closer to 4.5:1. The Gokstad Shipis a famous Karvi ship, built around the end of the 9th century, excavated in 1880 by Nicolay Nicolaysen. It was approximately 23 m (75 feet) long with 16 rowing positions.
Full-scale replica of a Viking snekkja based in Morąg
The snek kja (or snekke), meaning 'thin and projecting,' was typically the smallest longship used in warfare and was classified as a ship with at least 20 rowing benches. A typical snekkja might have a length of 17 m (56 feet), a width of 2.5 m (8.2 feet), and a draught of only 0.5 m (1.6 feet). It would carry a crew of around 41 men (40 oarsmen and one cox).
Snekkjas were one of the most common types of ship. According to Viking lore, Canute the Great used 1,200 in Norway in 1028,.
The Norwegian snekkjas, designed for deep fjords and Atlantic weather, typically had more draught than the Danish model designed for low coasts and beaches. Snekkjas were so light that they had no need of ports – they could simply be beached, and potentially even carried across a portage.
The snekkjas continued to evolve after the end of the Viking age, with later Norwegian examples becoming larger and heavier than Viking age ships. They are still being used in Norway, and are now called snekke.
Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre
Skeid (skeið), meaning 'that which cuts through water,' ships were larger warships, consisting of more than 30 rowing benches. Ships of this classification are some of the largest (see Busse) longships ever discovered. A group of these ships were discovered by Danish archaeologists in Roskilde during development in the harbor-area in 1962 and 1996–97. The ship discovered in 1962, Skuldelev 2 is an oak-built Skeid longship. It is believed to have been built in the Dublin area around 1042. Skuldelev 2 could carry a crew of some 70–80 and measures just less than 30 m (98 feet) in length. In 1996–97 archaeologists discovered the remains of another ship in the harbour. This ship, called the Roskilde 6, at 37 m (121 feet) is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and has been dated to around 1025. Skuldelev 2 was replicated as Seastallion from Glendalough at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde and launched in 2004. In 2012, a 35 m long skeid longship known as Dragon Harald Fairhair was launched in Norway. It was built from scratch by experts, using original Viking and experimental archaeological methods.
Drekkar are known from historical sources, such as the 13th century Göngu-Hrólfs Saga (the Saga of Rollo). Here, the ships are described as elegant and ornately decorated, and used by those who went raiding and plundering. These ships were likely skeids that differed only in the carvings of menacing beasts, such as dragons and snakes, carried on the prow of the ship. These carvings allegedly protected the ship and crew, and warded off the terrible sea monsters of Norse mythology. It is however likely that the carvings, like those on the Oseberg ship, might have had a ritual purpose, or that the purported effect was to frighten enemies and townspeople. No true dragon ship, as defined by the sagas, has been found by archaeological excavation.
The first longships can trace their origin back to between 500 and 300 BC, when the Danish Hjortspring boat was built. It was fastened with cord, not nailed, and paddled, not rowed. It had rounded cross sections and although 20 m (65 feet) long was only 2 m (6 feet) wide. The rounded sections gave maximum displacement for the lowest wetted surface area, similar to a modern narrow rowing skiff, so were very fast but had little carrying capacity. The shape suggests mainly river use. Unlike later boats, it had a low bow and stern. A distinctive feature is the two-prong cutaway bow section.
The first true longship that was rowed was the Nydam ship, built in Denmark around 350 AD. It also had very rounded underwater sections but had more pronounced flair in the topsides, giving it more stability as well as keeping more water out of the boat at speed or in waves. It had no sail. It was of lapstrake construction fastened with iron nails. The bow and stern had slight elevation. The keel was a flattened plank about twice as thick as a normal strake plank but still not strong enough to withstand the downwards thrust of a mast.
The Sutton Hoo longship, sometimes referred to as the ghost ship of the Wufflings, is about 27 m × 4.5 m (89 by 15 feet) maximum beam and built about 625 AD. It is associated with the Saxons. The ship was crushed by the weight of soil when buried but most details have been reconstructed. The ship was similar in hull section to the Nydam ship with flared topsides. Compared to later longships, the oak planks are wide—about 250 mm (9.8 inches) including laps, with less taper at bow and stern. Planks were 25 mm (0.98 inches) thick. The 26 heavy frames are spaced at 850 mm (33 inches) in the centre. Each frame tapers from the turn of the bilge to the inwale. This suggests that knees were used to brace the upper two or three topside planks but appear to have rotted away. The hull had a distinctive leaf shape with the bow sections much narrower than the stern quarters. There were nine wide planks per side. The ship had a light keel plank but pronounced stem and stern deadwood. The reconstruction suggests the stern was much lower than the bow. It had a steering oar to starboard braced by an extra frame. The raised prow extended about 3.7 m (12 feet) above the keel and the hull was estimated to draw 750 mm (30 inches) when lightly laden. Between each futtock the planks were lapped in normal clinker style and fastened with six iron rivets per plank. There is no evidence of a mast, sail, or strengthening of the keel amidships but a half-sized replica, the Soe Wylfing, sailed very well with a modest sail area.