By Nigel Thomas
During the early Middle Ages, the people of Denmark, Norway and Sweden built fast, ocean-going vessels called long ships, also known as Drakkars, or Dragon ships, since they often had wooden dragon heads carved at the front. Used for war, trade, and exploration, the long ship evolved over many years and appeared in its complete form between the 8th and 13th centuries. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions up until today.
Painting of a Viking long-ship
The long ship is characterized as a graceful, narrow, light wooden boat designed for speed. The ship’s shallow draft allowed navigation in waters too shallow for larger vessels, and permitted beach landings. Fitted with oars along almost its entire length, long ships also had rectangular sails that were often beautifully colored. The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship but lay between a range of 5-10 knots. The maximum speed of a long ship in favorable conditions was around 15 knots. The length of long ship also varied. A master of all trades, long ships were wide and stable, yet fast, light, and nimble. With all these qualities combined in one ship, the Vikings had the most powerful navy of their time.
Long ships were highly prized possessions and were very important to the Viking culture. In fact, one Viking custom involving the long ship was to bury dead kings in their ships. A famous example of a ship that was buried with its owner is the Gokstad ship, which was found on Gokstad farm in Norway, in 1880.
Gokstad Vikings ship excavation, photographed in 1880
Excavating ship burials allows historians, archaeologists and others to learn more about how the Vikings lived and what their ships were like.