The Vikings are most often depicted as bloodthirsty barbarian raiders who lived entirely by plunder. In reality, they were mostly traders, who established commercial networks stretching all the way from North America (the Vikings established a settlement in L'Anse-aux-Meadows, Canada 500 years before Columbus) to India and perhaps as far as China.
But the Vikings did indeed launch raids all over Europe, beginning with their looting of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne, England, in 793 CE, which was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Their approach to the peoples they encountered was brutally pragmatic--if those people were strong and well-organized, the Vikings traded peacefully with them. If they were weak and disorganized, the Vikings raided them and invaded them.
Although the Vikings were masterful metal-workers and had the very best in armor and weapons technology, the real secret of Viking success was the longship. It was by far the best sea-going technology of its time. In trade, it could travel long distances with heavy loads, entering rivers and shallow seas that were un-navigable to others. In military raids, the longship could carry a large number of raiders, deposit them right on shore or up shallow rivers, and was swift enough to evade any attempts at pursuit.
With their longships, the Vikings eventually settled most of Europe. The cities of Dublin, Ireland, and York, England, were founded by Viking settlers. Vikings also controlled much of coastal France ("Normandy" was named after the "Norse men"), and the Rus band of Swedish Vikings sailed up the Dnieper River and conquered the area around Kiev, forming the country of "Russia".
One of the best places to see authentic Viking longships and learn about their history is the Vikingskiphuset museum in Oslo, Norway.
The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo contains the three best-preserved of the Viking longships. All three were found in large grave mounds, where they were intentionally buried as grave goods for people of high social status.
The first of the three ships on display was uncovered in 1867 in the Norwegian town of Tune. Several burial mounds had been found there, and in 1867 the largest one, about 80 meters long, was excavated by archaeologist Oluf Rygh. He uncovered the remains of a Viking longship. Unfortunately, previous digging over the years had exposed the interior of the mound to oxygen, and the ship had partially decomposed. Modern archaeological methods had not yet been developed, so the Tune ship was not very well-excavated. In many places, scars and gashes are visible from the shovels of the workmen who uncovered it. Rygh attached a wooden platform underneath the ship and used a team of horses to pull it to the nearby river, then placed it on a barge and shipped it to Oslo. The skeleton of a human male and a number of grave items were also found with the ship, including parts of a sword, shield and chainmail armor, but these somehow got lost during the trip to Oslo, and have never been seen again.
Like all Viking ships, the Tune vessel was "clinker-built", made of overlapping planks of oak. It was made in around 900 CE, placing it firmly in the Viking golden age. The mast is very strongly attached to the deck, and it would have carried a large sail made from cloth. It also had a number of oar locks along each side, probably 11 or 12 in total, giving it a crew of around 25-30. Though the front portion and the upper sides of the ship are missing, it is estimated that the complete ship would have been about 42 feet long and 15 feet wide. It would have been light, with a shallow draft, and fast--perfect qualities for a raiding warship.
The second of the museum's ships was found on Gokstad Farm, in the village of Sandar. In 1880, some farmers digging in a mound on their field uncovered part of a wooden ship and contacted local authorities. Archaeologist Nicolay Nicolaysen excavated the mound and found a nearly complete longship, a human male skeleton, and a number of grave goods.
The Gokstad ship is 76 feet long and 17 feet wide, making it the largest ship at the museum. Tree-ring dating on the beams shows that it was built in 890 CE. It had 16 rows of oars down each side, and a mast for sailing, and could have carried between 40 and 70 men. It did not have a rudder, but was steered by a large steering oar at the rear of the ship.
The human skeleton found buried with the ship remains unidentified, but it has been speculated that it is the remains of Olaf Gierstada, a regional lord who is known to have died at around this time. One interesting find among his grave goods was the skeleton of a peacock, showing that the Viking trade network stretched all the way to India by this time. A wooden sledge was also buried with him.
The last of the museum's three ships to be found, the Oseburg ship, is also the best-preserved. In 1904, a team led by Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig and Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson excavated a large burial mound on Oseburg Farm, near Tonsberg. They found an intact ship, two female skeletons, and a large number of well-preserved grave goods. Wood planks in the chamber walls were ring-dated to 834 CE; the ship is likely somewhat older than that.
The Oseburg ship is 71 feet long and 17 feet wide, with 15 oars on each side. It remains the best-preserved and most complete Viking ship ever found. Along with the ship, excavators discovered its iron anchor and its wooden gangplank. The ship is richly decorated with elaborate carvings. It is not as heavily built as the earlier ships, and was probably not intended for the open sea--it was most likely used as a pleasure coastal sailing ship for a very wealthy person.
The burial chamber also contained a great variety of well-preserved grave goods, including four wooden sledges, a wheeled cart, and large numbers of household goods. Traces of woolen clothing and imported silk were also uncovered. In addition, the bones of 14 horses, 3 domestic dogs, and 1 ox were found. On one wooden bucket, a small brass ornament was found in the shape of a person sitting cross-legged--it has been suggested that this may be a Buddha, and indicates that Viking trading networks may have stretched all the way to China.
The burial contained the skeletons of two females, one aged 50-60, the other aged 60-70. The rich grave indicates that it was the burial of a very important and wealthy woman, presumably with one of her servants; it has been speculated that this is the grave of Queen Asa of Agdur, the wife of King Gudrud the Noble and grandmother of King Harald Fairhair.
In 1913, it was proposed that a museum be built in Oslo to house the three Viking ships, which were all in temporary storage. The hall containing the Oseburg ship was finished in 1926, and halls for the Gokstad and Tune ships were added by 1932. The final hall housed the grave goods, and, after being delayed by the Nazi occupation in World War Two, it was finished in 1957. Today, the Viking Ship Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Norway.
These photos are from a visit in 2011.
Viking ship museum, Oslo
Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad, who discovered the archeological remains of the L'Anse aux Meadows Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.
Steering rudder. Oseberg ship
Oarlocks and oars. Oseberg ship
Oarlock on Oseburg ship
Grave goods found buried with the ships. Most are from the Oseburg site, which was the best-preserved. These are small boats from the Gokstad site.
This cabin-like structure held the human skeleton buried with the Gokstad ship.
Wheeled wagon from the Oseburg site.
Sledge with wooden runners from the Gokstad site.
Pottery and metal plates.
A ship's figurehead.
The male human skeleton found with the Gokstad ship.
The two female human skeletons found with the Oseburg ship.