Primary History

Vikings: Vikings at sea

  • Viking ships

    The Vikings built fast ships for raiding and war. These ships were 'dragon-ships' or 'longships'. The Vikings also had slower passenger and cargo ships called knorrs. They built small boats for fishing or short trips.

    Viking longships could sail in shallow water. So they could travel up rivers as well as across the sea. In a raid, a ship could be hauled up on a beach. The Vikings could jump out and start fighting, and then make a quick getaway if they were chased.

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  • How ships were built

    A Viking ship was built beside a river or an inlet of the sea. A tall oak tree was cut to make the keel. The builders cut long planks of wood for the sides, and shorter pieces for supporting ribs and cross-beams. They used wooden pegs and iron rivets to fasten the wooden pieces together. Overlapping the side planks, known as 'clinker-building',made the ship very strong. People stuffed animal wool and sticky tar from pine trees into every join and crack, to keep out the water.

    To launch the ship, the Vikings pushed it into the water. They slid it over log rollers to make the pushing easier.

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  • Sails and oars

    A Viking ship had one big square sail made of woven wool. In some ships, the mast for the sail could be folded down. When there was not enough wind for the sail, the men rowed with long wooden oars. To steer the ship, one man worked a big steering oar at the back end, or stern. At the curved front end of the ship was a carved wooden figure-head.

    A dragon-ship had room for between 40 and 60 men. The men slept and ate on deck. There was some space below deck for stores, but no cabins.

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  • Finding the way

    Vikings sailed close to the coast whenever possible, watching for landmarks. Out of sight of land, they looked for the sun: west (towards the sunset) meant they were headed for England; east (towards the sunrise) meant home to Denmark or Norway. The Vikings invented a kind of sun compass to help find their way. At night they watched the stars. Seamen knew a lot about winds and sea currents. By watching birds or even the colour of the water, an experienced sailor could tell when land was close.

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  • Ships in a museum

    Two Viking ships were found by archaeologists in Norway. The Gokstad ship was dug up on a farm in 1880. The Oseberg ship was found on another farm in 1904. Both ships were buried in Viking funerals between AD 800 and 900. The Gokstad ship is 23 metres/76 ft long. It was big enough for 32 oarsmen - 16 oars each side.

    These two ships are now in a museum in Oslo in Norway. In 1893, a copy of the Gokstad ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Norway to America.

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Fun Facts
  • When rowing, Vikings probably sat on their 'sea-chests', wooden boxes with their belongings inside.

  • Viking ships could sail at about 18 km/h (10 mph).

  • The steering oar was on the right-hand or 'starboard' side of the ship. Sailors still use the name 'starboard'.

  • The Gokstad ship contained 64 wooden shields, painted black or yellow.

  • The sailors pulled in the oars when the ship was using its sail. They covered the oar holes to stop the sea splashing in.

  • A ship carried everything needed at sea - drinking water, dried meat and fish to eat, tools and weapons, and furs to keep warm.

  • Cargo ships carried families and farm animals too.

  • The dead chieftain in the Gokstad ship was buried with three small boats and a sledge.

  • A Viking ship could lie under a car park in Meols, in Cheshire. Part of a wooden ship was seen by builders in 1938, but then covered up.

  • The Sea Stallion is a replica Viking ship built to recreate voyages from Denmark to Ireland.

  • There was some space below deck for stores, but no cabins.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

ale
A strong drink made from barley.
amber
Hardened tree sap, used to make jewellery.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildingsthat are buried under the ground.
blacksmith
Another name for a smith. A worker who makes things of metal, usually iron.
blood-feud
An argument between two families that involves fighting or killings.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
buttermilk
Watery liquid left over when butter is made from milk.
carving
A design cut out of wood.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
chieftain
The leader of a village or small group of people.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
colonize
A settlement founded in one country by people from another country.
compass
A device for finding direction (east, west, north, south).
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
Danelaw
The area of England ruled by the Vikings.
descendants
People who are related to earlier people, in a direct line.
dragon-ship
Another name for a longship.

E to G

explorer
Someone who travels to unfamiliar places to discover new things.
feast
A special meal for a large group of people.
figurehead
A carved wooden piece at the front of a ship.
Freeman
A person who is not a slave and free to choose who he or she worked for.

H to L

helmet
Hat made of leather or iron worn by a soldier to protect his head.
hoard
A hidden treasure, usually buried in the soil.
jet
A kind of black stone used to make jewellery.
keel
Long wooden bottom part of a ship, that gives it strength.
invaders
People who try to take over land from other people.
landmark
A natural feature that helps a traveller find his way, such as a mountain, a rock, an island, or a group of trees.
launch
To put a new ship in the water.
longship
A Viking ship with a sail and oars. Sometimes called dragon-ship. A Viking ship with a sail and oars. Sometimes called dragon-ship.

M to O

mail coat
Armour made from chain mail (metal rings), worn like a shirt.
manure
Animal waste such as dung put on soil to make it fertile for crops.
mast
Tall wooden pole from which a ship's sail is hung.
merchant
A trader, someone who buys and sells things.
monastery
The building where monks live.
norse myths
Stories told by the Vikings about gods and goddesses, giants and strange creatures.

P to S

pagan
A person who believed in many gods.
raven
A large black bird of the crow family.
rivets
Bits of metal hammered into holes to join ship planks or metal sheets together.
runes
The name given to the Viking alphabet.
settlement
An area where people live.
shield
A large piece of wood or metal held in one arm for protection in battle.
sickle
A curved knife used for cutting grain stalks at harvest time.
slave
A person who is not free but is treated as someone else's property.
smith
A worker who makes things of metal, usually iron.
spices
Plants such as pepper which can be used to flavour and preserve foods.
spinning
Twisting and drawing out sheep wool into long thin thread.
spit
In cooking, a rod or stick on which meat is stuck to roast over a fire.

T to Z

thatched
A roof covered in straw.
Thing
An open-air meeting where Vikings gathered to discuss the law.
trader
A person who sells goods.
turf
A layer of grass cut with roots and soil, that can be used to roof a house.
walrus ivory
The tusk, or sticking-out tooth, of a walrus (a large sea mammal), which can be carved.
weaving
Making cloth on a machine called a loom.