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18 September 2014
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Loot: Why the Vikings Came to Britain

Ships and navigation

Image of Gokstad ship
The sleek Viking Gokstad ship ©
Successful raiding and adventures overseas required good fast ships, and that is exactly what the development of boat technology had provided for the Vikings by the eighth century. The use of a sturdy keel meant that a mast could be properly supported, and that boats could be sailed as well as rowed. Long sea voyages were possible, even if navigation was still a matter of watching the movement of the sun and of observing landmarks and seabirds.

'Vikings preferred not to spend the night at sea if they could avoid it...'

We know what their ships looked like, because many Vikings were buried with their worldly goods, and sometimes this included their boat. The Gokstad ship found in a burial south of Oslo, in Norway, is the sort of warship to which the Viking raiders probably aspired - an elegant 23m (75ft) of curving oak planks that would skim the waves.

Tree-ring dating has shown that this particular ship was built towards the end of the ninth century, but its efficient design was developed earlier. It was fast, flexible and, with its shallow draught, easy to beach. Few warlords would have been able to afford to send such a magnificent vessel to the grave, and no Viking boat of the size of Gokstad has been found in Britain.

Smaller rowing boats could be spared for funerary use, though, and the most recent discovery of a boat-burial at Scar, in Orkney, contained a vessel some 7m (23ft) long. But the existence of large warships in British waters can be inferred from the historical evidence - Vikings preferred not to spend the night at sea if they could avoid it, and would rather camp in tents on shore.

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