Viking shipbuilding

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Replica in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde

The Viking ship is occupied by sources and archaeologically well documented. Finds such as the Gokstad ship , the Tuneschiff , the Oseberg ship and the Skuldelev ship cemetery provide information on what ships probably looked like at that time and what their construction principle was. The construction of sailing ships from the 6th to 8th Century AD is considered to be the highlight of the history of Viking shipbuilding . No such ships were built in Iceland or the Faroe Islands , but repairs could be carried out there.

Written sources on shipbuilding

Viking ships were built either in the open air or under a canopy ("hróf"). The warships were tarred immediately after completion and taken to a shed ( Naust ) to dry . In order to be able to work under the ship, one had a framework of beams. In the Heimskringla , Snorri Sturluson reports that he saw the scaffolding on which Ormurin langi , the longship of King Olav Tryggvason, was built.

After the Gulathingslov 306, the Landslov III, 2 and the Bylov III, 2 the responsibilities in shipbuilding were divided. The Gulathingslov gives some information about the construction and the division of labor :

"§ 306: Now the ship is haunted by old age, and they are to build another. They should build it where they want it to be built and not damage the fields or meadows. Now the king's land is to be taken, if it is available. If it is not there now, one should take a place in the marrow of everyone who is ready for it. And if you are to build several ships, you should not damage the marrow of a (single) man. Now they distribute the building needs among themselves. Those who redeem to put the keel or the stern, the middle planking or the stern planks, they pay a mark if one is missing. Upper board piece on the stem and the corresponding frame , for every wood that is missing there, you should pay three ore and bring the wood, even if it is later. Three ore are set for each interior wood that goes across the ship. An ore for every bar, but also an ore if only one claw is missing. Three ore for the mast and also for the Ra and also for all the long timbers if they are inside the ship. Now there should be an ore for every boarding that you have to have, but also an ore if only one cubit is missing .; and you should deliver the piece, even if it is later. An ore for every nail and hardware button. An ore for every bucket of tar. An ore for each plank seal ( "siðrauðr", according to Fritzner only used at this point and not known ) and an ore if only one cubit is missing. One ore for each meal (not delivered) (by the builders). An ore for every penny the builders are supposed to earn. Now you should call on all the shipbuilders who are within the district until there are enough. Every Steven builder is fined six marks if he refuses to take over the work. Now you have placed the keel on the framework of the base and started construction. If one of them runs away from the construction: If a stern builder or a ship builder runs away, then the stern builder or ship builder is peaceless because he damages the king's national defense. Now the builders should earn their money: the stern builder two ore to six cubits on the working days between Sundays and the on-board builder 1 ore. ... "

- The law book of the gulathing. Exercised by Rudolf Meißner. Weimar 1935.

According to § 301, it is informative:

"Well dissolved as the ship of the country festivals and a man shall take his bank is not one, there shall be his belt upright and a fine of three marks him notice for the attention. A widow is supposed to bring her share of the provisions and all equipment to the ship and offer it to the skipper if she has no husband to help her with the sling. Now they are not ready to go if five seats or more are vacant on a twenty-seater (forty rowers). Now the landlord or official who has to look after the country eight should occupy the five belt loops and no less. Now they should offer their crew to other ships if they are not clear to sea. If they do not take them over, they are exempt from punishment if they stay at home, and they should then hand over the provisions to the administrator to keep for the king. If they come home and claim a crew and don't get it, they should knock off the keel and shorten their ship as they have crew for it. But you can't make it any shorter than you can name it after the row benches. If it is less than that they can man a thirteen-seater, they should drive onto the thing and offer themselves to offset other men. ... "

- The law book of the gulathing

From these regulations it can be inferred that there were obviously specialists for certain construction measures who could not be done without, as the threat of punishment in the event of refusal shows. Furthermore, the hull could subsequently be shortened without endangering the stability of the ship. Ships for combat use were not allowed to be shorter than 13 row benches. From the number of five missing rowers nothing can be inferred about the total number; because even with double manning for replacement, the lack of replacement for five rowers meant that the ship could not sail.

The shipbuilders (skipasmiðir) were divided into stafnasmiðr (keel builders) and filungar (for the hull of the ship), and a höfuðsmiðr (construction manager) was used for large kite ships. The stafnasmiðr got twice as much as the filungar . In addition, other helpers are mentioned in the description of the construction of the Ormurin langi , but they were apparently not all craftsmen, but in some cases only suppliers: those who supplied the trunk for the keel, those who worked wood (carpenters), some forged nails, still others brought the lumber.


One worked without a saw, only with axes and hatchets , adzes , draw irons and spoon bits , hammers and anvils, pliers, files and planes: the main building materials used were oak and pine. The logs were radially split when fresh. In doing so, they were halved until there were many thin, yet stable, boards of the same length with a wedge-shaped cross-section. These boards were then smoothed with a bearded ax and carved into the correct shape. In this way, 16 planks, each 25 cm wide, could be made from a trunk 1 m in diameter , in Skuldelev even 30 planks. This process ensured that the planks worked in the direction of growth did not warp or splinter as quickly. For the curved parts, such as floor walls or bit knees, appropriately curved branches were selected.

Kiel with the attached lowest plank. Two types of execution; below: connection between Kiel and Steven. Drawing Bickel
Viking ship (front view).

This is definitely the case for the keel . In 1263 a ship was made entirely of oak. Poetic paraphrases for “ship” also speak of pine wood, linden wood, beech wood, birch wood, sycamore maple and ash wood. But that doesn't mean that the whole ship was built from the same wood. Different wood could be used under water than above the waterline or inside the ship.

The actual construction of the ship started with the outer skin of the ship before the inner scaffolding was installed. This type of construction is called shell construction. First the keel was made from a particularly long oak trunk and connected to the two curved stems with iron rivets. This construction was brought into a standing position with the help of logs. The stems were very high and often carved. The stems were so valuable that they were often taken over from one old ship to a new one. The stem was often composed of several pieces, the lower part "undirhlutr", the part "barð" sitting on it, which reached above the waterline, and on top of it the top piece "stál" on which the stave head (e.g. dragon head) rested.

In the second phase, the first planks were installed. The most important characteristic of Viking construction is the so-called clinker construction. The individual planks were installed so that they overlap each other, comparable to roof tiles. In Viking Scandinavia, the respective planks were mainly connected with the help of iron rivets. These were knocked through the planks, provided with a washer on the other side and hammered flat over it. The caulking, i.e. the sealing of the gaps, consisted of tarred animal hair. In addition to this main form, z. B. in the southern Baltic states and in England also a planking with wooden nails and moss is known. So plank for plank was placed on top of each other and connected to each other. The planks were attached to the keel in two ways. They were attached to the front and back as in the picture above on the right, in the middle as in the picture on the left. The planks were generally made very thin, with the thickest plank at the waterline. During this process, stones as weights and brackets could help at critical points to get the planks in the right shape before they were fixed. The necessary curvature of the plank corridors was maintained using various shipbuilding methods. The keel was often reinforced by a plank nailed underneath and protected from damage when pulled up onto the land.

After the fifth planking had been installed, the third phase of shipbuilding began. Now the floor walls were inserted to give the construction support. The floor walls are curved pieces of wood that are connected to the 2nd and 4th plank with wooden nails (e.g. from willow). In order to be able to cushion the surging waves better, the floor walls were not connected to the keel. In this way, the keel and ribs could move independently of one another during the elastic movements of the ship. In this work step, the keel pig, a particularly solid piece of wood to support the mast, was built into the ship's hull.

In the fourth step, planking was continued and the interior construction was further expanded. A so-called stringer was inserted on the inner side of the planks, which served as a support for the bites and additionally supported the outer skin. A bite is a cross piece of wood lying on the floor walls in the ship composite. These bits were attached to the planks with curved pieces of wood, the bit knees. At the bottom, the bites were provided with support wood, the Snellen, to stabilize the construction. The construction was not rigid and immobile, but light and elastic, as the bits were not nailed to the planks. Rather, they were loosely attached to them. In older examples (Oseberg and Gokstad), they were lashed with ropes. During the production of the side planks, lugs were left on the inside where the bits were to rest later. Holes were drilled using both cleats and bits. Cords were then pulled through these and lashed down. In more recent examples (e.g. the Skuldelev wrecks), the bit knees were inserted into recesses provided for this purpose and thus held in position.

In the last phase, more stringers were added, the gangway pulled in and the rudder attached. Sails, rigging and other equipment of the ship have now been attached.

In the end, the entire hull of the ship was covered with a protective layer of tar, oil, and in some cases ocher. This taring was repeated every autumn. In the Sverris saga it is reported that the men of King Sverre pulled him back in the battle of Fimreite when he tried to touch the stern of his ship. Because the tar wasn't dry yet. The ships were often painted above the waterline. However, the extent of the painting cannot be reliably reconstructed.

The uppermost parts of the frames and the knees are attached to the thickest row of planks ("meginhúfr") in the waterline. In the ships from Oseberg and Gokstad it is the 10th row from the keel. At the stern, this series continues in the brandr. The belt openings are in the Róðrarhúfr, on the Oseberg ship the top plank, on the Gokstad ship the third plank from the top, which is the second thickest plank. The top plank is called “Rim”, and the name “skjaldrim”, which is often found, indicates that the shields were also hung on this row, as can be seen on the Oseberg ship. There were two shields per oar hole and they overlapped in half. They were often painted with changing colors. So the Gokstad ship had 32 shields on each side, since two oar teams were taking over. When the ship sailed, these openings were closed with round panes like those found in the port of Haithabu. The walls of the ship were often reinforced with iron bands or iron clips. On the shipwreck Skuldelev 5, such shield suspensions can be detected in the form of a bar.

A beautifully carved beech plank was attached from the straight part of the ship's side to the stern, the "brandr". These brandar were very precious. When the Ribbunge (a civil war party in Norway) were unable to save their ships, they hacked them off and took them away. Þórir Skeggjason put the brandar of his Knorr over the front door. They were often gilded. They only seem to have been attached to larger ships.

The Tune ship around the year 900. Photo John Erling Blad

The floorboards of the deck lay on the deck beams. On large vehicles there was storage space for equipment, cargo and personal effects of the crew. The trading ships of the late Viking Age did not have a continuous deck, but an open cargo hold in the middle. There was then cargo and animals carried along, such as. B. Horses. The forward deck was connected to the aft deck by corridors on the ship's side and amidships to the mast. There was a raised half-deck on the front and rear of the ship. The rear one was called “lypting” and was the skipper's seat. The distance between the frames was a maximum of one meter, the space in between, called “compartment” (“rúm”), was enough for one man with his strap . On merchant ships there were only a few pairs of straps, on warships one pair was provided for each compartment. There were no fixed seating arrangements; it is assumed that the boatmen sat on sea crates in which they stowed their belongings.

At the front and rear of the ship there was a forked frame ("kraptar") on each side, which protruded over the ship's wall and was intended for the ropes when mooring the ship.

On the above-mentioned “stál” the dragon's head sat on the battle ships, usually on both the bow and the stern. This also applied to the Knorr used for combat. The forward stem was probably equipped with several kite heads; because even on a ship that did not have a dragon head aft, the plural "drekahöfuðum" (dragon heads) is used. The dragon heads were, however, rather rare and apparently only reserved for the army king or leader. Bull and bison heads were also put on. Images of gods were probably also used in pagan times. The head was detachable and was probably pegged into a hole in the stem. It was usually gilded. There was a gilded weathercock above the head. It was also removable. In the event of war, the war banner was also placed there. It is said of the "Maríusúð" of King Sverrir that relics were inlaid in front and behind. Jarl Erik, who was victorious in the naval battle of Svolder , had a portrait of Thor on the stem which he is said to have replaced with a cross after the battle. This very dubious information shows that the author of this incident was aware of the magical significance of the Stevenzier.

Ship rooms

The row benches divided the ship into compartments (" rúm "), according to whose number and size the ship was classified. A deck beam and a frame were assigned to each row bank. Below deck, this corresponded to an equal number of rúm that were used as storage or sleeping places. Each rúm was divided into two halfrými , each with a halfrýmikista . The smallest nave was the þrettánsessa with 13 rum , while the king's dragon ship Knut 60 Rum had. In some battle descriptions, rúm is also used to designate main sections of the ship. So had Ormurin langi eight men in each hemisphere, in " fyrirrúm " but were 30 men. In the dragon ship of King Håkon Håkonsson there were four men in each rúm , but in the fyrirrúm eight men are named, plus four priests and some clerics and other people. In the case of the longships, the following departments, which were probably delimited by the main deck beams, are mentioned:

  • Lypting : A raised deck at the stern, a jump where the chief stayed with his men and the helmsman had his seat.
  • Fyrirrúm : The room in front of this raised deck. Here was the box with the weapons. Here the most distinguished men stayed in battle. But the situation is uncertain. It is also discussed that the room was located in the fore of some ships and that there were two rooms with this designation both in the aft and in the fore.
  • Krapparúm : The second room in front of the lypting . It was probably the largest room in the ship, with the mast in the middle. That was where the common crew stayed. The rowers were there in the battle.
The floor plan in a cargo ship.
  • Austrrúm : There were two of them, one in the fore and one aft. These were the rooms in which the ship was pumped out. They are suspected to be on either side of the krapparúm . They were probably very small because they are never mentioned as a place to stay.
  • Stafn : This was a small place on the bow , a slightly raised deck where the stafnbúar stayed: the lookout, the standard bearer and the stallari (stable master).
  • Söx : It is probably a kind of advance jump between Austrúm and Stafn . In the case of the dragon ships, this place was called out .

Warships sometimes had special entrenchments and even a fort.

"En fyrir þá sök að skipið var borðmikið svo sem borg væri en fjöldi manns á og valið hið besta lið, vopnað og sem örugglegast, þá varð skipið ekki auðsótt."

"But since the ship had a mighty entrenchment up there and a fort and a lot of men were on board, and they formed a select group, armed and very fearless, the ship was not easy to weaken."

- Heimskringla. Ólaf's saga helga. Cape. 150.

There was no such classification for merchant ships. There was only the large hold and a few smaller rooms in the front and back. The same applies to smaller boats, which also had a simplified classification.


Attachment of the rudder to the Gokstad ship. Drawing Bickel

The rudder was attached to the right side of the ship, which is why this side was called "starboard". The helmsman sat in front of it at right angles to the ship's axis with his back to the left side of the ship, the “port side”. The first safe example of a rudder at the stern of a dragon ship can be seen on the seal of the city of Bergen from 1299. A later seal from 1329 shows the earlier fortification. A hole was drilled through the rudder blade through which a movable axle (willow line, rope) was inserted. This then went through a cone that was attached to the outer wall of the ship and kept the rudder blade from the hull. The axle then went through a thickened plank and was attached to a frame on the inside. There was a square hole at the top of the rudder through which the tiller was inserted. Sometimes a stick was attached at right angles to the end of the tiller. A rope was looped around the oar neck, which was fastened through the inside of the hull and held the oar vertically in the water. On the Gokstad ship, the rudder was 3.30 m long and 42 cm wide. Since the rudder reached deep under the keel, the rope had to be untied when entering shallow water, when drifting the ship or when anchored.


Ships from the time of the Vikings

see finds from Viking ships

Younger ships of the same design


  • AW Brøgger and Haakon Shetelig: Vikingeskipene. Their forgjengere and etterfølgere . (Viking ships. Their predecessors and successors). Oslo 1950.
  • Hjalmar Falk: Old Norse marine life. Reprint from Words and Things , Volume 4. Heidelberg 1912.
  • James Graham-Campbell: The Lives of the Vikings. Warriors, traders and explorers. Kristall, Berlin 1980, ISBN 3-607-00008-5 .
  • Dirk Husemann: Reform backlog in the dragon boat . In: Adventure archeology. Spectrum of Science Verl.-Ges., Heidelberg 2006, 1, p. 78 ff. ISSN  1612-9954
  • O. Crumlin-Pedersen: The ships of the Vikings . In: T. Andersson, KI Sandred (Ed.): The vikings . Proceedings of the Symposium of the Faculty of Arts of Uppsala University June 6-9, 1977. Uppsala 1978, pp. 32-42
  • O. Crumlin-Pedersen: Viking Age ships and shipbuilding in Hedeby / Haithabu and Schleswig . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . Volume 2. Roskilde 1997
  • O. Crumlin-Pedersen: The Skuldelev Ships . I. Topography, Archeology, History, Conservation and Display . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . 4.1. Roskilde 2002
  • O. Crumlin-Pedersen: Nordic Clinker Construction . In: FM Hocker, CA Ward (Ed.): The Philosophy of Shipbuilding . Texas 2004, pp. 37-65
  • AC Sörensen : A Danish Ship-Grave from the Viking Age . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . Volume 3. Roskilde 2001
  • Rudolf Simek: The Vikings (= CH Beck knowledge in the Beck series, volume 2081). 3. Edition. Beck, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-406-41881-3 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Færeyinga saga chap.31.
  2. Landlov III, 2 and Bylov III.2.
  3. Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar chap. 88
  4. Königsspiegel chap. 4th
  5. a b c O. Crumlin-Pedersen: The Skuldelev Ships . I. Topography, Archeology, History, Conservation and Display . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . 4.1. Roskilde 2002
  6. Falk p. 31 with reference.
  7. The skalds often use "fura" (pine, pine, spruce) as a ship designation and in the Grágás in I. 46 and II. 59 the expression "fljótandi fura" is used.
  8. "lindihjörtr" as a poetic expression for ship.
  9. King Ingi's ship is called "Bökisúð".
  10. "stýris birki" as the name of the ship.
  11. "sævar hlynr" as the ship's name.
  12. "askr" as the name of the ship.
  13. ^ O. Crumlin-Pedersen: The ships of the Vikings . In: T. Andersson, KI Sandred (Ed.): The vikings . Proceedings of the Symposium of the Faculty of Arts of Uppsala University June 6-9, 1977. Uppsala 1978, pp. 32-42.
  14. ^ Gulathingslov § 306.
  15. a b O. Crumlin-Pedersen: Nordic Clinker Construction . In: FM Hocker, CA Ward (Ed.): The Philosophy of Shipbuilding . Texas 2004, pp. 37-65.
  16. ^ O. Crumlin-Pedersen: Viking-Age ships and shipbuilding in Hedeby / Haithabu and Schleswig . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . Volume 2. Roskilde 1997
  17. ^ E. Andersen et al .: Roar Ege. Skuldelev 3 skibet som arkæologisk eksperiment . Roskilde 1997.
  18. ^ Anton Englert, Jan Fischer, Sönke Hartz, Hans Joachim Kühn, Oliver Nakoinz: A Nordic cargo ship in the Schlei before Karschau, Schleswig-Flensburg district - a preliminary report . In: Archaeological News from Schleswig-Holstein , Archaeological Society Schleswig-Holstein e. V & Archaeological State Office Schleswig-Holstein, Issue 11, 2000, p. 41
  19. Frostathingslov I; Landslov III, 2nd
  20. King Sverre Sigurdsson chap. 24.
  21. ^ AC Sörensen : A Danish Ship-Grave from the Viking Age . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . Volume 3. Roskilde 2001
  22. ^ O. Crumlin-Pedersen: Viking-Age ships and shipbuilding in Hedeby / Haithabu and Schleswig . In: O. Crumlin-Pedersen, O. Olsen (Ed.): Ships and Boats of the North . Volume 2. Roskilde 1997.
  23. Falk p. 44.
  24. Else Mundal: Midgardsormen and andre heidne vesen i kristen context. In: Nordica Bergensia 14 (1997) pp. 20-38, 31.
  25. Falk p. 40 f.
  26. Brøgger p. 264.
  27. Falk p. 82 ff.
  28. Falk p. 75.
  29. Shetelig p. 153.