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What Are Viking Ships?

Viking ships were constructed well enough to raid along the coasts of Britain and Ireland.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
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  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2014
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Viking ships reflect the typical Nordic ship design during the age of the Vikings, which lasted from the late eighth century until the mid-eleventh century. The wooden ships could be adapted for many purposes, from fishing to cargo transportation to war. Vikings were legendary sailors and warriors, using their astounding ships to power their ambitious civilization.

Wooden Viking ships were primarily constructed from local species of oak, mighty trees that grew in abundance throughout Scandinavia. The ships were constructed using overlapping planks on a solid keel, allowing greater safety and strength in construction. Although there were several types of ships, most featured a shallow and wide draft. Written accounts from the era suggest that Viking ships were primarily sail-powered and featured a square sail, probably made from wool.

One of the best known symbols of a Viking ship is the carved figurehead believed to have adorned the prows of Viking war ships. These figureheads were designed to look like dragons or snakes, and are mentioned in several written accounts from the Viking era. It remains unknown why these ships featured such decorative figureheads; experts suggest that it might have been to frighten victims, ward off sea monsters, or serve as a ritual symbol of strength. Despite finding little physical evidence of dragon ships, the image of an invading Viking fleet led by terrible dragon figureheads is a persistent concept throughout history.

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While many Viking ships were used for day-to-day jobs such as fishing or local trading, mightier vessels were built to cross large distances. Although it is not known for certain, much evidence suggests that the Vikings may have actually crossed the Atlantic and reached North America, five hundred years before Christopher Columbus. Artifacts found throughout Newfoundland indicate Norse design, including lamps, ship pieces, and spindles.

Using a replica knarr, or Viking trading ship, author W. Hodding Carter attempted to recreate the voyage from Greenland to Canada in 2000. After one failed attempt, Carter and his crew managed to successfully complete the voyage despite considerable obstacles. The voyage of Carter, as well as subsequent long-distance journeys made more recently in replica ships, show that the traveling power of the Viking ships was incredible for its time, far surpassing that of any other contemporary ships.

In war, Viking ships were terrible and deadly weapons. Sea battles among warring tribes often involved tying the ships together to allow closer fighting, though spears were also used for ranged combat. On land, the Viking ships facilitated raids on towns and castles near the sea. Raiding was a consistent feature of Viking society and fueled their reputation as deadly and merciless warriors. Until defeated by the Saxons in 1066, the Vikings featured superior technology, weapons, and strategies.

Although much was lost after the war with the Saxons, the legacy of the Vikings lives on throughout the world. With their ships, they crossed the oceans, created stunningly detailed coastal maps, and opened trade routes unconquerable by other people. Due to the power and versatility of the Viking ships, the ancient civilization sailed into history as possibly the greatest shipbuilding society in human history.

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