How Did the Vikings Become Master Shipbuilders? | History Hit

How Did the Vikings Become Master Shipbuilders?

Craig Bessell

Middle Ages Vikings
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Popular fiction has provided us with the image of a Viking Longship time and again: a sharp timber hull with shields slung down the sides, a full sail, a Viking ship-master steering toward plunder and the fearsome beast head at the prow.

The fear (or pride) our distant ancestor’s held for these Scandinavian warriors still echoes in our minds.

The Vikings’ skill on water was unmatched at the time; few debate this was the key to their success.

To coincide with the upcoming broadcast of ' The Vikings Uncovered ' on BBC1 and PBS next week, Dan takes us behind the scenes and talks about his extraordinary experiences making the show.Listen Now


Scandinavian ship building developed in response to the environment. Before striking out to raid lands east, south and west, the Vikings raided each other. Their lands were spread over many rocky islands connected by icy fjords, raids by water were the only way.

And so their technology developed and the ships got larger and more adaptable until they were fit to traverse the open seas in search of new lands.

A Norwegian fjord. Credit: Erik A. Drabløs / Commons.


Longships, or Dragonships as they were sometimes known, were primarily designed for speed and manoeuvrability. This made them ideal vessels to carry warriors for amphibious raiding missions.

The Scandinavians made use of various other designs for trading and ferrying troops, but the Longship was their primary vessel for war.

The long sleek hull was designed to cut through water, enabling the ship to reach great speeds. They usually boasted one square sail that could rotate to catch the wing from varying angles.

The shallow draft is clearly visable here on this preserved Longship.
The shallow draft is clearly visible here on the preserved Gokstad Longship in Norway.

A row of oars could be deployed on each side of the ship for extra manoeuvrability or extra speed. These banks of oars also enabled the Vikings to keep moving, even when the wind was still.

To the rear starboard side was the steering oar. This was usually manned by the Ship-master or a designated helmsman. The Norsemen considered this position to be a place of honour.

One of the most unique designs for an ocean going vessel was the shallow draft. The bottom of the ship did not extent too far under the water, making them sometimes unstable in rough seas but implacable when raiding.

The shallow draft meant that these ships did not have to rely on ports and harbours and could just as easily traverse rivers into the heart of the countryside and beach them temporarily.

Doug Bolender is a research assistant professor in the Anthropology Department and the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at University of Massachusetts Boston.;This is part 2 of the 4 part series timed to coincide with the upcoming broadcast of ' The Vikings Uncovered ' on BBC1 and PBS.Listen Now

Materials and construction

Most ships were made of oak as it is strong and durable, though some were reportedly fashioned of pine. Planks were cut to for the long hull and shorter ones for the ribs. The planks were fastened in place by wooden pegs and in some cases iron rivets.

The hull was fashioned using a technique know as ‘clinker-building’: the planks were positioned so that they overlapped, holding each other in place and making the outer hull very strong.

Before being launched the vessel had to be made water tight, this was done by hammering tar soaked sheep’s wool into every seam and crack in the hull.

The overlapping oak construction made the hull of the ship extremely strong and durable. Credit: Karamell / Commons.


Experience and a knowledge of nature provided the seafarers with the ability to traverse wide open expanses of water. They steered by the position of the sun, the stars and the moon.

They did however try to avoid the open sea where they could, preferring instead to navigate using familiar shorelines and tracing a course using landmarks.

Wildlife also provided them with navigational aid. It has been suggested that while in open water they would release a caged bird, often a raven, in a certain direction. If it did not come back then they knew there was land in the direction that it flew, if it returned they assumed there was no land close by.

Coming to America

The advanced navigation capabilities of the Vikings allowed them to explore incredible distances. Vinland is thought to be Newfoundland today. Credit: Bogdangiusca / Commons.

These techniques helped the Scandinavians to conquer and explore entirely alien lands. In 1002 Leif Erikson and 35 others mounted an expedition in the direction of Greenland and found the fertile, berry-rich shores of North America.

Dubbing it Vinland for its bounty of fruit, Erikson sailed on to Greenland to report what he had found.

Craig Bessell