Half a century before illustrious Columbus’s expedition, Vikings were the royalty of the Atlantic. These adventurous people in their open boats made unprecedented ocean crossings reaching Faeroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland among numerous other places. They also ventured as far as the North American continent laying the foundations for what we now consider the Atlantic World.
Drawing from this rich maritime tradition, AMARI directors and archaeologists conducted a reconnaissance visit to Iceland in May 2013. The goal of this project was to establish a partnership with museums, government institutions, and local researchers for the long-term heritage management of Icelandic maritime archaeological resources. We hope that this partnership will eventually lead to more surveys and underwater or terrestrial excavations. As such, we hope to encourage interested students to join our effort and expand this project to artifact study, conservation, reconstruction, and display, museum studies, historic preservation, and cultural heritage management in general (for questions, please contact Dr. Bojakowski, AMARI’s Director of Archaeology).
It is undeniable that the ship has held a prominent position in Norse Scandinavia. The ship was not only a symbol and a link between people and the sea; it also represented everything from the might of the individual warlord, to the social rank of a group or clan, to different religious connotations depending on the period. A Viking warship could represent a mythological dragon, while a boat could be a burial site. An image of a boat or a ship could also be used as architectural motif or decoration.
In Medieval Scandinavian vikingr refers to a pirate and the term viking is a noun that refers to an “act of going raiding overseas;” however, the name Viking has come to represent the period of Scandinavian history from the 790’s, and the first recorded raids, to the middle of the eleventh century (Simpson 1967: 11). Contemporary Europeans would not have recognized the term Viking; Anglo-Saxons called them the Danes, the Franks called them the Northmen, the Germans called them Ashmen, and the Spanish Arabs called them heathens. Scandinavians thought of themselves as inhabitants of particular regions and eventually Nordmen or Northmen was adopted, the equivalent of which in English is Norsemen or Norse (Simpson 1967: 12).
Viking Vessels: Specialization, Function, and Decoration
Unlike Malinowski’s(1922)highly romanticized description of native canoes and sailing, the modern field of nautical archaeology relies on scientific methodology grounded in strictly factual data. In describing a ship or ship’s decoration, there is no time and place for what Malinowski describes as “an atmosphere of romance,” or “delightful sensation” that surrounds a watercraft(Malinowski 1922: 105-7). As for the Nordic ships, it has been commonly accepted that at the beginning of the Viking era there was little specialization in the vessel types, as well as in their decorations and symbolic representations. Early on, the concept of warship was not readily discernible from that of a trading ship as they were used interchangeably on a regular basis. Specialization occurred as Viking raids increased and European countries developed fleets to fight off the invading Norsemen which resulted in a need for a vessel, commonly known as longship, that was more of a fast and maneuverable fighting platform and less of a carrier of men and supplies. In general, vessels used for commerce usually did not have a deck amidships whereas warships were fully decked and often had a crow’s nest atop the mast, which the traders did not need as it functioned as a strategic offensive platform. Likewise, trading ships were beamier, heavier, and tended to have more freeboard all of which increased the cargo capacity of the vessel(Williams 1920: 201). Warships were also distinguished from trading vessels by the prevalent use of decorative elements. Decorations were simple and relatively utilitarian, and they reflected the high quality of wood craftsmanship in Norse society.
Vessels used for war were long, narrow and relied on oar propulsion; the early longships would have greatly resembled the Gokstadt (discussed below) ship in both size and decoration, but probably not in the quality of construction (Brøgger 1951: 140). Oar propulsion was standard for Viking war vessels; this was true for most contemporary and early modern European ships as well, due to the fact that oars increase maneuverability and speed that is vital in sea battles. Longships were classified according to how many rooms they had (30-thwart, 25-thwart, and 20-thwart); a room corresponds to one pair of oars and thwarts which were essentially the benches upon which the rowers sat. The Gokstadt had 16 rooms whereas later longships ranged from 30-35 rooms resulting in a proportionally longer ship; the Gokstadt was 24 m long and a thirty-thwarter would be 52 m long(Brøgger 1951: 143). As war at sea became more common in the Viking era, longships developed into larger vessels with less spacious rooms and higher freeboard that became fighting platforms (Brøgger 1951: 146).
Archaeological remains of two longships found in Norway, the Gokstadt and Osberg ships, are probably the best examples of what Kobyliński (1994) labels as “irrational use,” in other words a disturbance from the original and pragmatic use of ships within the context. Since both of these vessels were used to bury individuals of high social status, they represent not only the highest level of ship decorations, but also symbols of an important social ritual (Turner 1977: 183-4). This is further confirmed by the fact that both of the burial mounds were part of type of ancestor worship which is evident through folklore, folk-poetry, and legend to the present day (Brøgger 1951: 68). The Gokstadt burial mound was excavated in 1880 and the ship itself is dated to 900 AD. It is thought to have belonged to a chieftain closely related to the Vestfold kings (Brøgger 1951: 55). As such, this ship represented an important distinction, a marker of social hierarchy, as well as a relation between the individual and social institutions.
The Gokstadt and Osberg ships were unique works of art in and of themselves and decorative elements can be seen in the construction of these ships. On the Gokstadt ship, the edges of all the timbers – inboard, outboard, below and above the waterline – have finely planed mouldings. Likewise, there is a pattern of large, lightly traced circles on the floorboards and some of the shutters of the oar holes are embellished with concentric circles while others have ornamental crosses(Shetelig 1951: 103). The bow is completely void of ornamentation as is the outside where the gunnel meets both the stern and the bow. Whereas the Gokstadt ship had simple lines and is a product of practical considerations, the lines of the Osberg ship were meant to be aesthetic; the ship was a consummation of elegant, artistic form (Shetelig 1951: 103).
The Osberg ship was excavated in 1904 and is believed to the burial ship of a queen (60-70 years old)and her bondswoman (25-30 years old) who were buried in the later half of the ninth century; however, the ship itself dates to 800AD (Brøgger 1951:. 60). The Osberg ship was built to be aesthetic in its lines and form, but it was a completely functional ship. It is less ruggedly constructed than the Gokstadt ship and the Osberg ship was most likely only used on special occasions as it was not suitable for everyday use; it is a symbol of luxury and high rank (Shetelig 1951: 113). Although exceptionally complex, it becomes more and more evident that the Osberg ship was not even considered a traditional ship per se. Thus, right from the start when this ship was built, it must have been conceived as a ritual symbolic craft. Indeed, it existed only within its ritual realities. If this hypothesis is correct, it could potentially explain why Osberg ship, and not some other random ship, was used as the burial ship of Queen Aasa; who was the most outstanding woman in the Saga of Vestfold Kings (Shetelig 1951: 114).