Ship Types and Sizes AD 800-1400

Of course, iron rivets also appear in contexts other than ship finds. They occur in some finds of waggon carts, for example, serving as coffins in womens' graves of the Viking Age. Clench nails with four-sided shafts are seldom found in Danish ship finds of the Viking Age, but they appear in later Scandinavian ship finds and in some English ship finds.

In some regions ship planks were also joined with small wooden pegs, or "treenails", instead of iron fastenings. These are found occasionally in the upper planks of Scandinavian Viking ships.


This outline sketch of differences in plank fastenings is meant to demonstate that ship finds from the 9th-14th centuries are now so numerous that it is possible to make statements about basic patterns in shipbuilding with reasonable certainty, as well as to discuss some of the variations within the period.

What, then, does the material tell us — especially about Scandinavian ship types and sizes […]These […]show a single line of development from the early Iron Age Hjortspring boat to the Nydam boat, and on to the Viking ships from Gokstad and Oseberg.

However, we must remain aware that the classic finds are all from graves and bog offerings. Therefore, we cannot ignore the fact that there may have been ships of differing proportions; ships used for purposes other than those of ceremony and war. If proper cargo ships of other shapes really did exist in the early Iron Age, however, we might expect to encounter them in wreck finds. Yet, the few pieces of wrecks now known to be from the 7th and 8th centuries do not depart noticeably from the ships in graves and bog offerings.

On the other hand, Scandinavian ship finds from the 10th century and later do depart noticeably from the previous picture of the Gokstad ship as the standard Viking ship. […]. Yet, we must remember that the find material is strongly weighted in the ancient Danish area. There may well have been ships of a different character in the West Norwegian and Uppland Swedish areas. […]

In any case, only long and narrow warships have been found up to now in the ancient Danish area. The classic find is the Ladby ship. This certainly evoked enthusiasm when it was discovered, although the excitement quickly died down when it became obvious how low and narrow the ship was in relation to the Gokstad standard. The publication of this find came close to judging the ship useless as a sailing vessel, and this impression was supported by the fact that the excavators had unwittingly dug the ship's top planks away.

The trials with a replica of this ship and its relative, the slightly smaller Skuldelev 5, have shown that these were very suitable as amphibious craft for warfare in Danish waters.The vessels could hold a crew of 25-35 men. A small vessel of the same ship type has been excavated at the Fotevik blockage in Skåne, while two extremely narrow longships of about 30 m in length, able to hold from 50-60 men, are known to us from Skuldelev and Hedeby.

Despite the similarities between these ships, closer study of them reveals many variations of great interest. The longship from Hedeby was fashioned to the highest standard and built of very long planks, while the Skuldelev 5 ship was originally built partly of recycled materials. At the time this ship was sunk it was quite old and had been repaired long beyond the point at which it was sea-worthy. The two ships must thus represent two widely differing social levels of the 11th century. The Hedeby ship was most probably the private ship of a king or a chieftain, while Skuldelev 5 was a ship for the leidang, a warship built and maintained as a duty to the king by a group of farmers, according to royal command. […]

The Skuldelev 3 ship has undergone extensive archeological experiments in order to analyze its building process and test its sailing qualities. However, one can also go far in calculating a ship's cargo capacity and stability without experimentation, when its dimensions and lines are known (fig 9). We have thus found that the 14 m long Skuldelev ship 3 could load 4,6 tons of cargo at a draught of 0.84 m, corresponding to a freeboard of 40% of the total height amidships. The 2.3 m longer and much sturdier Skuldelev 1 ship could carry 24 tons of cargo at a 40% freeboard, corresponding to a draught of 1.28 m. Since the two ships needed the same minimum crew of five men, it is clear that the Skuldelev 1 ship, with its cargo capacity of 4-5 tons per man, was the most profitable to sail with a relatively heavy and voluminous cargo. The Skuldelev 3 ship's cargo capacity was less than 1 ton per crew member, indicating that this ship transported light-weight, relatively expensive goods or was used for a combination of purposes.[…]

This is even more noticeable when we consider the large merchant ship from Hedeby. Only certain central parts of this ship have been raised from the bottom of the harbour, but these are enough to show that the ship was of the same type as Skuldelev 1. However, it was some 8 m longer, and had about double the cargo capacity of Skuldelev 1. There is thus definite archeological evidence that cargo ships with a capacity of at least 40-50 tons already existed in the late Viking Age.[…]

[…]Finds of parts of large Scandinavian cargo ships from the 12th and 13th centuries at Lynæs and Bergen show that the size of these ships continued to increase. The estimated minimum cargo capacity is 60 tons for the mid-12th century Lynæs ship and over 150 tons for the Bergen ship, which was broken up after a fire in the 1240's.

The often-repeated statement that the Scandinavian Viking ships couldn't really develop into cargo ships and therefore had to yield in favor of the much larger, more economical cog-built ships is thus strikingly inconsistent with the finds.

Scandinavian ship building was more complicated and depended on access to good resources of timbers grown to odd shapes for the frames as well as large high-quality logs that could be split for planks. A tendency toward scarcity can already be seen in the 11th and 12th centuries. This led to the recycling of shipbuilding materials, as can be seen in the Skuldelev 5 and Fotevik 1 ships, as well as in the finds from Fribrødreåen. The size of planks was also reduced over this period — by an average of approximately 1 m in length and 10 cm in width from Skuldelev 3 to Lynaes.[…]

Source: Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, "Ship Types and Sizes AD 800-1400" in Aspects of Maritime Scandinavia AD 200- 1200: Proceedings of the Nordic Seminar on Maritime Aspects of Archaeology, Roskidle, 13th-15th March, 1989, (Århus, Denmark: Kannike Tryk, 1991), 69-82.

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