From the mythical sagas of ancient times to the present day, Viking ships have continued to captivate the imagination. Their intricate designs, remarkable craftsmanship, and fearsome reputation make these vessels symbols of power and seafaring prowess. The question that often arises is, “How big were Viking ships?” This article seeks to explore the biggest Viking ship ever built and its fascinating history.
Understanding Viking Ships: The Basics
Viking ships were as varied as the journeys they embarked upon. Whether designed for war, exploration, trade, or burial, each type of ship had a unique design to meet its purpose. The average length of a Viking ship was typically between 17 and 23 meters, with a crew of around 30 to 60 men. However, some vessels were significantly larger.
What Was the Most Feared Viking Ship?
The Viking Age, spanning from the late 8th to the early 11th century, saw the emergence of numerous formidable Viking ships. Each was built with a specific purpose: trade, exploration, or war. Yet, among all these variants, one type of Viking ship inspired more fear than any other—the longship, also known as the ‘Drakkar’ or dragon ship.
Longships were fast, light, and supremely adaptable, able to navigate both the open sea and shallow rivers easily. They were easily recognizable and menacing with their high prow, low draft, and the iconic dragon or serpent head traditionally mounted at the bow. The sight of a dragon ship approaching was enough to strike fear into the hearts of people across Europe.
The larger war-oriented longships, often referred to as Great Ships or “drekar,” were particularly terrifying. These were the most fearsome of all Viking ships, capable of carrying anywhere between 60 to 120 warriors. The most famous of these, known as the Ormen Lange (Long Serpent), was reputed to have 34 rooms for rowers, implying a crew of up to 68 warriors, each equipped with weapons and ready for battle.
The psychological impact of the dragon ship was also significant. The carved dragon or serpent head at the prow was not just a figurehead; it represented the Norse god of the sea, Ægir, a symbol meant to protect the ship and crew but also to intimidate enemies. The mere sight of a dragon ship on the horizon would have been a clear signal of imminent raid or attack, causing panic among those on the receiving end.
But it wasn’t just their fearsome appearance that made these longships so terrifying; it was the reputation of the warriors they carried. The Vikings were known for their brutal, lightning-fast raids, and these ships enabled that warfare. Fast, versatile, and terrifying, the longships were the perfect embodiment of the Viking spirit, and their fearsome reputation continues to resonate in our collective memory today.
What Is the Most Beautiful Viking Ship?
Determining the “most beautiful” Viking ship can be subjective, as it often depends on personal aesthetic preference and one’s appreciation of craftsmanship, history, and design. Yet, one of the most visually striking and historically significant Viking ships is the Oseberg ship.
Discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway, the Oseberg ship dates back to the 9th century. It’s one of the best-preserved Viking ships ever discovered, providing invaluable insights into Viking shipbuilding techniques and decorative art.
What makes the Oseberg ship exceptionally beautiful is its intricate carvings. The ship’s stern and bow are adorned with elaborate animal figures, entwined in what appears to be a serpentine dance, believed to represent scenes from Norse mythology. The ship’s elegantly curved lines and rich ornamentation exhibit the mastery of Viking craftsmanship and their appreciation for aesthetic detail.
Additionally, the Oseberg ship’s historical significance enhances its beauty. It served as a burial vessel for two women, and the grave goods found with it – ranging from wooden carriages to textile equipment – paint a vivid picture of Viking life and death.
The Oseberg ship, now housed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, stands as a testament to the artistic prowess of the Vikings, making it one of the most beautiful Viking ships to grace the annals of history.
How Big Are Viking Long Ships?
Viking longships, often depicted in popular culture as dragon-prowed war vessels, are iconic symbols of the Viking Age. But just how big were these formidable crafts?
Longships varied in size but generally ranged from 17 to 23 meters, approximately the length of two bowling lanes. The width typically spanned about 5 meters across, roughly equivalent to the width of a standard residential two-car garage. Still, these sizes could vary greatly depending on the ship’s intended purpose, with larger vessels built for warfare and smaller ones for trading or exploration.
For instance, the legendary Roskilde 6, unearthed from the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark, stretched a staggering 36 meters in length. Built in the 11th century, it was designed to hold a crew of around 100 men, dwarfing the size of most Viking longships.
The Viking longships were marvels of naval engineering, able to navigate both open oceans and shallow rivers. Their slender, clinker-built design (overlapping planks of timber) allowed for speed, flexibility, and sturdiness, while their shallow draft made it possible to beach them swiftly during raids. Despite their size, they were light enough to be carried over land and versatile enough to withstand the rough conditions of the North Atlantic.
Therefore, the size of Viking longships varied but was impressive by any period’s standards, demonstrating the Vikings’ superior seafaring and shipbuilding skills.
The Biggest Viking Fishing Boat at the Glance
Viking culture was closely tied to the sea, and they built various types of vessels to suit their needs, from grand longships for exploration and warfare to smaller boats for fishing and everyday transport. The Knarr is the type of ship typically associated with fishing and trade due to its cargo capacity and robustness in harsh sea conditions.
Knarr ships were shorter and broader than the longships, with a length of around 16-18 meters, and could carry up to 24 tons of cargo. While their size is modest compared to the imposing longships, they were invaluable to the Viking communities that depended on the sea for sustenance and livelihood.
A spectacular example of a preserved Knarr can be seen in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, the Tune ship. Discovered in a burial mound near Tune, Norway, it dates back to around 900 AD. With a length of approximately 18.7 meters, it is one of the largest preserved Knarr vessels.
These ships were adept at handling the demanding North Atlantic, being seaworthy and able to sail upwind. Their sturdy construction and relatively high freeboard made them suitable for the open ocean, allowing the Vikings to venture far out at sea for fishing. They served a dual purpose as fishing and cargo ships, often used for trading journeys, and carrying goods such as timber, dried fish, and livestock.
Although Knarrs may not be as glamorous as their warship counterparts, their value to the Vikings was immense. They were the workhorses of the sea, facilitating not only the day-to-day survival of Viking communities but also contributing significantly to their economic prosperity and maritime expansion.
The Roskilde 6: The Largest Viking Ship Unearthed
Discovered in the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark during an excavation in 1996-97, the Roskilde 6 currently holds the title of the largest Viking ship ever unearthed. Its length is a staggering 36 meters, nearly the length of a basketball court, and significantly larger than the average Viking longship.
Dated to the 11th century, the Roskilde 6 was constructed from mighty oak trees. It’s believed it would have carried a crew of around 100 men, a testament to its considerable size. Despite its grandeur, the ship met a less-than-glorious fate. It was deliberately sunk to block a navigational channel, a common defensive strategy in the Viking era.
The Sea Stallion From Glendalough: The Biggest Viking Ship Replica
Built as a reconstruction of the Skuldelev 2, another ship found at Roskilde, the Sea Stallion from Glendalough holds the title of the largest Viking ship replica. Measuring 30 meters in length, the Sea Stallion was meticulously reconstructed using traditional Viking methods and materials, providing insights into the immense skill involved in Viking shipbuilding.
Launched in 2004, the Sea Stallion has completed several voyages, including a journey from Roskilde to Dublin in 2007-2008, replicating the routes of the original Viking mariners. It showcases not only the physical size of these ships but their far-reaching impact on exploration and cultural exchange during the Viking Age.
Viking Ships Today: The Draken Harald Hårfagre
The Viking influence is not confined to historical relics and replicas but continues inspiring contemporary shipbuilding. The Draken Harald Hårfagre, named after the first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair, is a modern-day tribute to the grandeur of Viking shipbuilding. Constructed in Norway and launched in 2012, this ship is the largest Viking ship built in modern times.
The Draken Harald Hårfagre measures 35 meters long, with a mast standing 24 meters tall. It set sail on its maiden voyage across the North Atlantic in 2016, replicating the journey of the Viking explorers. Its ventures even brought it to the shores of New York City, earning the ship a fond nickname, “Viking Ship NYC,” due to the city’s enthusiastic reception.
How Viking Ships Compare to The Largest Ship in History
Comparatively, Viking ships may seem small, especially when one considers the largest ship in history, the Seawise Giant (later renamed the Knock Nevis). An oil tanker stretching 458.5 meters dwarfs the largest Viking ship, demonstrating how maritime technology has progressed over the centuries.
At the same time, it’s crucial to remember that the size of a ship does not necessarily equate to its significance. The Viking vessels, though not the largest in the history of shipbuilding, played a pivotal role in shaping the course of history. They were tools of exploration, warfare, and trade that enabled the Vikings to reach far-flung territories, from North America to the Middle East, leaving a lasting impact on the world.
So, while the Viking ships may not hold the title of the largest ships in history, their influence remains indisputable. Their sophisticated design, combined with the adventurous spirit of their Viking mariners, facilitated the exploration and colonization of new lands, the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the propagation of legends that continue to enthrall us to this day.