What are Longships?

In the time of the Northmen, life was harsh. Six months of Sun in the Spring and Summer gave way to six month of dark in the Fall and Winter. Is it any wonder that they were constantly looking for new uninhabited lands? The Northmen used their longships to travel, trade and attack with.

The long ship was a fast, agile ship that took thousands of years to evolve. The ship started out in the Stone Age as a dug-out canoe and was only used for short travels to other villages. This was in about 5000 BC, 7000 years ago! Many of these “dug-out canoes” were found in Denmark. The ancient Northmen made these canoes out of Linden wood. The next level of evolution in this amazing craft still in the Stone Age, was to make holes for the oars, they also used a distinctive northern European construction technique known as lapstrake, a strake being a line of planking. The planks overlapped each other. The added plank improved seaworthiness by increasing the extended dugout’s “freeboard,” the distance between the waterline and the hull’s top. The longship was steered by a huge rudder that looked like a large oar with a long blade. It hung over the side of the starboard quarter of the ship. The actual name was called steuer-board, that is where we got the word starboard!

During the Bronze Age the long ships took on a more “Viking longship” look with tall end post with carvings showing dragons or serpents. Seafaring was in our ancestors’ blood from the beginning of time itself. None of the Northmen’s neighbors had ships with rudders or sails. So Northmen were the first to make ships a productive means of transportation. They took great pride in their ships. They decorated them with beautiful knotwork.

The ships from the Bronze Age on had rowing holes and finally in the Viking Age Sails were used. The oarsmen sat on their sea chests as benches and called the space in between each rowers seat a room. Some ships had 20 to 30 rooms! The sails were made of wool or a combination of linen and wool. They were in either red and white and some were checkered red, blue, green and white. Destination and weather determined whether the oars or sails or both were used. The sails are believed to be the reason that the Vikings were able to attack the Christian Monasteries.

Why are They Called Longships? Do They Have Other Names?

Longships received their name from the long, flat design. Their enemies also called them Dragon ships. They received that name for the ornate dragonheads on the prow. This frightened the superstitious Christians. During The Viking Age, dragon ships attacked churches and monasteries in Western Europe (Britain, Ireland, France and Spain). This was because the Northmen saw many of their European cousins being forcibly converted to Christianity and thought they must stop it. So they used their longships to stage raids on places where Christians had strongholds.

What Did They Look Like?

Longships had a special design that made them strong and swift. The ship had a wide flat base with curved wedge shaped front that sliced through the water. This made longships able to land on any beach and penetrate any waterway in Europe. The Northmen were a powerful force.

Although the Northmen had an advantage over most people with their advanced technology, they usually used their longships for trading and exploring. They traveled as far west as the Americas and as Far East as India and Asia. Everywhere they went they made a difference. Leif Eriksson, also known as Leif the Lucky, traveled to America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. For travel across the ocean the Northmen used what are called knorrs, they were stronger ships than the longships. They used knorrs for cargo, trading and traveling across the oceans.

The Northmen brought back many treasures from their explorations. Ancient statues of Buddah have been found in Norway, as well as Arabic coins and German wines.

Who Went on the Ships on Their Exploration?

On their travels they took many things. They never knew where they would end up, since many had been blown off course on the stormy Atlantic Ocean. They took horses, cows, geese and pigs. They also took their wives, if they had no children. That means longships were much like houses. When they would land in a new place they would bring their whole households on land to live. Many times they would have to stay all winter wherever they landed.

When they went on their voyages, what do you think they did those long days and nights on the longship? Although we can’t be sure, we know that they had to take their animals with them when they landed on shore. They probably spent much of their time taking care of the animals and making sure the stalls and beds were clean. They also had many games they played as well, like Tafl or Chess. They probably practiced their hobbies like weaving or fighting. Perhaps, they just stood out on deck and gazed at the stars or looked at the ocean. Many men were needed to row the large traveling ships, so those whose job it was to row, probably slept when they weren’t rowing! Also they had to eat cold food, only time they ate warm dinner was on shore! Whatever they did, they had a lot of time to do it. Voyages lasted weeks to months. What would you do with all that time? Can you imagine how tough it was on the explorers? Could you do it? I think so, they are us!

The Northmen also used longships for burial. An important person like a King or Queen (or chieftain) would be put in a specially built longship, or a longship that they used for traveling, and burned. Along with the King or Queen, a favorite slave as well as material goods needed for the afterlife, were burned with them. The Northmen used the longship to adventure into the afterlife.

How did they know where they were going?

They used the stars and the sky! Before there were compasses and modern maps there were stars in the sky to guide our ancestors on their journeys. The Northmen used an instrument called a husanotra. This is a stick marked with a series of notches. These notches marked the altitude of the stars above the horizon. If the Northmen knew on what parallel of latitude their destination lay, he would simply sail north or south until reached that parallel. Then he sailed along the parallel to his destination. Another navigation tool they used was to divide the circle of the horizon into eight segments, which were called airts. They laid their courses by them. Finally, they measured distances in doegr, which was the distance a six-oared boat could be rowed during daylight hours. In our terms, it was about 30 miles a day (50 kilometers). Many things affected that distance like ocean currents, and wind.

How Do We Know These Kinds of Ships Exist?

Since around 1751, archeologists have been finding longships in the fjords of Northern Europe. The most spectacular finds were in Gokstad and Osberg in Norway. They were whole ships buried in the ground for burials of heroes and chieftains. In 1935, Danish archeologists excavated a chieftain’s burial mound at Ladby. Only a shadow of the ship remained! This shadow that showed the form of the hull. Iron spirals marked the crest of the dragonhead at the prow. The find even revealed the seven long rows of iron rivets on either side where the planks used to be.

In 1953 at Hedeby Harbor, a rich Norse settlement on the German border, actual planks from a real longship were found. That discovery sparked public interest and a young man named Ole Crumin-Pederson who started looking for and studying longships. His theories on long ships changed how people thought about Vikings and their ships. His dream was to raise the ship in the Hedeby Harbor. He finally did it in 1979; he found out that the ship was built from 300-year-old oak trees. He read the tree rings on the planks, which were 10 yards long! There were no knots or blemishes on the planks! Every ship discovered since 1935, Mr. Pederson has studied. What researchers have found are beautifully intricate knotwork designs and expert craftsmanship in ship design. The longship is the standard that was used to build our modern seafaring ships. Studying ancient shipbuilding has made cross-ocean trading, travel and warfare possible.

Besides Ship Archeology, we know about the ships from long ago by cave drawings showing Northmen traveling and fighting on their dugout canoes and later long hulled ships. These cave drawings show that the Northmen had a connection with the sea from their earliest beginnings till now!

Are These Ships Still Made?

Now we don’t use longships of the Northmen, but from their mastery and design, we have created modern Ocean Liners. Today people make replica Longships and sail them on the same routes as our Northern ancestors. In 1963, Danish Boy scouts built a replica of the Ladby ship. The Ladby ship was for transporting horses, so the boy scouts built and tested its seaworthiness filled with its horse cargo. It was a complete success. The Viking Ship Museum was founded and is the place where replica longships are reconstructed. In the past one hundred years, thirty Northmen’s longships have been reconstructed.

Understanding the contributions of these great seafarers helps us understand how we got here and even who we are. The Northmen live in us now. When you stand by a sea and feel as if you are a part of it, or when you are on a boat and feel at home, that is your Northern Ancestors awakening inside of you. Finally, longships are an important part of world history; the longship forever changed the way people traveled, traded, and warred.

Things to do:

Here is a model Longship that you can print, cut out and build!


Using this work sheet your child can write what they think it would be like to have travelled on a longship.


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