When one hears the word "Viking", one often imagines longships pulling up to a rainy beach, followed by men in iron helmets rushing over-board, brandishing axes ready to slaughter and pillage. The "Viking Longship" - as it is most commonly referred to - is synonymous with images of both coastal-carnage and ocean exploration. It was in these longships that the Scandinavian traders and raiders dominated the North Sea area (and beyond) from as early as the 7th century onward, before the rest of the world caught up with them, both technologically and geographically.
But where did this persevering ship design come from? What is it's origin? Is it right to colloquially refer to them all as "Longships"? And how did they lose their dominance?
I've always been interested in this topic, though not to a scholarly extent, so I felt a blog-post with zero citations (and 3 diagrams, drawn by yours truly), was appropriate. Perhaps this can form the foundation for a more in-depth research project later on. However, currently, it's just a bit of a hobby. I've read a lot about Vikings and their sea-faring habits, and have identified a number of different "longship" types, all with their own names. That will form the second half of this post, but first;
A Chronology Of Longships
Picture stones on the Baltic island of Gotland had been depicting long rowed vessels for millenia before the Viking Age even began. Bronze Age Scandinavia was part of a wider trade network, stretching through central Europe, Slovenia, and Germany, and then onwards into The Meditteranean (and thus Africa and East Asia). This trade network was extensive, and such wide ranging exports (Baltic amber, mainly, and likely antler goods from the Arctic Circle) would have been most definitely transported via raft and sea-vessel, among other things. Archaeologically, the earliest "longship" discovered is the Hjortspring boat, dated to 400-300 BC, buried/submerged in a bog, likely as part of a warrior ceremony (other grave goods include weapons and such). This method of boat-internment is shared by the later Nydam boat (400-500 AD), widely viewed as the "prototype" of traditional Viking longships. Longships are largely defined by three factors; they are clinker-built (overlapping wooden planks connected via iron/wood rivets), an arched stem (the base of the boat and deepest portion), and a wide, usually low-down deck, which widens outward from the stem. Later longships bore sails, likely starting with the Kvalsund boat (690-800 AD), though this is not yet proven. A later vessel, and the first archaeological evidence of Scandinavian military activity before the Viking Age, is Salme I (700 AD), which may have also had a sail. Conclusively, it is the Oseberg ship (830 AD) that contains our first evidence of a sail, but they were almost definitely used before this point.
So what we have here is a journey from thin hide covered-longships, rowed amongst swamps and coastal inlets, to clinker-built vessels capable of bearing a greater marine strain, and then finally a later edition complete with sails and rigging. Arguably, it is the keel that allowed Vikings to penetrate as wide as they did - longships are unique in being so flat and light that they can traverse both the deep sea and shallow rivers, unlike their contemporaries. Without the keel, there may have been no Viking Age - but what about the sail? The Kvalsund boat, though not discovered with a sail, is certainly wide enough to accomodate the necessary rigging and mast, along with an associated crew. It is likely, then, that at a certain point prior to the Viking Age sails became commonplace, and thus maritime trade increased tenfold.
Where are we now? Around 800 AD, the "start" of the "Viking Age". What's that on the horizon? Longships? Possibly. Let's have a look.
Types Of Longships
From reading a good deal about the Greenland settlements, the Faroe Islands, and then general lectures about Viking Age Scandinavia (courtesy of Steve Ashby) and the overall period, there's a few different "classes" of longship available to us right off the bat. While I won't claim to be an expert on the topic at all, I have not seen much in the way of literature attempting to bracket these different vessels into specific type. I guess the reason is to not restrict future academics, but seeing as this is just an informal blog-post I have no qualms with doing the following.
Here are three broad categories in which I have fitted all mentions of differing longship types from contemporary and later documents, along with the available archaeological evidence from the earlier vessels I mentioned, and others unmentioned. Boat types I did not include are ones that, while similar to longships, are conclusively not from the Viking Age nor made by Scandinavian technology. For example, the Germanic cyul, which famously brought Jutish migrants over to England during the post-Roman period, does not count, despite being a likely progenitor of some later longship technology. Likewise, the only other 8th century vessel to dominate the North Sea, the Frisian kogge, is not included, despite being very similar to a longship from a side profile.
Anyway, let's dig in;
Military; the Drakkar, the Busse, the Snekkja, the Monoxyla, and the Skeid. (+the Barde and Storskip).
Subsistence; the Karvi, the Faering/Sexaering, the Tristur, the Ness Yole, and the Sud.
Mercantile; the Knarr, the Knorrir (possibly the same thing), and the Byrding.
Of course, what I'm definitely not saying is that there was no overlap between these boat types. Ragnar Ragnarsson may have, for example, hunted for whales in a drakkar, and then raided a small farmstead in a knarr, but from their general shape and mentions in contemporary texts, its clear that at least some of these vessels were best designed for some things and not others.
So without further ado, please allow me to briefly describe each of the aforementioned ship types, along with a (hopefully) helpful selection of diagrams from yours truly, demonstrating their differences. Like with this whole article, I won't claim that this is at-all academically sound or 100% accurate. All of this information is from memory, mostly from academic papers I have read over several months. The diagram only contains a general depiction of scale, and is best used to represent differences in shape and scope (I'll probably also expand on the drawing and post it on Instagram @beastpaint at a later date).