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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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11th Century

The Viking Ships

The Norse, or Vikings, were known as expert shipbuilders. They used their long, wooden vessels to carry out raids on their European neighbours, and then to travel to Iceland, Greenland and eventually to Newfoundland, establishing colonie  --  like L'Anse Aux Meadows  --  in each place.

Broadly speaking, the Norse used two types of ships. With one they carried out the coastal raids for which they were feared throughout western Europe. These warships were built for speed: long and slender and low in the water. The other type was used for trans-oceanic trading and colonizing expeditions. Built for sea-worthiness, they were broader and deeper, with high gunwales, capable of carrying large cargoes and navigating the stormswept waters of the North Atlantic. Known as knarrs, these were the vessels that brought the Vikings to North America.

Image: Lapstrake boat

Both ship types were constructed of long, overlapping planks of oak built up from a central keel in a style known as clinker-built or lapstrake. The narrow hull tapered fore and aft to a soaring bow and stern and was strengthened on the inside with transverse ribs and rivetted with iron bolts or nails. These sleek, bullet-shaped craft, up to 25 metres long, were propelled by rows of oars on either side, or by a rectangular sail made of woolen cloth. A single steering oar was mounted on the right side at the rear. (The Norse word for rudder was styri and the side to which it was fastened was the styrabord, the origin of today's starboard or right side of a sailing vessel.) The Vikings had no navigational instruments, but found their way at sea by noting familiar landmarks and by observing the behaviour of wind, waves, clouds and sea life.

Graphical element: Viking ship portrayed on medieval tapestry

So important were these vessels to the Vikings that in many instances chieftains and nobles were buried in them, along with personal possessions thought to be necessary for the afterlife. Since the 1880s, archaeologists have located several of the huge gravesites and recovered longships preserved in the clay. A vessel reclaimed from burial at Oseberg, Norway, was built about 820 A.D., making it the oldest sailing vessel ever found in Scandinavia. It was thought to contain the remains of Queen Asa and her female servant, along with a winter sleigh, beds, chests, cooking vessels and tapestries. The Oseberg ship is just one of the vessels at the Viking Ship Museum near Oslo. Replicas of these vessels have been built and successfully sailed across the Atlantic, proving without a doubt that for their time, the Vikings were the most proficient shipbuilders and navigators in Europe.

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