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by Stan Roberts - Cedar Park, Texas - USA

The Early Voyagers - Viking

Viking Discoveries in the North Atlantic

Scandinavian contact with the rest of Europe has been traced back several thousand years, although travel was limited to a relatively few traders and roamers. In general, the European continent considered Scandinavia distant and unimportant. Starting in 793 AD with the attack on Lindisfarne, England Vikings in fast longships unleashed a series of raids on their neighbors, reaching as far south as the Mediterranean and east to the Baltic Sea. The classic Viking warship used on these raiding trips was a long narrow lapstrake hull, designed for speed with a shallow draft that allowed it to travel far up rivers, yet still capable of making a sea passage.

The Sea Stallion replica Viking longship. It is 98 ft in length and 12 ft. beam, crafted from 300 oak trees with 7,000 iron nails and rivets. It has a top speed of 15 to 20 knots

The Viking longship had no rivals during its time, it could easily outrun anything on the sea and carry enough warriors aboard to fight and take any vessel sighted. Little has been written about the Viking vessels used primarily for trade and colonization. A Viking merchant vessel, the Knarr, was shorter and carried more beam than the warships. Both designs were primarily open boats with no cabin but the Knarr was occasionally built with a fore and aft raised deck. While the warship carried a large crew of fighter/oarsmen and was rowed often, the Knarr typically carried a small crew who likely took to the oars only when sailing was impossible or inconvenient.

Viking replica Knarr “Snorri”
length - 54 ft                         
Beam: - 15 ft, 9 in
Weight empty:12 tons
Ballast: 13 tons of rock
Depth: 6 feet
Keel - white oak
Framing - red and white oak, hackmatack, pine
Planking - Long-leaf yellow pine
Fastening - Wrought iron rivets, willow treenails

Sail: 1,000 sq ft, 35-ft-high canvas

Snorri is based on a ship excavated from the Skuldeley Channel near Roskilde, Denmark in the 1960s. It was one of six ships that had been sunk in the channel about 1000 A. D. to prevent enemy Viking ships from Norway from entering the harbor. It was the first ocean-going Viking merchant ship discovered. The replica is named for the first European child born in the New World.

This link tells the very interesting details of the construction of the replica Knarr Snorri.

The Knarr, also known as a knorr, or knörr, had more freeboard along with increased beam so was more suitable for carrying large cargoes and ocean passages. Like the longship, the knarr was constructed from oak or pine using the clinker method. This method involved using long thin planks which were split from logs, not sawn, as the Vikings did not use the bow saw. The planks were smoothed with an axe and adze and fastened with nails to a single keel, with each plank overlapping the next. Floor timbers were then attached to the T shaped keel and a deck added. The knarr had a rectangular sail on a mast which was permanently fixed (unlike the mast of the longship) and, because it was such a robust and steady ship, was ideal for the longer trade and exploration voyages on which the Vikings embarked from the tenth century onwards.

Much more is known about Viking ships and their construction than most other types of watercraft used in this period due to their habit of burying chieftains and nobles in a ship with all the sailing hardware.

Most of the ships have rotted away leaving only a line of iron rust spots to mark the hull but some, like the Gokstad ship (built around 890 AD), were nearly totally preserved. The clay soil of its burial site allowed good analysis of the construction details. The ribs on the Gokstad ship were lashed to the strakes using woven straps called withies, other shipwrights used the baleen fiber from a whale's jaw. By the time of the Greenland settlement in 986 AD, the ribs were held by wooden pegs, or trunnels (tree-nails). Trunnels were used for ribs and iron rivets for planks since trunnels are more flexible, whereas the iron might snap when the ship's hull flexed. Viking replica sailors have noted how the hulls move in a seaway, much more than a modern ship. A juniper branch with resin was preferred for making a naturally rot resistant trunnel. The Viking ship could never have been invented in a land without forests since they preferred to use natural branch shapes for various parts which meant the shipwrights spent a lot of time searching for the right wood. They used oak, pine, spruce, larch, and juniper in the construction.

Does not enlarge

An example of ribs lashed with withies

The 76.5 ft. Gokstad ship has a keel made from a single oak log, almost 58 feet long and carved into a T shape. From the keel up to the gunwale are sixteen long oak strakes, each made of several carefully joined boards. The boards were selected from trees with a slight bend so that the grain follows the curve of the hull. Twelve of the strakes are exactly one inch thick, the waterline strake is 1.75 inch, the oar port strake is 1.250, and the two top strakes are .75 inch thick. The gunwale is almost a 4 x 4.

Another strake is wedged in place ready to be permanently roved onto the emerging ship.

In the later style ships, the reliance on huge timbers to support the mast was replaced by rigging and lateral struts. Viking sails were made of wool or linen, by women using hand spinning and weaving.

The Vikings raided many countries, occupied some of the conquered territories, and sometimes they followed with colonization. At one time, the Vikings controlled large areas of what are now Scotland, Ireland and England, along with holding territory in France, Russia and elsewhere. The Vikings established colonies on the Orkney, Faroe, and Hebrides Iislands as well as Iceland and Greenland. York, England and Dublin, Ireland were important trading areas. In the beginning of this expansion period, looting and plundering was high on the Vikings' to-do lists. Later they began to take more notice of fertile fields, trees for building, pastures for grazing, and good locations for commerce. They settled - and left their lasting mark on European language, law and custom.

Places unaccustomed to regular visits from traders - and willing to pay a premium - became regular trade routes for Vikings abroad. Viking traders exported the raw materials of the North - timber, amber and iron, skins and furs, walrus ivory and soapstone. Timber for houses and European goods were sold to settlers in Iceland and Greenland. The trade in slaves flourished everywhere. Manufactured goods purchased in Europe were resold for profit back home in Scandinavia. Glass and pottery came in from Germany, wine from France and Spain, woolens and tin from the British Isles. Another important import was silver, thousands of Arabic coins have been found in Viking excavations. The coins were valued not as currency, but for the silver they contained. Viking traders "made change" by cutting silver coins into smaller bits, called "hack silver."

When archaeologists have excavated Viking sites, they find evidence of far-ranging trade connections. Cowrie shells from the Persian Gulf have been discovered in England, and silks cut from the same bale of cloth have been found at locations many miles apart. Due to their skill as boatbuilders and navigators, the Vikings had a big advantage as traders. The shallow-draught boats they built were equally at home on open water and inland waterways, allowing overseas journeys to be extended far inland.

Scandinavian countries seem to have used "spheres of influence" in both their raiding and trade. Vikings from Denmark worked the coastlines of France and Spain, or followed the Rhine and Seine rivers into the heartland of Europe. Norwegian Vikings focused their activities on the British Isles and the North Atlantic. Swedish Vikings turned east, toward Russia.

Westward emigrants were mostly Norwegians seeking new farmland, followed soon after by traders seeking to expand their customer base. The first significant body of land to the west was Iceland. It was first sighted and explored by Gardar Svarasson who was sailing to the Hebrides from Denmark when he hit a storm at Pentland Firth. This storm pushed his ship far to the north until he reached the eastern coast of Iceland. He circumnavigated the island and established that it was an island before building a house and wintering over at Skjalfandi. When the Viking colonists arrived in Iceland about 860 AD they found a number of Irish hermit monks that had arrived first. These religious men had drifted west in little coracles, literally casting their fate to the winds with no sail or oars, confident that their Christian God would land them someplace where they could be alone. The Vikings decided they wanted to be alone also and threw the priests off a cliff.

Around 930 AD, another storm-driven sailor returned to Iceland to report that he had seen more land to the west, mostly rock and ice. The Viking ships typically ran before the wind in a bad storm and were blown off course so often they had a descriptive word " hafvilla", meaning bewildered by the sea. Not having either compass or chronometer for navigation it is interesting that the Vikings routinely made long sea voyages, especially in the northern latitudes where overcast skies and fog were common. The Ocean of Dark is the name Adam of Bremen, writing in 1070, gave the seas around Greenland. That "numbing oceans dark mist, which could hardly be penetrated with the eye, the darksome bounds of a failing world".

Icelanders pretty much ignored the discovery of Greenland until Erik the Red came along. Early Icelandic history is written in forty or so medieval sagas which tell of the Viking Age between 870 and 1030 AD. The sagas suggest that Erik was a foul-tempered guy who didn't mind an occasional bar brawl along with chopping a neighbor or two. Eventually he was asked to leave the island in order to restore peace, so he loaded up his ship and set off to find the land that had been sighted earlier. Erik found Greenland with little trouble and as he followed the coast south and west, the climate grew warmer and the land greener. He chose to settle on the southern tip of the huge island, and called the settlement Brattahlid. In a clever public relations move, Erik called the island Greenland, probably thinking that a pretty name would be more likely to lure new settlers.

The sagas, supported by archeological evidence, indicate the Vikings made regular long sea passages between the Scandinavian mainland and the numerous colonies established by the Norse over periods of hundreds of years. One text from a manuscript written by an Icelander who traveled frequently to Norway in the 1300s describes the voyage from Hennoya, north of Bergen, to Hvarf, the southernmost tip of Greenland. "Hvarf is reached by sailing due west from Hennoya in Norway, and then one will have sailed to the north of Shetland so that it can only be seen if there is good visibility at sea, and to the south of the Faroes, so that the sea is halfway up the slopes, and to the south of Iceland so that they can see its birds and whales". Polaris the north star was called "the leading star" by the Vikings, who likely used Polaris and other stars for navigation when possible. The low northern sun was the Vikings' only clock and at sea the height of the noon sun and length of the day told the latitude, how far north or south they had drifted. A Viking could have used his clenched fist held at arm's length to measure the sun's height. A clenched fist with thumb raised is about 15 degrees of latitude, the thumb represents 7 degrees and each finger 2 degrees. Comparing this reading to the sun elevation at home at noon would give a "fair" indication of the latitude.

Twenty four boatloads of settlers set out from Iceland in the summer of 986 to colonize Greenland. Only 14 made it, the others having been forced back to port or lost at sea. More followed in the hopes of finding good land and making a better life for themselves. Under the leadership of red-bearded Erik the colonists developed a little bit of Europe just a few hundred miles from North America, a full 500 years before Columbus set foot on the continent. They established dairy and sheep farms throughout the unglaciated areas of the south and eventually built churches, a monastery, a nunnery, and a cathedral boasting an imported bronze bell and greenish tinted glass windows. From the number of farms in both colonies, whose 400 or so stone ruins still dot the landscape, archaeologists guess that the population may have risen to a peak of about 5,000. Trading with Norway, the Greenlanders exchanged live falcons, polar bear skins, narwahl tusks, and walrus ivory and hides for timber, iron, tools, and other essentials, as well luxuries such as raisins, nuts, and wine.

Viking settlements in Greenland

At some point in the early years of Erik's settlement another Viking, Bjarni Herjolfsson, discovered a new land. Bjarni is believed to have been the first European to see North America. The Greenlanders Saga tells that one year he sailed from Norway to Iceland to visit his parents as usual, and discovered that his father had gone to Greenland with Erik the Red. Bjarni decided to follow and was blown off course by a storm, finally sighting a land to the southwest that was covered with trees and mountains. His crew begged him to land but he refused and so missed a great opportunity for fame. He regained his course to Greenland and saw low lying hills covered with forests some distance farther to the west, and noted that this land also looked hospitable. Eventually arriving in Greenland and reuniting with his father, he reported his findings. Sometime later his father died and Bjarni eventually returned to Norway.

According to the sagas Leif, son of Erik the Red, bought Bjarni's ship and made an expedition to explore this new found land. Leif spent a year exploring what he called Vinland (Land of Grapes) as the first Norseman to set foot in the New World. In Greenlanders' Saga, Leif Eriksson builds several houses in Vinland and calls the camp Leifsbudir, and all the subsequent voyagers use this same location. In The Saga of Erik the Red, two settlements are mentioned, one in the northern part of Vinland called Straumfjord, and one in a more southerly location called Hóp. If there were a number of settlements, then Vinland was a region, not a specific settlement. On the return trip with a ship full of timber and wine grapes, Leif spotted a recent wreck on a reef within sight of the ice cap of Greenland. After approaching as close as possible he sent in the towboat to the wreck. He rescued fifteen people and as much of their baggage as he could fit into his already laden ship. Before leaving, Erik's crew secured the wreck to the reef so that a return trip might salvage as much as possible. Gudridur Thorbjarnarsdottír and husband were among the survivors who had been on a passage from Norway with a load of house timbers for Greenland. The survivors spent the winter in Greenland where the entire party died, except for Gudrid, who later became one of the most famous of Viking women. Medieval women typically did not travel far from home but Gudrid was a big exception in that she crossed the North Atlantic eight times in her travels from Canada to Rome.

She later married an Icelandic merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni and together they made an expedition to Vinland. It was Gudrid who gave birth to Snorri, the first recorded European child born in the New World. They stayed for three years in the New World and found salmon, halibut, tall trees and lush grasslands, wine grapes and a grain like wheat. They saw islands full of eider ducks, bears, foxes, mountains , fjords with fierce currents, and wide tidal lagoons. They met natives whose language they could not understand and who had never seen an axe or a bull. The expedition reported that the natives were delighted at the taste of milk and traded piles of fur for pieces of red cloth. They also mentioned that the natives' numbers were overwhelming in battle.

Viking homes built in Iceland, Greenland and Vinland were typically turf houses, using wood interior framing and panels. Some churches and larger homes of chieftains were built partly or completely of stone with turf roof.

Typical Viking turf houses

Freydis, the daughter of Erik the Red, was another Viking woman notable for her seafaring exploits. Freydis led a commercial voyage to Vinland around 1010 A. D. The plan was to gather timber and sell it to the settlers back home in treeless Greenland. But when disagreements broke out during the long winter in Vinland, Freydis picked up a battle-axe and murdered her business partners. To quote the Greenlanders Saga, "... after that no one thought anything but ill of her..." Leif Erikson, on the other hand was responsible for bringing Christianity to Greenland.

After his trip to Vinland Leif made a trading voyage to Norway where King Olaf 1 converted him to Christianity and found a priest to return to Greenland with Leif. Ultimately, most of the settlers converted and a bishop was assigned to Greenland in 1126. At least five churches in Norse Greenland are known from archeological remains. In 1261, the population accepted the control of the Norwegian King as well, although it continued to have its own law. After initially thriving, the Norse settlements declined in the 14th century as the weather slowly became colder. The Western Settlement in Greenland was abandoned around 1350. In 1378, there was no longer a bishop at Garðar in the Eastern Settlement. The last written record was of a marriage in 1408. The Danish Cartographer Claudius Clavus may have visited Greenland in 1420. Documents written by Nicolas Germanus and Henricus Martellus who had access to original cartographic notes and map by Clavus mention this voyage.

There are only two pieces of historical information about Vinland. One report of a land beyond Greenland where wild grapes and wheat grew was recorded by Adam of Bremen in 1075 AD, based on information he received from Svein Ulfsson (also called Estridsson), king of Denmark, in 1068 or 1069. Vinland also appears in The Book of the Icelanders, the first written history of Iceland, compiled by Ari the Wise between AD 1122 and 1133. Ari also tells that Erik the Red had found human habitation remains in Greenland that indicated the presence of people similar to the skraelings met in Vinland. Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad were searching in 1960 for evidence of Vikings in Labrador and Newfoundland. During a visit to the small village of L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland they met a fisherman named George Decker who showed them sod foundations that had the shape of Viking longhouses. More than a decade of archeological investigation at this site has proved that Vikings had built a settlement in North America 500 years before Columbus, just as the sagas say. The evidence at the site also suggests that more southerly voyages might have taken place, and that other settlements might be found. Archeologists believe L'Anse aux Meadows was a base camp which afforded a way-station to further explorations of North America. "From 1961 until 1968, the Ingstad excavations uncovered Viking artifacts including a ringed pin, a soapstone spindle whorl, a bone pin, a whetstone, iron boat rivets, worked wood and other objects. Evidence of iron-smelting and forging were found, and hearth charcoal was dated to AD 1000. The style and construction of the three longhouses and outbuildings are identical to those of 11th century Iceland and Greenland. The artifacts discovered indicated weaving and iron-working, activities which were not practiced by Native Americans at that time. These finds confirm L'Anse aux Meadows as the earliest European settlement yet known in North America. Later excavations by Bengt Schoenbak and Birgitta Wallace for Parks Canada revealed more about the purpose of this settlement and the type of activities that took place here. Their work produced more evidence of wood-working and iron-smelting, suggesting that the main activity at the site was repairing damaged vessels or constructing new ones using wood from the nearby forests. Butternuts and worked pieces of butternut wood, a tree that was not native to Newfoundland but was present one thousand years ago in northern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, were also found. This discovery indicates that the people who lived at L'Anse aux Meadows had traveled further south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and had brought back nuts and wood native to those southern areas. This is also what was described in the sagas. These finds suggest that the L'Anse aux Meadows site was a base-camp to the lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is likely the Vinland of the sagas."

Vinland Archaeology

Overhead view of the reconstructed Viking settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

Several examples of Viking writing have been found carved on stones in the United States, most notably the Kensington runestone in Minnesota and the Heavener Stone in Oklahoma. The "Kensington Runestone" is a slab of gray stone, measuring 36 inches long, 16 inches wide, and 6 inches thick. It has runic writing along the face of the stone and along one edge. The stone was found in November of 1898 by a Minnesota farmer named Olaf Ohman while a digging up a poplar tree stump on the southern slope of a 50-foot high knoll. The stone was buried face down about six inches below the surface, with the tree roots wrapped around it. Mr. Ohman and his sons saw the runic letters but did not know what they were. Unfortunately, the stone was not left in place, so they were unable to demonstrate its obvious age from the growth pattern of the tree. The stone was sent to the University of Minnesota and then to Chicago. It was was studied by runic scholars, who interpreted the inscription to be an account of Norse explorers in the 14th Century. It is known King Magnus of Sweden sent a party to Greenland in 1355. They never returned. It is very possible that these men were from that party. The stone bears the date of 1362. The transliteration of the text is generally accepted as:

"Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on a journey of exploration from Vinland very far west. We had camp by 2 rocky islands one day's journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM [Ave Maria] save us from evil."

The inscription along the edge of the stone says:

"Have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 days' journey from this island. Year 1362."


The Far Traveler- Voyages of a Viking Woman
by Nancy M. Brown
Wikipedia - The Vikings, and History of Greenland
Viking Voyage 1000 by Doug Cabot
Regia Anglorum - Viking Ship Construction

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