Vikings were known for their ferocity as pirates but are perhaps equally known for the stunning longships they constructed and sailed during the Dark Ages. Their vessels were works of art. Easily recognizable with their sleek design and elegant curvature at each end, they immediately evoked fear in their victims, while also serving as fast and formidable attack vessels. Over the centuries, several longships have been unearthed intact, providing historians and maritime archeologists a proverbial wealth of information about the legendary pirates from the north.
Fit for a King
One of the most famous of the Viking ships was found on a farm belonging to the Gokstad family in Sandar, Norway, in 1880. Legend has it that a large mound on their property, known as the “King's Mound,” was in fact the final resting place of a Viking king. Instead of leaving the tomb in peace, local residents took it upon themselves to start digging into the blue clay, which eventually revealed layers of pristine wood and moss. Rumors of the excavation quickly spread, and Norwegian antiquarian Nicolay Nicolyasen was put in charge of the dig. Within two days, the stern of a Viking karve ship was uncovered.
A medium-size warship, it was brilliantly constructed from a single tree to a finished length of 76 feet. It was also fitted to accommodate over thirty oars and hold over seventy men. Further studies showed that the grave was dug around 900 A.D. and that the ship was built approximately a decade earlier. What made the Gokstad ship unique is that it housed a burial chamber and the skeleton of a man presumed to be a king or Viking chieftain. Viking burial rituals of the day varied, but it was common for the Norse to be interred with their worldly possessions. The mound also contained three smaller boats, one 21 feet in length and a second vessel over 31 feet long.
Pomp and Circumstance
Twenty-four years after the Gokstad ship was unearthed another Viking vessel was discovered, this one even more spectacular in design. Excavated in 1904, what's come to be known as the Oseberg ship was retrieved from a burial mound in Norway's Vestfold county near the town of Tonsberg. Located on the Oseberg farm, it was carefully removed from the turf and blue clay by archeologists Haakon Shetelig and Gabriel Gustafson.
Both the Gokstad and Oseberg ships were meticulously preserved and are on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. The sheer elegance and craftsmanship of the ships, coupled with the items found in the mounds, have given historians a plethora of valuable Viking information that was previously unknown. At the same time, the discovery of the ships gives cause to wonder how Viking pirates could have maintained such ruthlessness yet built something of such exquisite maritime beauty.
The Oseberg vessel was another clinker-style karve ship which was estimated to have been built between 815 and 820 A.D. Amazingly well-preserved, the Oseberg ship is a masterpiece of Viking construction and artistry, an intricately carved ceremonial vessel 71 feet long with a 17 foot beam. Found inside the ship was a burial chamber that contained the remains of two women, likely a Viking woman of high status and her servant.