By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Scientists located an underground Viking site, including a ship, The Art Newspaper reported. It was detected with ground-penetrating SONAR technology and is said to have belonged to “Iron Age elites” of society. Vikings revolutionized shipbuilding in the 8th century CE.
According to The Art Newspaper, an archaeological discovery in Norway will soon lead to an exciting excavation. “Beneath some unsuspecting Norwegian farmland, a 1,000-year-old Viking site consisting of several burial mounds, the remnants of a ship, a large feasting hall, and a cult house have been discovered by archaeologists in Ostfold County, Norway,” the article said.
“Ship burials were not an unusual way for Vikings to transition to the afterlife and were seen as a way to honor their heritage.”
Vikings are historically known for their seafaring ways, but none of it would have been possible without some revolutionary nautical ideas that came about in the 8th century CE.
The Keel Debuts
Scandinavian shipbuilding dates back to the Neolithic Age, “between 4000 and 2300 BCE,” according to Dr. Kenneth W. Harl, Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans. However, the Vikings’ nautical endeavors came into their own far later.
“Somewhere in the 8th century a keel, that is, a backbone to a ship, becomes a major feature in Scandinavian ship construction, and that is the first important breakthrough,” Dr. Harl said. “That keel allows the Scandinavians to begin to construct ships that could really negotiate the sea and the open waters.
“Once you have a keel, you could set in a foundation on that keel—a keelson, as it’s often called—this huge base where you can attach a large mast which will give you an enormous area for sail, and that will give you propulsion, especially out at sea, that previous vessels could not have.”
Dr. Harl said that the implementation of the keel and the keelson allowed the Scandinavians to build the well-known longships and cargo vessels for which the Viking Age is known. For example, one such excavated ship, known as the Gokstad ship, was 75 feet long and featured a keel and keelson capable of supporting a mast nearly 45 feet high. That mast likely carried a sail as large as 825 square feet.
If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a wooden ship may only be as strong as its weakest plank. Fortunately, the Vikings used very good materials for their ships.
“The other important feature about these ships is that they were built from the existing hardwoods in Scandinavia, particularly oak,” Dr. Harl said. “That’s one reason why Denmark was so important in the Viking Age: Denmark had some of the prime oak forests, and the oak was ideal for masts, keels, ribs, and planks.”
Nordic shipbuilding was a process of trial and error. By the end of the 8th century, though, it was common practice to find an oak tree of the proper length, chop it down, and manufacture a keel from its trunk. Its largest branches often became the ribs and cross sections of the ship and they would use the natural curvature of the lumber to build various parts of the ship.
“They were very, very cleverly adapting the materials to the construction of the ship,” Dr. Harl said. “They also built these ships from rather green and unseasoned timber, and that was to retain the flexibility so that the Viking vessels almost bent with the waves.”
Innovations like these helped the Vikings master the seas, establishing trade routes and conquering lands along the way. It’s no surprise that ship burials were as common as they were.
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl contributed to this article. Dr. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his BA from Trinity College and his MA and PhD from Yale University.