Nordic ship builders

Nordic ship builders

Nordic climate is and soil eats most of the wooden remains from the real Wood Age. So we have no evidence of build ships, however we have many thousand ships of different types sailing on our rocks. Saurely Nordic traders need ships to go to Cornwall for tin

Viking thumb rules, Snorre Sturlason, flock, village, journey, hird, folk, folkland, early shipbuilders, Valderøy ship, Ferriby ship, world's oldest boat, Hjortspring, clink-build, sewn boards, tap-hole, resin cake, cat, hen, catch octopus, traders

|Ritual boats | Mediterranean type | Ship builders | Cultural cargo | BA dresses |Cadmus the Trader | Indus in Idaho |Indus symbols | Sumerian round | Egyptian calendar | indexBR | home |ship files upgraded October 03

Thumb-rules of Vikings

To get the proportions of those days we have to look at known data from 1000 - 1300 AD. Snorre Sturlasson the Icelandic early writer tells us a lot. In Advice to Poets verse 66 he tells that 5 men is a flock, 6 is a suite, 7 is a village (furnishing a boat). Maybe they counted 6 men on the steering oars and one with the oar. Later in Sweden the village or socken became 10 farms building a church according to the law.

The double number 14 was a journey and then maybe meaning 6 men in pair at the oars, one at the steering oar and one as look-out. In the boat-team they were all equal maybe it is significant that there is no difference in the word law and team in Scandinavian. In Swedish "lag and lag" and in Danish "lav and lav" pronounced "law". Later units were surely meant as military units with ships of the size for 24 and 36 men and a significant name was "Long Worm"

Snorre Sturlasson told that this size was normal for travel and one or two settlement could furnish such a boat. They could take about 50 ton as cargo and rowing speed lies between 40 and 60 miles a day, I think. In the Indian Ocean they still say with the same type of vessels with triangular sails they have used for thousands of years.

In the hird (court) of Olaf the Holly there were 64 noble men, but the normal was 40. The Danish king Nils was not popular since he kept only 7 in his suite. That about nobility and the sailing people whether it was in trade or other affairs. A folk (fylke) was 50 (adults) and an army was 100 men for instance in 1275 AD the usurpator duke Magnus hired 100 Danish knight in harness and fought king Valdemar's army counting mostly peasants.

With this in mind we can look at the big ships in the rock-carvings and ask if they were real. That is why I suppose some of theme has been counting the population and other are maybe time-counting and periods of time.

The province laws tell about 16 weeks season for sailing. The principle may be very old. Perhaps the folkland furnished a big ship for tour and it was managed in common. Fellowship is an old concept in the Anglo-Scandinavian world.

The runic stones in West Gautland and on Jutland tell about companions from both landscapes with similar stones in both places. The law of Magnus Lagabauter 1271 state how much supplies were needed for a month. The entire farming at least on the king's farms were calculated in this way. Here on Dal they follow the thumb rules too, which meant how much they should sow for a normal family. The rulers may differ a little between landscapes but surely we can see it as the praxis.

What use would Scandinavian sailors have of a ram?

Rock-carvings from the Vestland in Norway

These small pictures show that they were thinking about making the Lister and Rogaland boat. On the perhaps symbolised ships we see often ribs and may presume they show the construction. In the above example we can be surer that they thought about ribs and about boards. The question is when did they begin to make boards?

In our wet climate few time of wood and organic material are spared to our time. Some paddle and piece of wood is the only things with an age of around 10000 years such as the paddle from Duvense and a younger find from Ertebølle 4700 BC ... but the underwater archaeology in Danish waters maybe will bring new evidence in this time span.

The find of the Valderøy ship Sunmøre Norway are from 1300 BC and tell a little out their technique. The boat has been clink-build with sewn boards and tap-holes. The tightening was surely made of bog moss and resin.

In this case the interest is about boats suitable for the North Sea and Atlantic. We know that at least the Danes bartered with the British to get tin and maybe copper. We also know that there was maybe a gold trade from Ireland to Norfolk. They usually mention amber, as bartering goods but the finds seems to be few. But the variety of goods was probably much bigger than we can imagine and it is better not to speculate. The size of the ships and the Scandinavian rock carvings tell about the wide trade.

One of the Ferriby boats reconstructed

Then another find of interest is three Ferriby ships from North Ferriby, Yorkshire. The first find made by 13 year old Ted Wright in 1937 but another in 1963 is the oldest. It is 52 ft long made from huge oak planks sewn together with twisted yew branches. It had room for 18 paddlers and possibly a mast. Observe that this was seemingly made as a ferry over the river Humber. High sea canoes maybe were made differently.

New dating techniques have revealed that ancient timber for the plank boat of 1963 is the oldest plank found in Western Europe. Similar boats may have carried stone slabs from Wales to England during the construction of Stonehenge. The 1963 boat has been dated to 2030 BC-1780 BC, with the most likely date 1900 BC. The others are a few hundred years later.

After I wrote that there have been new find and dating showing that we have to be careful in announce "oldest in the world". Now a British team has found the "worlds oldest boat" as bitumen pieces, dating from 5,000 BC, are indented on one side by impressions of reeds and encrusted with barnacles on the other. The team, led by Robert Carter, from University College London, made the discovery while unearthing a Neolithic human settlement at Subiya, on the northern shore of Kuwait Bay, at the top of the Gulf. The find indicates that they made boats suitable for the Indian Ocean at that time. Now we have a suitable very far date for "the oldest"

In my childhood without TV there was somewhat romantic about sailors and especially about the brave fishermen at the North Seas. The pictures of fishermen saving people in their open boats stayed for long in the mind. The boats were of the same type as the about 2000-year old Nydam boat. It is extremely seaworthy on it is like a piece of bark when they hold it against the waves.

In the sixties I made a trip from Zealand to Jutland. It was a stormy trip and much of the passengers were invisible somewhere in hide. I sat in the saloon and looked out and saw and saw not the fishing boats since they disappeared out of sight in the dales. That kind of boats have been developed during thousands of years just for Nordic waters.

The oldest find in Scandinavia is so far from Valderøy ship 1300 BC and it tell a little about their technique. The boat has been clink-build with sewn boards and tap-holes. The tightening was surely made of bog moss and resin since we have find of that as trading goods.

ADDED 2006-12-16

20-oars canoe Breddysse W Zealand 4th millennium another on the cap of a dolmen has 6 oars

We could ask the academic question, "Could they a build boat for one or two dozen men 2000 BC"? We have old rock-carvings at the roof of the passage graves from middle 4th millennium and they draw them with only the keel. Still it looks like a vessel and I do not think they got the picture out of the air. Nordic archaeologists usually refuse rock-carvings as evidence. I would not do that. In Sumer they build mostly reed ship according to the few pictures we have. In Egypt the papyrus developed to the crescent shaped ship for high seas still in use at the Indian Ocean among the fishermen. Usually they have a big steer oar

Around 2000 BC wee the ram-type/ trier that at Santorini seems to have been a ram fastened on the ships body. On Nordic ships it could have been mistaken for a fin or an oar since it is in the stern. For long the vessels were driven by paddle and then the crew are faced in the moving direction. On some types it could be easier to since there is the figurehead, else it is a tail. The normal type is the trier in Nordic rock-carvings, but in different versions of course. See the Raurbyship. Observe that in ritual carvings it could be a time boat

Modell of the Hjortspring canoe

I feel that Danish archaeologists want to tell. "the wreck from Hjortspring is oldest ship in Denmark 350 BC!" Immediate objections are that nowadays we would call that light vessel a war-canoe that makes 7 sea-miles if you wish but take no cargo. It is not from Denmark and they think the attack came from the Baltic nowadays they do not find suitable lime tree in Denmark and have to find it in Poland. They have found paddles and swords for 24 men. Just as trial they covered the boat body with hide and that worked fine too.

When I wrote this section about boat building I did not fin good sources about Hjortspring and I am not interested in martial stuff but ideas of society. Now I repair by the URLs below. In exact terms the Hjortspring profile is rare among rock-carvings. The Danes tell they naturally have found at the Danish island Bornholm, but they have forgotten a stone at Gilleleje, however I would say nearly similar and they mention Bohuslen too. I looked recently at Uppland and found nearly the same at Boglosa 159 and Gryta 14.

Early Egyptian high sea ship on rock at Trondelag N Norway

The reconstruction team at Hjortspring has now full reports at dansk english


The resin-cake in the finds has usually the diameter 20 centimetres and there are several finds. The biggest contends of 14 cakes.

They used surely many types of vessels and they made them as big as needed but fitting the conditions in their waters. Surely they calculated for how much supplies they needed, since they could not rely on buying or robbing along the route. They needed space for their merchandises and choose them to fit their possibilities. It was also clever strategy to be several ships on the journey out of many reasons.

The Danish archaeologist S Nancke-Krogh suggests that the early ship were build on a keel on which they build the side boards. Usual they suggest skin coating but these pictures tell about frames and possible boards. Our imagination is usually limited to the finds. Our rock carvings show that they used ships of this kind "already then", i.e. at the time of the Ferriby finds. 

Finds of chisels we have from third millennium and then suggesting they could do fine work and use taping. Even in the big Egyptian king ships the boards are sewn together (here again a reminder of the Egyptian ships on Norwegian rocks). For making boards they needed both the broad axe and the cross-axe. Maybe some of the shapes in bronze were meant for this? Such tools are still in use for those specialised in boat building and making blockhouses.

Another possibility from the Pacific is that maybe they clink-build the ship and covered it with skin. With the clink-build type came the problem of tightening. Some kinds of moss were suitable as the mass and resin was the glue and final tightening. Resin was also used in all kinds of fine work as glue.

In Denmark the forests were soon used and they needed to trade in the Northern Scandinavia just for resin. They had no pine either so maybe Bohuslaen early became a place for shipbuilding and sailors.

As always one problem create soon another. "Navigare necessare est" the Romans said and they were soon dependable on trade an import to the big city Rome. Italy could soon not feed the nobility

Somehow to me it looks as if there are a little Egypt and a little Sumer in it ... and the same I see in some real boats still in use and naturally in the Viking ships.

This type became common in the entire Mediterranean during Roman Age.


The lower in late carving style and near the Viking ships in appearance


This seems to be a natural boat for small waters.


This boat looks real. Still, there are the double big cupmarks telling about autumn and time to bring the boat ashore. The picture is about reality


The upper one is from Nydam, Schlesvig in "Egyptian" style ca 300 AD. The other from Kvalsund is more like "Sumerian" style ca 600 AD. Maybe we should name them Viking ships

They are both meant for a crew of about 26. The later known "king's ship" had at least 36 rowing places and some maybe more. The rowers usually sat in pair and equality was the rule on board.

This type of long narrow boats was surely meant for "tourists." We know them from northern Sweden as "church boats" as on Lake Siljan. They were not meant for carrying more cargo than elderly people and children when going to church or other meetings.

We can suggest that during Bronze Age and earlier the trade consisted of few items and metals and no need for space. Their food took maybe most of the spare place. With the Romans at Rhine began the real trade and the ships got broader and broader. Such ships could also be used to carry their small horses in Viking as we see on the Bayreux carpet. The settles needed of course to bring their farming animals with them


Viking Age saved the old types at least in coins and pictures one stone.