The Vikings were some of history’s greatest travellers, explorers and discoverers, sailing the length and breadth of the world. They travelled the oceans through the use of their longboats. These longboats were a unique type of long ship, and were able to travel vast distances across some of the world’s most treacherous oceans. They were made out of wood, with cloth sails and often intricately decorated.
Fact 1: Viking longboats made it to America
While most people think Christopher Columbus was the first European to travel to America, it was actually Lief Erikson, a famous Viking explorer. Lief Erikson (c.970-1020) was a Viking adventurer from Iceland who travelled throughout Europe, before eventually stepping foot in America. He made the journey in a Viking longboat.
Exploration was a family business. Lief Erikson’s father was the famous Erik the Red, a Viking who was banished from Iceland for killing his neighbour. Erik the Red went on to create the Viking colony of Greenland, where his son Lief grew up.
Lief travelled to America in a longboat, braving the choppy Atlantic ocean. Some accounts suggest that Lief Erikson discovered America by accident after trying to return home to Iceland.
He was a bit lost!
Fact 2: Viking longboats could travel along rivers as well as oceans
While Viking longboats could travel on oceans, they were also able to travel up rivers. This was due to their narrow and flat bottoms which did not scrap along the riverbed. It was this unique feature that allowed the Vikings to raid all across Britain, sailing up rivers to towns and villages.
While they started off as raiders, the Vikings went on to conquer all of England, with a Viking ruling over England until 1066 when the Norman William the Conqueror invaded England and defeated Harold Goodwinson.
Fact 3: Viking longboats were decorated
Vikings were well-known as fearsome raiders, and it was very important that they were scary! To help them with this they often decorated their longships with terrifying figureheads, typically taking the form of mythical creatures. The most common type of Viking figurehead was a dragon. Definitely scary!
However, not every Viking ship was decorated. One of the best-preserved Viking longboats is the Oseberg ship, which was found in Norway in 1903. The Oseberg ship does not have a decorated figurehead, instead having two curly tail-like ends. This could be because it was not used to raid or to invade but perhaps to trade or explore?
Fact 4: The Vikings used some unique methods of navigation
One thing most people don’t know is that Vikings rarely used maps! Instead, they relied on some rather unique methods to navigate the rivers and oceans. One of the more unusual methods of Viking navigation was to sail with birds. These birds would then be released halfway through the journey in the hopes that they would fly to land and the ships could follow them.
Other methods of Viking navigation included:
- Using the stars to tell their position in the sea
- Watching the travel patterns of whales and dolphins to locate land
- Using a type of crystal called a sunstone to locate the position of the sun on a cloudy day
Fact 5: Vikings weren’t just raiders
Vikings did not just use their longboats to raid and pillage, they were also keen traders! Viking coins have been found all across the globe including in Greece, the Middle East, and Russia. They would regularly trade goods including:
In return, they bought spices, silk, silver, wine and jewellery.
Interestingly, Vikings also worked as guards on trade ships as a method of protecting goods which were being transported across the ocean. The fearsome reputation of the Vikings was well known and so traders across the world employed their services as a way of protecting against pirates and raiders. Imagine being a pirate attempting to raid a ship, only to find it’s protected by Vikings. That would definitely make you think twice!
Fact 6: There were many different types of Viking Longboat
There was not just one type of Viking longboat, there was actually many different types and varieties. From the small Karvi, a 10th-century rowing boat with around 13 rowing benches, to the more fearsome Drakkar, used for raiding and often elegantly decorated to instil fear and terror in those on the shore.
Viking longboats were some of the fastest, most capable, and most fearsome ships on the ocean. They have had a strong cultural impact, and despite the fact that only 3 intact longboats have been found, they are one of the first things people think about when they read the word Vikings. Yet most people don’t know just how many different types of longboats there were!