Much has been written about Viking ships. How they were constructed. Their various sizes and names. So rather than ply similar seas, this post takes a closer look at the resources, economics, and “person-power” it took to get just a single Viking ship into the water.

The Raw Materials

Let’s start with the most obvious of the raw materials: wood. To create the 30m-long Sea Stallion Viking ship replica in 2000-2005, 14 large oak trees, each 1m thick, were used. While “green” or unseasoned oak was used in more prominent ships, unseasoned ash, elm, pine, spruce, and larch were also used in construction. Whoever ordered a ship to be built would have to have had access to enough mature trees to build one, as well as a way to transport those trees to the construction site.

The Oseberg ship. Source: Viking Ship Museum, Oslo

The economics of Viking ship construction get a little trickier when we introduce the next raw material: wool. It is believed that the wool of short-tailed sheep common in Viking Age Scandinavia provided the ideal weave for ships’ sails. Historical textile researcher Amy Lightfoot estimated that “a 100-square-meter sail (big enough for a 30-meter longship like the Sea Stallion) used two tons of fleece, the annual production of about 700 sheep.” To create one sail, Lightfoot further estimated it took two skilled women nearly a year to weave, treat, and, if needed, paint a ship’s sail. Moreover, wool would also have been needed to pack the ship’s hull for waterproofing. While two skilled weavers may not have been as difficult to come by, tons of wool per ship would require either the sheep and the pastureland to support them, or the financial means to purchase the wool, or both.

Photo: Sune Eriksen

Pine tar was another significant ingredient of the Viking ship and was used to treat and waterproof the wood of a ship. In this article from the Daily Mail, it is estimated that 100 gallons of pine tar was needed to waterproof a single Viking ship. That would have been difficult for any noble to produce. Archaeologists now believe the production of pine tar was industrialized around AD 700 in certain areas of Scandinavia. They have uncovered a surprising number of extra-large pits over the past 15 years, which have been carbon-dated to between AD 680 and 900. This both pre-dates and coincides with the Viking Age (roughly AD 750 to 1050). Each was capable of producing 50-80 gallons of tar each production cycle, or 10 times the amount of a standard kiln. The building, operation, and maintenance of the larger pits in the forest required a number of additional specialized tasks, such as forest management, fire control, and transportation.

Viking tar kiln. Source: Antiquity

We do not know how much metal was used in the construction of a Viking ship, though we do know its use on the ship was probably kept to a minimum to keep the weight of the ship down. Still, most preserved Viking ships have shown a significant number of iron rivets. Metal may have also been used in the ship’s anchor. Just as importantly, iron would have been needed for the myriad ax heads, adzes, draw knives, etc to shape the wood for the various parts of the ship, such as the keel, the stems and stern posts, the planks, etc. Both the iron used on the ship and the iron for tools would have required a smith and access to a forge.

Ropes were used for stays, for reefing the sail, and to secure cargo on the Viking ship. Around AD 1000, most rope is believed to have been constructed from hemp. We again assume that hemp was grown several places in Norway, though it was probably imported in even greater quantities. Seal and walrus rope has also been found. While seal and walrus rope would have required a hunt, hemp required arable land as well as time to harvest, treat, and manufacture the hemp into rope. That is, unless a lord purchased it instead.

And then, of course, there were the people who built the Viking ships. I do not say “manpower” because everyone was involved in the construction of a ship. Specialized shipbuilders would have chosen the trees and overseen the laying of the keel, posts, and other important areas of the ship. He would have had assistants, along with the lord’s men and slaves to handle the more menial tasks. A smith would be needed for the forge work, while women would have woven the sails, dyed the wool, and may have created the ropes.

Source: Bayeux Tapestry

This website gives a good approximation of the person-power and time required to create the Sea Stallion. By the author’s estimate, it would have taken roughly 35 men nearly four months just for the construction time of the ship, not including the sail, ropes, stays, etc. In other words, it would have been a massive investment of time and money.

What Does It All Mean?

The first recorded Viking raid was in 789 in Dorset and involved three Viking ships. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 840 says that Æthelwulf of Wessex was killed by a Viking force that arrived in 35 ships. In March AD 845, a fleet of 120 Viking ships sailed up the Seine. The Battle of Niså in 1062 saw Harald Hardrada’s ~300 ships fight King Sweyn II of Denmark’s fleet of ~300.

Source: BBC Worldwide, Ltd.

These numbers, of course, were probably exaggerated, and not every ship was a 30m-long longship that required the same amount of raw material for production. Still, as fleet sizes increased, and Viking raids shifted from small raids for plunder to full-fledged invasions, you begin to see the need for an almost industrialized way to produce ship quantities. This, in turn, may have been a reflection of, or a result of, political shifts occurring in the land. Minor kingdoms with limited resources eventually succumbed to centralized power with the means to command the production of greater quantities of materials, from wood to wool to tar and more.

The increase in fleet sizes is reflected in other areas of Viking society, mostly notably in the Danevirke and in the circle forts found in Denmark. Each in their own right is a magnificent piece of construction, and each speaks to the resources needed and the centralized power required for their development.

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