Gokstad ship – the most advanced weapon of the Vikings

The burial in Gokstad, like many others, was robbed a long time ago – back in the Viking Age. The mighty and ferocious warrior buried here lost not only all his gold and silver, but even his trusty sword, an indispensable attribute of any fallen warrior feasting in Valhalla. But all the efforts of the robbers could not deprive him of the main and magnificent weapon, which cost hundreds of times more than any of the most expensive gold-decorated sword – his ship.

Reconstruction of a ship from Gokstad.  Taken from Wikimedia.
Reconstruction of a ship from Gokstad. Taken from Wikimedia.

Yes, it is the ship that is the most perfect weapon of the Vikings, which made them invincible warriors of the early Middle Ages. The ship from Goskstad is a reference example of such a weapon, the pinnacle of the evolution of hundreds of years of shipbuilding development, embodying the high skill and knowledge of many generations of shipbuilders.

The Gostad ship is not suitable for any other purpose, it is not at all beautiful pleasure yacht of the queen from Oseberg, this is a warship magnificent in its absolute functionality and deadly beauty. It is completely unsuitable as a fishing vessel, it cannot be used as a merchant vessel – there is simply no room for a large amount of cargo in it. A high-speed ship with amazing seaworthiness was created for only one purpose – war.

Let’s think about what made the Vikings the horror of the early Middle Ages, why the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine ”(Save us from the fury of the northerners, Lord! – Lat.) sounded throughout Europe – from England to Italy, from Spain to the islands of the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of North Africa. Couldn’t the armies of Europe, led by the best warriors of that era – the knights, crush and stop some sea robbers? After all, having stopped the very first raids of the northerners, Europe would have been saved from the conquest of England, Scotland, Ireland, Normandy, Northern Italy and Sicily, where the states of the Normans later arose.

The answer is obvious – no, they could not. In the hands of the Vikings was the most advanced weapon of that time – their ships. Fast-moving boats with Viking gangs crossed the seas, climbed up the rivers and delivered lightning strikes from which there was no escape. The Viking detachments, small in those days, would have lost the battle to any more or less organized army of the great sovereigns of Europe. But for the time being, such epic battles were not included in the plans of the Vikings. Having received a message about the raid, the king convened vassals, armed the militia – it took weeks to assemble and organize an army capable of repelling several hundred heavily armed northerners. By this time, the Vikings, having robbed local monasteries, villages and even cities to their heart’s content, disappeared, dissolving in the vast expanses of the sea. Their ships gave them unprecedented mobility and speed of movement, which in that era could not boast of any army in the world.

The ship from Gokstad was not the largest and fastest Viking ship, later warships were built noticeably larger, with more rowers and, therefore, with greater speed. But in general, it is still believed that just such a ship was optimal in the Viking Age – shallow draft, maneuverability, fast sailing, all this gave a noticeable advantage over later Viking ships, built more for the sake of prestige and intimidation of enemies than for real combat use.

The Gokstad ship was found in 1880 in a Viking burial mound in the town of Kongshauen, Gokstad (Norway). According to local legends, one of the kings of the Vikings was buried here. The burial mound, 45 meters long and 5 meters high, made of blue clay and peat perfectly preserved both the burial and the ship itself. But, of course, the grave itself was robbed in ancient times.

Gokstad barrow

Taken from Wikimedia
Taken from Wikimedia

The burial chamber in the form of a wooden frame with a sloping roof was located closer to the stern of the ship and was covered with several layers of birch bark on the outside, it was lined with silk fabrics with gold threads on the inside.

A man in his 40s was lying on a wooden bed, he died from wounds received in battle. The dead man was richly dressed, but neither weapons nor jewelry were found, all this was taken away by marauders. In addition to the ship itself, many gifts were also found for the deceased: three small boats, a sledge, kitchen utensils, 6 beds, 12 horses, 8 dogs, 2 hawks and even 2 peacocks.

Reconstruction of the burial in Gokstad

Photo of the burial chamber and three boats from the burial in Gokstad

However, we will talk more about the deceased later, but for now let’s continue the story about the ship itself.

The summer of 1880 was unusually hot for Norway, which made it easier to work during the excavations, but clearly did not benefit the ship. The tree began to dry out, bend and crumble, in the course of work it was constantly watered and covered with branches and tarpaulin, protecting it from drying out. Soon the ship was installed on supports right in the pit, preparing it for transportation.

Photos from excavations

Taken from Wikimedia
Taken from Wikimedia

The ship is built entirely of oak using clinker technology – the side boards overlap, partially covering each other.

Taken from Wikimedia
Taken from Wikimedia

The vessel is 23.8 meters long and 5.25 meters wide. The weight of the ship with full equipment was a little more than 20 tons. The ship’s draft at full load did not exceed one meter. The keel is carved from one massive oak beam. Each of the sides of the ship consists of 16 boards. The seams between the boards are stuffed with carefully tarred twisted wool rope. The uppermost board is slightly thicker; shields were hung on it, 32 on each side, painted in yellow and black. The holes for the oars indicate 16 pairs of oars, so we have 32 rowers plus 32 more people who could row alternately, taking into account the total number of shields, which, of course, are not just decoration on the sides.

To build such a ship, it was necessary to cut down an entire grove of oaks, each log split along the fibers to obtain boards. Imagine that only a few boards for ship plating were received from the trunk of a tall oak. At a modern sawmill, at least several dozen of the same boards would have been received. The same? Not at all, boards obtained from split along the fibers of the trunk are an order of magnitude more durable than similar ones sawn at a sawmill. The labor costs for the construction of such a ship are enormous. Even the famous striped sail of the Vikings on such a ship is the daily work of several spinners and weavers for 2-3 years.

Look at the photos and see for yourself how beautiful and perfect the ship is in its own way.

Photos of a ship from Gokstad at the Viking Ship Museum

Photos from Wikimedia
Photos from Wikimedia

Pay attention to the slot in the oarlocks, which allows you to remove the oar blade

Taken from Wikimedia
Taken from Wikimedia

The ship from Gokstad is today considered a reference example of the “long ship” of the Vikings of their heyday. Today it is in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, like the ship from Oseberg.

Radiocarbon analysis, and then more accurate dendrochronology data, indicated the date of construction of the vessel – approximately 890 AD. The vessel was clearly in active use for more than one or two years, traces of wear and tear, as well as repair and replacement of several boards, have been preserved.

For more than a century separating us from the find, replicas of this ship have been built more than once, and all of them have shown outstanding seaworthiness.

So the ship “Viking” (an exact copy) crossed the Atlantic in 1893 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. In a race with a replica of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, the Viking averaged 9.5 knots under sail while the Santa Maria was only 6 knots, and was well ahead of her arriving in New York first. Under the oars, the Viking sailed at a speed of more than 12 knots. Travelers were amazed at how the Viking smoothly curved on the waves, without losing strength and without even a hint of a leak.

Viking at the Chicago World’s Fair 1893

Taken from Wikimedia
Taken from Wikimedia

Of course, the ship from Gokstad was not intended to cross the ocean, for this there was another type of ship – knorr, shorter and wider, with a smaller crew and more space for cargo on such a long journey. But, nevertheless, this journey proved to everyone the excellent seaworthiness of the Gostad ship.

It’s time for us to talk about the owner of the ship.

As we have already said, the date of construction of the ship is 890. The trees used in the construction of the burial chamber were cut down in 901. Analysis of wooden artifacts in the mound and next to the ship gives dates from 900 to 905.

The original hypothesis that the burial belongs to King Olaf Geirstad, uncle of the famous King Harald the Fair-Haired, has already been rejected today, since he died much earlier.

Skeleton bones of a noble Viking from Gokstad

Our Viking is a mighty warrior who died at the age of about 40 years old, about 184 cm tall, which is much higher than the average height of that time. At the same time, his bones are very massive, for comparison, a modern man of the same height will have much thinner bones. He died in battle with several enemies – the wounds inflicted on him speak of three types of weapons – a battle ax, a sword and a knife. Anthropologists counted 7 wounds that left marks on the skeleton.

The last stab was in the upper part of the thigh, where the femoral artery passes, most likely, he bled out very quickly. But first he was knocked to the ground with blows to the leg: the sword cut through the knee, and the ax practically cut the shin of the other leg. Quite a common tactic of that time against an enemy in armor. Given the large growth of the opponent, and the fact that there were several enemies, this tactic brought success to the killers.

An examination of the bones of the skull showed that it is possible that our Viking had a pituitary tumor, which led to acromegaly – large growth, rough features – a large chin, brow ridges, massive bones. He was very strong and certainly was considered an outstanding warrior.

Who was he really, will we ever know his name?

Possibly, though not very likely. It is clear that this warrior died in battle at a time when King Harald the Fair-Haired defended his right to be king of all Norwegians in fierce battles. But today we don’t even know on whose side the fearless jarl or king of the Vikings, who was truly buried with royal luxury in Gokstad, still anonymous to everyone, deprived of the sword and all his wealth by greedy descendants, fought …

Author Bald Kamrad (@LKamrad)

My previous publications on Habré on the topic of history, archeology:

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