Representations of Ships
Illustrations of Viking Ships
In addition to the primary evidence of ships and ship parts surviving in the archaeological record, we also have the supporting evidence of historical sources, literature, and art. Artistic representations of ships, such as the slate engraving from Jarlshof in Shetland pictured here, are testament to the importance of the ship as more than simply a practical and valued technology: it was also a source of inspiration, a symbol of mobility, and a marker of cultural identity across the Norse world.
Illustrations of ships can also provide vital information about features of ships that don't survive in the archaeological record. One of our best sources for the decoration of Viking ships is the Bayeux Tapestry, comissioned in the 1070s to tell the story of the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. We can see that coloured and striped sails are common at this time, as is the practice of painting strakes in bright colours. Many of the ships also have elaborate carved prows, and some have illustrations of the rigging and features such as the anchor pictured here.
The Vikings incorporated ship imagery into everything from decorated lead weights, to elaborate jewellery. This Viking-Age brooch from a burial near Lillevang on the island of Bornholm depicts a stylised ship with dragon prows, mast and shields arrayed along its side. Such items provide limited supporting evidence for the decoration and fittings of a Viking ship: more important is the evidence they provide of the cultural value placed on the ship in Norse society.
It wasn't only adults who were inspired by Viking ships - toy boats are fairly common finds across the Norse world, and testify both to the centrality of the Viking ship to Norse communities and identity, perhaps also to the aspirations of children who might grow up to sail the real thing! This beautiful example of a model ship was excavated in Dublin, and its sweeping prow is recognisably Norse. You can see other examples from Hedeby here and from the Faroes here.
A Passage to the Afterlife?
It may be that the ship played a role in conceptions of the afterlife and the passage between worlds. In Old Norse mythology, the ship Naglfari (made from discarded nail clippings) sails from Múspellsheimr to bring the giants to do battle with the gods at Ragnarök.
Ship burials may be intended to ferry an important individual to the afterlife: stone ship settings such as the one pictured here may have been intended to stand in for this important symbol of passage in the absence of the ship itself, and the ships depicted on picture stones may also be intended to represent a journey between worlds. What is clear is that the ship was a vital component of Norse society, and that art, literature and even belief reflects this importance.