Ships before the Vikings

Bronze-Age rock carvings of ships from Solbakk, Norway

© 2016 Arkeologisk museum, UiS / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

A Maritime Society

Although it is Viking-Age Scandinavia that is most closely associated with ship technology, it is worth remembering that pre-Viking Scandinavia was also a maritime society. We have varied evidence for the importance of seafaring in Scandinavia prior to the Viking Age, including depictions of ships in rock art in Norway - these two examples are from a fleet depicted in Solbakk, near Stavanger. Ships would have been used for transport along the convoluted coast, for fishing, and also for warfare. 

The Nydam Boat in Gottorf Castle

(c) Andree Stephan. CC BY-SA 3.0



The Nydam Boat

A perfectly preserved boat was discovered in Nydam Bog in Sønderborg, sourthern Jutland, a site of ritual deposit in the Scandinavian Iron Age. It is a 23m oak rowing boat, dating to c. 310–320AD, and is the earliest example of a clinker-built boat yet to be discovered. The technology of ship building advanced considerably over the following centuries, but clinker-built boats were by no means a new technology in the Viking Age.

Fragment of razor with ship motif from Strærup in Nationalmuseet, Danmark

(c) Arnold Mikkelsen / Nationalmuseet. CC BY SA



Dragon Prows

It wasn't only ship construction that evolved prior to the Viking Age, but also features of ships that we associate with the Vikings, including ornamentation. In this depiction on a razor or knife-blade fragment from Strærup in Sogn, we can clearly see oars protruding from both sides of a ship, as well as the rowers themselves. Most impressive is the elaborate dragon prow - this practice of adorning ships was probably influenced by Roman ship building traditions, and was certainly a practice adopted by Germanic peoples in the Migration Period, as this animal figurehead (300-600AD) from the River Scheldt in present-day Belgium demonstrates. The razor itself dates from the late Nordic Bronze Age, and thus pre-dates the Vikings by over a millenium.

The Stora Hammars I image stone

(c) Historiska museet. CC BY SA

Ships Set in Stone

One depiction of a Vendel or Early Viking Age ship can be found on the Stora Hammars I picture stone, one of four phallic-shaped stones from this area of Gotland in Sweden. Two stylised ships are represented on this one stone: a small boat carrying warriors to battle (perhaps in a scene from the Hildr legend) and a larger ship with an elaborate sail and rigging, which has been interpreted as representing the passage to the afterlife. Whilst boats such as Nydam and the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo ship did not appear to have sails, the Gotland stones provide proof that this technology had been adopted in Scandinavia before c. 800.

It serves as a further reminder that at the start of what we think of as the Viking Age, ships already played a central role in Scandinavian culture, and had developed as an important symbol in art, mythology and religion.

Ships before the Vikings