“In fourteen hundred and ninety two,Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”
So run the opening lines of a piece of doggerel, the origins of which are uncertain. At least five hundred years before Columbus, however, the Vikings are believed to have crossed “the ocean blue” and been the first Europeans to discover the “New World”. Four hundred years after Columbus’ voyage, in 1892, in response to a celebration of his achievements, and in an endeavour to draw attention to Viking achievements, a replica of a Viking ship was built and sailed across the Atlantic.
One incentive for that 1892 expedition originated in a farm field some twelve years earlier. In 1880 the bored teenage sons of a farmer living at Gokstad farm, near the town of Sandar in southern Norway, began digging into a mound on their father’s land which was rumoured to house a Viking burial ship. Their initial amateur sleuthing quickly gave way to a more sophisticated and large scale archaeological dig as it became clear that the mound actually housed the first relatively complete Viking burial ship ever discovered.
The mound itself was some 45 metres in diameter, though thought to have been larger in Viking times, and some 5 metres high. Within was a well preserved Viking ship, 23.24 metres in length, with a beam of 5.20 metres. Although many more Viking ships have been discovered since that time relatively few have been in such a good state of preservation, ensured in this case by the clay soil in which most of the ship was buried, below ground level, so this find contributed greatly to understanding both of Viking ship construction and also the role of ships in Viking culture, not least in burials.
In the heyday period of Viking culture, from about 800 to 1050, ships were central to all aspects of life from raiding, trading, exploration, conquest and settlement, to burial. There was no single standard design, and the archetypal Viking “longship” is actually a design more properly associated with warships, with a length to beam ratio of up to 11:1, compared to the much beamier designs, such as that found at Gokstad, and another find at Oseberg, in which the length to beam ratio could be less than 5:1. Nevertheless, even as different designs developed for different purposes, a clear, distinctive, common shipbuilding tradition can be seen in the examples discovered, with noteworthy features being the long. low sided, double ended hull with its upswept, often decorated, prow and stern, square sail, and steering oar.
The Gokstad ship is assumed to have been intended primarily for commercial uses, and probably mostly for sailing in calmer inshore conditions as its design, with low freeboard and very little rocker on the hull, is thought likely to have been very wet in anything of a seaway. These remarks notwithstanding, it was still this ship that provided the template for the 1892 replica that successfully crossed the Atlantic. Nevertheless the vulnerability of similar designs is shown by that fact that two modern replicas of the not dissimilar (albeit shallower and narrower) Oseberg ship have sunk during only moderate weather. As well as its square sail, the Gokstad ship was fitted with oar ports for 32 oarsmen. Including a steersman and a lookout the regular crew might have been up to 40 persons, though a maximum of up to 70 is supposed.
Turning to their role in burials, although ships were clearly used in various ways, including burning at sea as well as burial on land, in reality ships were far too useful and too precious to be used in this way other than for the richest and highest status members of society; the less important were sometimes buried within a ship shape marked out by standing stones. Most actual burial ships so far discovered share a number of common features: some kind of tent structure either in the middle of, or immediately outside or even beneath, the boat, richly hung with tapestries, in which was laid the body of the departed in his best clothes, and along with him (it was usually a him, though occasionally female skeletons have also been found, assumed to have been servants/slaves sacrificed to accompany the departed) were laid prized and valuable possessions, as well as various artefacts and weapons believed to be useful on the voyage to the afterlife. Further animal company was provided, as evidenced by the skeletons of dogs, horses, birds, and occasionally a cow. Unfortunately most burial mounds appear to have been plundered by grave robbers in antiquity so the more valuable items of jewellery and weapons that might have been there originally are long gone and much uncertainty surrounds this aspect of burial practices. The Gokstad ship, built around 890, was the final resting place for a rich and powerful man, in his mid 40s, who died a violent death probably in battle, and who was accompanied into the afterlife by twelve horses, eight dogs, two goshawks, and two peacocks.
Also found within the burial ship were three small boats. The middle sized example of these boats, known as a Faering, a name referring to its nature as an open clinker built boat, pointed at both ends, and propelled by two pairs of oars, is a design that has survived into modern times, with traditional boats used in the twentieth century in the Shetlands and Norway sharing may similar features – the Norwegian Oselvar design reflects the Faering. The Faering has also become a very popular design for replica building, with numerous examples built and commercially available. Indeed a replica of the Gokstad Faering has been built in the Museum’s workshop by students of Falmouth Marine School and is currently (2016) on display as part of the Museum’s Viking exhibition.