Viking Exploration

Vikings travelled great distances in their search for land and treasure. They traded eastward into Russia and south as far as the Arab lands, even reaching Baghdad. They traded the riches of the north – timber, iron, furs, amber, whale and walrus ivory, and animal skins – for silver and gold, jewels, glass, wine, salt, and slaves. Trading routes were more complex than purely export-import in two directions. They met traders from the eastern routes and brought back silk and spices from far-off Asia. 

They travelled on rivers and lakes, carrying their boats across land when they had to, or forging on by horse, camel, and on foot.

Vikings: Travel and Trade Map. Image: ANMM Education Collection
Vikings: Travel and Trade Map. Image: ANMM Education Collection

The Vikings were a dynamic people who raided and traded across a large part of the world from the 8th to the 11th century. The Norse peoples scattered throughout Scandinavia were not at first unified nations. They called themselves Northmen, Norsemen, Danes, Götar and Svear. Others called them pagans, heathens, men from the north, the foreigners. They shared a language, now called Old Norse, and had most customs and religious beliefs in common.

In the 9th and 10th centuries Norwegian Vikings reached the Faroe Islands north of Scotland and went on to discover Iceland and Greenland. They formed settlements and colonies that lasted hundreds of years. During the Viking era their patchwork of principalities and fiefdoms consolidated into three kingdoms, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Hit and run raiders became large armies with strategies and engineering works, and they changed from pagan to Christian.

Vikings - town trader, England. Image: Max, Unsplash.
Vikings - town trader, England. Image: Max, Unsplash.

They founded settlements and towns in other countries and blended into the local populations, leaving their imprint in law, custom, landholding and language that endure to the present. They had a rich mythology and tradition of storytelling. They were fearless warriors and ferocious in attack. Viking raiders spread fear and panic. They demanded ransoms for hostages or money to leave people in peace. The most feared Viking warriors were the Berserkers. They fought wearing bearskins because they believed it would lend them the animals’ strength. They went into wild rages, rolling their eyes, frothing at the mouth and biting their shields. They may have eaten fly agaric, a type of poisonous toadstool, to send them into the rage. 

But at the same time, they were shrewd and accomplished traders, skilled explorers and navigators, superb shipbuilders and craftsmen The ships that made this possible were among their greatest achievements. Built in many sizes for different uses, they were double-ended, clinker-built (overlapping planks) with a pronounced keel but shallow draft. Some were propelled by both oars and sail. Vikings were remarkably skilled navigators although little is known of their methods. It is thought they kept to the coasts where they could, but offshore could draw on a deep knowledge of stars, clouds, winds, currents, temperatures, and bird and animal behaviour.

Viking ship in Norway. Image: Steinar Engeland, Unsplash
Viking ship in Norway. Image: Steinar Engeland, Unsplash

Viking longboats were sometimes referred to as dragon ships, with fierce dragons carved on the prow to scare the enemies. The oars are the dragon’s legs, and the boat’s square sail the dragon’s wings.

The building of a Viking Age ship required a vast amount of materials. Wood was used in especially large quantities. the quantity of iron needed for thousands of ship rivets, and the amount of flax or wool that was used for the sail. Shipbuilding had an enormous impact on the environment.

Think about and research:
- Why did people during the Viking Age go abroad on boats over stormy seas and on dangerous rivers?
- Why do we go abroad today?
- Do we have the same reasons to travel today as people did during the Viking Age?

Activity: Make your own paper Viking longboat. (pdf)