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Viking technology and planning

Updated Monday, 17th December 2007

Vikings might be thought of as marauding forces, but their technology and knowledge was extraordinary. It was their smarts, not their muscles, which made them successful.

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Timewatch: Who were the Vikings? What do we mean when we talk about the Vikings?

Dr Pat Wallace: That’s a very good question because the Vikings really are given this notional timespan of 795, or whenever, the raids on Western Europe, the Isles of Scotland and Ireland. But the Vikings didn’t just start and decide on a Tuesday in 795 we’re about to become the Vikings. Because, if you look at their technology before that, they had quality ironwork, which is a key to the rise of the Vikings, but more important even than that, and related to it, they had quality shipbuilding technology going back to the new dam boat and the late Saxon, early Scandinavian period, say around 500, 600. So the Vikings didn’t just happen. There’s a gradual evolution of technology that was appropriate to their rise, which may be related to economics and all of that.

So who were they? Pirates, a bunch of pirates, mainly centred in Denmark and maybe related to the Friesians, originally, and then spreading to Norway, and Sweden always acting very importantly but looking eastwards towards the Baltic and into Russia.

Timewatch: So, as you mentioned, these were raiders who came from the Norse lands. What were some of the reasons why they might have gone aboard?

Dr Pat Wallace: Well, I would say they were cautious enough at the start. They were going out and they were coming back – maybe day raids, maybe week raids – but then they decided, by 840, they were strong enough to, what we call, over winter, they stayed on, and that’s when history changes. That’s when Dublin gets founded as a settlement, a permanent settlement. No longer were they raiding and hitting, they were actually staying. And they were probably bringing women and other necessities, and that’s when the Viking Age takes a new turn, and that’s when Dublin starts.

Timewatch: And what are some of the features, I understand there’s various theories about what was going on in Scandinavia, some battles may have..?

Dr Pat Wallace: Yes, there are. I mean there’s economic factors, but I think the main factor is, from the strictly Scandinavian historical view, is that there was a rise in population, and there were kings and their sons and warring factions, and that kind of internal sign, difficulties, which made people expand outwards. But then, if that is so hot in theory, why didn’t they do that earlier. I'm not sure. One thing is for sure, they would have loved Ireland. Not for scenic or touristic reasons but how easy it was to attack because the Irish didn’t seem to have a strong military tradition. Much of the Irish military tradition seems to have been based on received views of war and ritual wars about demonstrating bravado about cattle raiding and all of that kind of thing, possibly more likely with inferior weapons to those possessed by the Vikings.

So Ireland would have been an easy target but very difficult to conquer. In fact, the word ‘conquer’ should not have been in the mind of any interpreter of 8th or 9th Century history. It wasn’t a conquest of Ireland these people were setting out for. Unlike the Normans, who were their successors, they did set out to conquer parts of Wales, England and Ireland, but that was not in the Viking mentality. But Ireland would have been very hard to conquer anyway because there were several dozen strong kingdoms in Ireland.

So, if you conquer one, you had all the other ones to conquer afterwards. So you just couldn’t do that. They were all in and out of coalitions with one another so it would have been a difficult place to conquer.

Timewatch: First of all, can you just run me through the key date and key years in that expansion of the Vikings?

Dr Pat Wallace: Yes, I can. I mean there were fairly strong raids, then there was a lull, and in the 820s, 40s, there was a strong return of very large fleets. The Vikings were always attracted to the mouths of rivers. Say the River Suir, Nore and Barrow. They’d drain out into Waterford really or near Waterford there and New Ross, but the Vikings settled on the shore, the main shore, estuary. They were attracted to that because of the way it drained through the country inside. Then they were attracted to Limerick, to that area, because Limerick of course is at the mouth of the Shannon and is actually tidal. The estuary is tidal there, and the Shannon drains down to the middle of Ireland through all those rich monastic territories.

Funny enough, Dublin’s river, the Liffey, wasn’t as attractive a place to settle at the mouth of as say the other rivers I have mentioned. But Dublin had something else. Dublin was between kingdoms. It was nicely located on a kind of no man’s territory, politically, and also, of course, Dublin, in the Viking eyes and in the eyes of that period has to be seen as the western shore of the Irish Sea, rather than as the eastern coast of Ireland, which our mentality puts it in.

So Dublin became the main centre for the whole Irish Sea area. There was no town in Scotland. There was no town established by the Vikings in the Isle of Man, really, worth its salt. No town, for instance, in the north part of Ireland, in Ulster, or in the Faroes later on, or when they got settled there, or even in Iceland. There was no town in that entire Scottish Isles/Irish Sea region, certainly in the Viking territories there. There was none down along Dumfries and all that area.

Now, Chester was a very important place, but Chester declines because of the movement of the river away from the town. The river silts up there and also Chester goes out of history and is replaced by Bristol. Bristol becomes a major place in the mid 11th Century. So the tilt of trade and commerce moved for the Scandinavian Dubliners down south after about 980 or 990 when Chester goes out of it.

So Dublin really is the only major place of urban status in that whole region in the time I'm talking about.

Timewatch: That’s great. You touched on this a bit but just to go into it in a bit more detail, what materially were they seeking when they raided abroad?

Dr Pat Wallace: Well, that’s easy. I mean they were seeking two commodities as far as we can see. They were seeking slaves in the first sense. Dublin was founded on the wealth of the slaving trade. Now, it isn't an exclusively Viking, Scandinavian or even Pagan practice. Though some historians would like to comment and say it is, and certainly all the Christian writers of history, the Monks of the period, would have seen it that way. But no, I mean Christian kings in Europe were buying slaves all over Europe and in England. As you know, St Wulstan is a saint because of his campaign – I think it's in the 11th century – against slavery. So slavery was a fact of life at the time and even among Christian monarchs and Christian people as well. So Dublin grows on being a centre for collecting slaves who were shipped out, conveniently maybe to Islamic Spain but also to Christian Europe, mainland Europe and to Britain.

The other main commodity, of course, it was held by the monasteries. The monasteries were also probably – the Irish monasteries – they were probably a useful collecting place for the slaves I have just mentioned, but more than that, they also contained great treasures, wealthy. They were endowed by kings. So you’d get say chalices, sacred implements, sacred instruments, containers, reliquaries for books, reliquaries for all the crosiers. These were beautiful from the point of view of the Scandinavians, who didn’t have any Christian veneration for these things. They just turned them into loot, which they carved up among themselves. We have the hoards to prove that. They handed out the loot and the loot became somebody’s girlfriend’s broach in Norway or something like that. Norwegian museums are full of Christian items which have been cannibalised and cut up and you find those in Norway and in Denmark to a lesser extent.

Timewatch: Do we have any idea who these people were? And I mean, by that, were these full time warriors or were these farmers who had maybe joined a one-off expedition, do we know?

Dr Pat Wallace: We don’t. We assume I think that there were farmers and fishermen who could put their hand to, because of their dexterity and equality, ability to deal with ships and shipping and shipbuilding, indeed, they could become pirates in the off season, in the farming off seasons and that. I think it was much into the Viking Age before full time or very serious professional military and warriors took up raiding and trading. And by the time of the Sea Stallion, Dublin, there would have been a mercenary fleet, that’s the story of the Sea Stallion. It's one of a number of ships that were used in the mercenary fleet of Dublin.

Now, that mercenary fleet grew up gradually. Politically and militarily, the Vikings were already beaten as a military force in Ireland from about 1014, even from 980. But England was still very much there to be exploited in terms of loaning the fleet to English kings, befriending English kings who would pay, the Saxon kings, who would pay for the fleet of Dublin for use in battle. That’s why, for instance, Dublin becomes very friendly with the Saxon, the Godwinsson family, Harold of Hastings. Harold is a Godwinsson, the dynasty there, extraordinarily close and friendly to the Vikings of Dublin. Harold and his boys would have paid a fortune for that fleet. There might have been a hundred ships of which the Sea Stallion is one. There were huge ships in Dublin and their money would have poured into Dublin for the hire of that fleet.

And Harold himself came to Dublin as a young man in the 1040s. His children came back, fleeing after Hastings, back to Dublin, and there’s a long connection there. It also meant because Dublin was seen by the Normans probably as in the ambit of the Saxons. So don’t forget the Dublin fleet attacked Bristol, as far as I remember, on behalf of the Saxons against the Normans. So the Normans weren't exactly happy with the Viking Dubliners nibbling at their bum on behalf of the Saxons.

Timewatch: Going back to the Scandinavian side, this technology that they’d developed, what was some of its hallmarks that made it so superior?

Dr Pat Wallace: It's really interesting about the hallmarks of the technology. One way of tracking that is that all the words in the Irish language, in Gaelic, for parts of ships, shipbuilding, come from old Norse, from the language of the Vikings. So that tells you that the technology for much of this did not exist in Ireland, beforehand, and perhaps it didn’t in England very much either. So certainly the idea of a steering oar, the idea of clinker building with the clinch nails going through the overlapped planks on the sides of the ships, all of that, the high prow, the thwarts across the ship, the proportions of beam to length, all of that is completely Viking.

And the great thing about it is they come in different sizes. It's like the Fiat 500, 600, 700. The Vikings had a two oarsman’s ship or boat. They had a four oarman, the Faering, for four oarsmen. That would be little boats that would be ducking in and around say the Port of Dublin and around the big ships that have been pulled up. You can imagine the whole flotilla of tiny little oarships, but the interesting thing, even the fat bellied merchant ship like The Roar Egge which is a great Danish reconstruction ship and the wide long distance ship.

It's a bit like modern airlines really with all the different varieties. And then the warship that we term the long ship, different ships for different purposes, but interestingly all built on the same principle, all built on a keel, a smallish keel, triangular sectioned, and then with the steering oar, except for the boats which were meant to be used with oars only but everything else, that was under sail with masts, they all come of the same production line.

And what’s even more interesting about all those ships is not only did they endure the ships, for instance, on the Bayeux Tapestry, which was made in England, that commemorates the Battle of Hastings and Harold, and the ships there are of completely Viking-Scandinavian type. Much later than that, even the high medieval ships of Europe are still clinker built owing an awful lot to the Scandinavian forebears in shipbuilding technology.

And one of the things I'm interested in is the distinctive little ships that were used into modern times – or little boats rather – at the mouths of the Irish rivers. I suspect an awful lot of those actually derive and come down from Scandinavian traditions which were introduced to Ireland.

Timewatch: That’s great. So you mentioned there’s a whole family of different types of ships.

Dr Pat Wallace: Yes.

Timewatch: But obviously the long ship is what we’re focusing on.

Dr Pat Wallace: Sure.

Timewatch: What were some of the particular features of the long ship?

Dr Pat Wallace: I suppose the main thing about the long ship is that it can turn fairly rapidly. I'm speaking about it now, of course, before I have the benefit of looking at Carsten’s reports and the experience of the crew who brought it from Denmark to Dublin. But, I suspect, they’ve learned an awful lot but the manoeuvrability, speed under sail, I think that’s a wonderful thing. Though, I understand that now they have changed that even - this one voyage has changed our perspective on how fast. We thought that they could go from fifteen to twenty knots. I don’t think they can go above fifteen according to the experiments that the Roskilde people on the Sea Stallion have shown.

So they’re going to add a lot to our knowledge there. They’re adding also, of course, to the whole, we had received views, not we, we take our sea views from the great Danish scholars like Ole Crumlin-Pedersen particularly. And he had done reconstructions. It's based on his reconstructions which are implied themselves from the evidence as found in the excavations. But, based on those reconstructions, they did a reconstruction of the steering oar and how it relates to the side of the ship and to a little bellied timber projecting out at the starboard side of the ship. Well, they now find that the leather attachment there isn't strong enough and it snapped twice, as I understand it, on this voyage.

So we think of how vulnerable we archaeologists are because they have already, even before considering the results, we just have this coming straight back, this is not how it must have been done. It's great to get these such results coming back so quickly. But, when it's all digested and properly considered and published, there'll be a whole revolution in our attitude to Viking ship reconstruction.

Timewatch: So, first of all, what were the Vikings doing when their raids really started?

Dr Pat Wallace: Yes, and how they changed, how things changed.

Timewatch: How things changed?

Dr Pat Wallace: Yes, in fact, it’s interesting. You’re actually making me think ways I haven't thought before, which is interesting. But no, we'll go for that. I mean, there would have been a lot of raiding and rapid raiding initially and returning to bases on the coast. Now, these bases were temporary little collections of ships on the coast where they congregated and went home. The main thing about the Vikings is they, initially, for the first half century of their activities, they tended to go home, and they also were seasonal. They would attack in maybe fleets during the summer from different parts of Norway or Denmark.

But then, a big change happens in the 840s or so. Word finally percolates through that you could actually settle in Ireland without much undermining, without much threat of attack. So that’s what happened. So in 840, or thereabouts, they founded permanent winter quarters at Annagassan in County Louth and Dublin. Obviously both were significant and on the east coast of Ireland. The west coast, I keep repeating, of the Irish Sea. That’s very important to bear in mind. So that’s the foundation of Dublin.

What was it? What was that first, we have a word for it, by the way, in the Irish language, in the Annals, it's called a longphort. It means ship fortress. Now, was there much of an actual physical layout of buildings, defensive earthworks on the ground. There were some. But I think half that fortress has to be a collection of ships collected around, like the covered wagons in the old Wild West movies maybe, a lot of timber, planks going between the ships, you would get away very fast, so it's probably half and half settlement. A bit on land, these longphorts but may be half of it, marine enough to be, you could make an exit, with your own settlement. That’s my sense of it.






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