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The Viking's Heyday: Daredevils, adventurers and explorers a long time before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World

The Rowing Vikings


By —— Bio and Archives--April 16, 2015

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The Vikings ruled over what’s now known as Scandinavia, primarily modern-day Norway and Sweden. That was back over 1,000 years ago, roughly from 800 to 1100 A.D.

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The Viking’s Heyday

While Scandinavia was their home, the Vikings weren’t home buddies. They circumnavigated Europe into the Mediterranean and traveled via the Dnepr and Volga Rivers to trade with people at the Black Sea. They crossed the Atlantic via the island of Spitzbergen and from there on to Greenland and, presumably, along the coast of Canada as far south as what became hundreds of years later Martha’s Vinyard. In some of these areas the Vikings established small colonies that flourished for centuries. Even today, TV-ads by the tourism industry of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador like to use the remnants of such settlements as props.

Row, Row, Row your Boat…

The Vikings’ far-flung explorations were all by row boat, commonly augmented with one sail. The main propulsion though was by human rowing power. In contrast to the large bi- and triremes of the Roman Empire with slaves chained to the oars, the Viking ships were quite small in comparison. Even the larger vessels were rarely longer than 100 ft. in length, with a 15 ft. beam and a few feet of freeboard, like in the picture below from the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. As you can perceive from that, the mast for the sail was kind of secondary to the rowing.

From a landlubber’s perspective, rowing such a vessel just a few miles out into the open ocean appears disconcerting but thinking of rowing a few thousand miles across the Atlantic must be considered absolutely suicidal. Still, the Vikings braved the odds and made it all the way to America. One thing that helped them was the construction of their boats, specifically the design and construction of the wooden hull planks.

The Planks

Modern lumber is all sawed and planed out of tree trunks. However, even from large straight trees, the cut boards are interrupting the natural grain of the wood as no tree grows perfectly straight. That type of fashioning boards makes for very straight lumber but it lacks the structural strength and especially the natural flexibility of boards that are split along the grain boundaries. In order to maintain the flexibility of the fresh wood, the trees have to cut and split while green. Just think of the different flexibility of a finger-thick green twig of oak and its stiffness when dried for a year or two. The former you can bend into nearly any shape without breaking but the dried twig will crack.

In one of the Viking museums I saw a photo of a man standing in the center of one such split plank. That plank was supported at the man’s height at each end, approximately 20 feet apart and the plank was bent by his weight to nearly touch the ground but did not break.

As you can imagine, such flexible wood allowed the planks to be easily bent to align with a boat’s hull as determined by the keel and ribs. It also makes for the boat’s conformation with the longer ocean waves without breaking it apart amidship.

Other Vikings Records

Apart from the Vikings’ technical secret in boat construction, I think there was more to their success in seafaring. Just think of all the blonde maidens accompanying their voyages… Well, I don’t know for sure but there are some families in Greece who are very proud of their blonde hair and light complexion. Could it be…?

Some scholars claim that there were no women allowed on the Viking’s boats and say that females were thought of as a sort of bad karma. I think that’s a myth; how else could the Vikings have established flourishing settlements in places like Greenland without some female compatriots? But let’s go on to some historical records, the records they left behind engraved in stone and there is a good number of such; some three thousand that are known.

The Rune Stones

Throughout southern Scandinavia, there are many stones engraved with “Runes,” a kind of pictorial script with its own symbolism for the Rune-type alphabet(s). You’ll find them from southern Denmark to central Norway and Sweden; there is hardly a village without one.

The Rune stones are frequently combining pictorial elements with actual scripts. Among the most famous of such relics is Sigurd’s rune stone at Ramsund, Sweden, commonly known as the Ramsund Carving. It is believed to have been carved around the year 1030.

The Ramsund Carving is actually engraved in a big outcropping of the local granite, not a separate rock. Many years ago, I engraved a copy of Sigurd’s rune stone onto a hand-sized slab of slate. That was long before diamond-tipped engraving tools came onto the market. All I had at my disposal were some steel pins and time. It was a labor of love, a present to be used as a letter weight. With the passing of my parents it ended up in my possession once again. The picture below shows the object, approximately 4x7 inches in size. The copy may not be exact in all details but it should give you a feel for the original of that Norse art that measures about 20 feet in length with its exact meaning still in question.

Whatever Sigurd, or Leif Erikson (ca. 970—ca. 1020), and other Vikings were up to at the time we may never know in all detail.

One thing is for sure though, they were daredevils, adventurers and explorers a long time before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.

 


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Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts Convenient Myths


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