The Gokstad ship, unearthed in 1880 in Norway, is a prime example of Viking Age craftsmanship, showcasing the advanced shipbuilding techniques of the Norse people.

Dating back to the late 9th century, it served not only as a formidable seafaring vessel but also as a prestigious burial site for a Viking chieftain, illustrating the societal importance of ships in Norse culture.

Today, the ship is preserved at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, offering a fascinating glimpse into the maritime prowess and cultural practices of the Vikings.

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Discovery of the Gokstad Ship

The discovery of the Gokstad ship in 1880 significantly deepened our understanding of Viking culture and their maritime achievements during the Viking Age. This period, which spans from the late 8th to the mid-11th century, is characterized by the Norse peoples’ expansion across Europe and even to the shores of North America, far beyond their Scandinavian homelands.

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The Vikings, known for their roles as traders, explorers, and warriors, relied heavily on their superior shipbuilding skills to travel vast distances, enabling them to raid, trade, and establish settlements across a wide range of territories.

The Gokstad ship was uncovered in a large burial mound at Gokstad farm in Sandar, Sandefjord, Vestfold, in Norway, revealing the final resting place of a prominent Viking chieftain or warrior. This discovery was made at a time when the academic interest in Viking history and archaeology was gaining momentum, and it provided tangible evidence of the Vikings’ seafaring capabilities and their burial traditions, which had previously been known mostly through sagas and other historical texts.

Excavation of the Gokstad Ship underway in 1880.

The excavation of the Gokstad ship was a meticulous process that unveiled a vessel remarkably preserved in the clay of the burial mound, which had protected it from the elements for nearly a millennium. This preservation allowed archaeologists to study the ship’s construction in unprecedented detail, offering insights into the materials and techniques used by Viking shipbuilders.

The ship’s size, design, and the artifacts found within the burial mound, including weapons, tools, and personal items, highlighted the high status of the individual buried there, as well as the significant role that ships played in Viking society—not only as means of transportation but also as symbols of power and prestige.

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Moreover, the discovery of the Gokstad ship coincided with a period of national romanticism in Norway, where there was a revived interest in the country’s Viking past and a desire to reclaim a heritage that was both martial and exploratory. The ship thus became a symbol of Norwegian identity and pride, linking the modern nation directly to its illustrious ancestors.

The Gokstad Ship’s Design

Central to the construction of the Gokstad ship is the clinker-built method, a hallmark of Scandinavian boat-building tradition. In this technique, the ship’s hull is formed by overlapping planks of wood, fastened together with iron rivets.

Each plank edges slightly over the one below it, creating a strong yet flexible hull that could withstand the harsh conditions of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. This method of construction allowed for a light but sturdy vessel, capable of high speeds and considerable maneuverability. The overlapping planks also helped to make the ship relatively watertight, an essential feature for long voyages.

The bow of the Gokstad ship. Here, you can see the overlapping plank, the iron rivets and the oar holes. Image by Colgill CC BY-SA 4.0

The Gokstad ship measures approximately 23.8 meters in length and 5.1 meters in breadth, with a displacement that suggests it could carry a significant load, be it warriors, trade goods, or supplies for colonization efforts. The ship’s size and design indicate it was used for a variety of purposes, including raiding, trading, and exploration.

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It had 16 pairs of oar holes, which meant it could be powered by up to 32 oarsmen. This manpower, combined with the ship’s sleek design, would have given it impressive speed and agility in the water, characteristics that were likely exploited in Viking raiding tactics that emphasized surprise and swift withdrawal.

The Gokstad ship included a mast and a square sail, about 110 square meters in size. This feature allowed them to undertake longer voyages across open water, relying on wind power to complement the effort of the oarsmen. The ability to sail against the wind, a challenging task in such vessels, was facilitated by the ship’s keen design, including its symmetrical bow and stern.

An interior view of the ship. You can see the mast step and oar holes. Image by Colgill CC BY-SA 4.0

This symmetry meant that the Gokstad ship could easily reverse course without needing to turn around, an advantageous feature during naval engagements or when navigating narrow inlets.

The Gokstad ship’s construction did not just focus on functionality but also on aesthetics and comfort. The ship featured a high stem and stern, carved into intricate designs that likely served both to intimidate foes and to proclaim the status and identity of its owner.

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The internal structure, including the placement of the mast and the arrangement of the oars, was carefully considered to maximize efficiency and stability. The ship’s keel, made from a single, large oak tree, provided a strong backbone to the vessel, ensuring its durability and seaworthiness.

The Gokstad Burial

This particular ship burial, dating from the late 9th century, was not just a final resting place for a prominent individual but also a display of wealth, status, and the Norse cosmology that envisioned the deceased journeying into the afterlife aboard their vessel.

In Viking society, ships were symbols of power, wealth, and mobility. The decision to bury an individual with a ship signified their high status within the community, possibly denoting a chieftain, warrior of renown, or a wealthy merchant.

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Such burials were meant to equip the deceased for their journey to the afterlife, with the ship serving as a vessel to navigate the mythical waters that led to the realms of the gods or the honored dead. This practice underscores the Vikings’ deep connection to the sea, not only in their earthly exploits but also in their spiritual beliefs.

The ship was found in a burial mound located 120 km Southwest of Oslo.

The Gokstad ship was discovered under a large burial mound, suggesting that the individual interred within was of significant importance. The mound itself, constructed to cover the ship, was a monumental effort, signifying the community’s respect for the deceased.

Within the ship, the central burial chamber housed the remains of the man believed to have been a king or a high-ranking warrior, based on the grave goods and the scale of the burial.

The burial contained not only the ship and the remains of the deceased but also an array of grave goods that included weapons, such as swords and spears, tools, and personal items. These artifacts were likely intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife, providing protection and status.

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Additionally, the burial included the remains of animals, such as horses, dogs, and birds, which could have been meant as sacrifices to accompany the owner, serve as mounts, or signify status symbols in the afterlife.

The Ship Today

the Gokstad ship is now housed in the Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskipshuset) in Oslo, Norway. This museum is part of the Museum of Cultural History, which belongs to the University of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum is renowned for its collection of authentic Viking ships and artifacts from the Viking Age, including the Gokstad ship, the Oseberg ship, and the Tune ship, among others.

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The Gokstad ship, since its excavation in 1880, has been a centerpiece of the museum’s collection, offering visitors a unique insight into Viking shipbuilding techniques, maritime culture, and societal structures. The museum provides an in-depth look at the archaeological significance of the ship, the details of its construction, and the historical context of its use and burial.

There have been discussions and plans for the relocation and expansion of the museum to accommodate the growing interest and to provide better preservation conditions for the ships and artifacts. This new facility, known as the Museum of the Viking Age, is planned to open in the future to ensure the continued preservation and display of these invaluable pieces of Viking heritage.