A Medieval prayer from the Middle Ages says "from the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us." The Norsemen, or Vikings, had a terrible reputation. They got their money from exorbitant taxes, tributes, trade, out-right extortion, daylight robbery and plain old piracy. At their peak, their power extended across all of Scotland, Ireland, England, around Europe, and deep into the Mediterranean Sea. And they did it all thanks to the Viking longboat - the dreaded Dragonship.
These magnificent Dragonships could cross oceans, land on beaches, and sail up rivers. They didn't suddenly spring into existence - they were the peak of the evolution of 6,000 years of shipbuilding.
It all began with Stone Age dugout canoes, around 5,000 BC. The Stone Age boatwrights used flint tools to scrape out the inside of soft, long-lasting linden trees. They were so skilful, even 7,000 years ago, that they could make a canoe with a wall only two centimetres thick. These canoes were up to 10 metres long, and were used for catching whales, and winning wars. 5,000 years ago, the boatwrights along the banks of the Ã…mose River in Denmark came up with a new trick. They made a row of holes along the upper edges of the sideboards of their canoes. Then they made planks with matching holes, tied them onto the side walls of their dugout, and so increased the distance between the water and the top of the hull. These boats travelled safely to Norway and Sweden.
During the Bronze Age (from 2,000 BC to 500 BC), some of the features of the classic Viking ship appeared - such as the posts at each end, which were crowned with the heads of animals or snakes or dragons. This high post was actually the extension of protective timbers on the pointy end of the boat.
By the time of the Iron Age (500 BC - 400 AD), the prow was a major feature of the boat. It took a lot of energy to make - but it was too tall and too weak to be used as a ram. But it must have been in some way protective or stabilising - because the Iron Age ship builders put one at each end of the boat. This was the first real double-ended boat - and higher at the ends, than in the middle. The advantage of the double-ended warship was that it could reverse, without having to turn. This could save their lives, when they had to suddenly retreat from a superior force.
The advantage of the higher ends, was that they stopped water from entering the boat. The advantage of the deeper mid-section was that it gave the boat a better grip on the water, during a turn. In fact, by the end of the Viking era, their dragon ships had the keel some 30 centimetres deeper in the centre section of the boat, than at either end. 30 centimetres is almost invisible in a boat 35 metres long, but the Viking shipwrights built in this subtle curve, because it was needed.
They were made from good materials. One recently-excavated Viking longboat had been made from 300-year-old trees. The planks were over 10 metres long, without a single imperfection. The Viking shipwrights would split the tree trunks in a radial pattern - like the spokes of a bicycle wheel radiating out from the centre. Splitting the timber gave greater strength than sawing it. And using planks made from radially-cut timbers from the same tree, meant that they were all the same strength.
And they weren't called longboats for nothing. These great ships were 35 metres long, about 3 metres wide, and about a metre high from the top plank to the keel. These dragon ships could cross an ocean, ride out a gale, cruise a river, and land on any beach. They were both a troop carrier and a landing ship. They could discharge their crew of 60 armed warriors within a minute.
In the 11th Century, the Viking King Magnus Barelegs used the lightness of these beautiful long ships, to trick the King of Scotland. The King of Scotland had made a treaty with King Magnus, that Magnus could have all of the land that he could sail his ship around. The King of Scotland had realised that there was no point in trying to hang onto any islands off the Scottish Coast, because he could not defend them. in Scotland, the Kintyre Peninsula is 65 kilometres long, and has a very narrow neck. So King Magnus sailed up to this narrow neck, and while sitting at the rudder of his light but strong dragonship, was dragged across the narrow strip of land. Legally and cunningly, he claimed the Peninsula of Kintyre. But the Viking Era ran only 3 centuries, from 800 to 1100 AD. Impregnable walls were built around city ports, navies were organised, and soon the graceful dragonships went the way of the beasts that they were named after.
My maternal grandfather was a full blooded Swede. He always claimed a Norwegian was a Swede with his brains beat out. His favorite sobriquet for "Scandahoovians" was "herring-choker." This passed for funny before the Ole & Lena jokes...
As Kurt Vonnegut later wrote: "My name is Yohn Yohnson/I live in Visconsin/Und I verk in a lumbermill dere!"
"Someday you will die somehow and something's gonna steal your carbon."