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Toward the ship as we know it


500BC-1000AD

The Celtic civilisation thrived in Western Europe at much the same time as the Romans, and survived the Roman occupation.  A number of river boats from this period have been excavated, showing that the Celts used the navigable waterways of Europe for trade.  They also built sea-going ships, especially to carry the tin mined in Cornwall across to continental Europe from where it was distributed by river.  Julius Caesar encountered these ships when he invaded Britain.  He recorded how they were strongly built to withstand the exposed waters of the western English Channel, with high forecastles and poop decks to cope with high waves.  They were built of thick planks of oak and fastened with large iron nails.  Propulsion was entirely by one square sail, usually made from animal skin.  They were more heavily built than the vessels of the Roman invaders, but slower.

The Vikings: master boat builders and seamen

The Vikings came to fill the power vacuum left when the Romans retreated from Northern Europe.  They dominated Scandinavia and settled significant parts of the Atlantic coast of Europe, having settlements in the Mediterranean, in Greenland and – more controversially – in North America.  What is known about their vessels makes it remarkable what the Viking seafarers and settlers achieved.

A number of Viking vessels have been excavated, thoroughly studied and replicas built.  They seem to have owed little to the earlier Celtic or Roman styles.  The Viking longships were typically long, narrow and shallow.  The earlier boats were better suited to rowing than sailing.  Indeed, their sides were so low that the boat could be swamped if it heeled under sail.  In fact, it is believed that only as late as 800 AD did the Vikings adopt the mast and the square sail.  The later ships are deeper, with a more pronounced keel, but still carried oars as well as sails.  The late adoption of sail is very surprising, as the Vikings would have encountered Celtic vessels, and seen other sailing craft in their visits to the Mediterranean.  If correct, this makes their voyages of exploration, settlement and conquest, undertaken solely with oar power, very impressive indeed. 

The Viking tradition of boat building outlived the Vikings themselves.  Well into the 19th century coastal sailing craft with similar lines and rigs to the longships were still trading around Norway, and vessels called keels were sailing England’s River Humber.  It is commonly found that a particular type of vessel, although obsolete for ocean-going voyages, still remains in use for many centuries in more sheltered waters where size or seaworthiness is not a critical factor.

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