What do we know about early ships?


Problem 1. Wood

Not a great deal and not as much as we would like to know. The biggest problem is that they were made of wood. This biological material will naturally self-destruct in a number of different ways. Insects and creepy-crawlies will eat it. Fungus will live on it. It fades, dries out, becomes brittle and splits into thousands of small pieces just by being exposed to the air and it rots away if it gets wet. This means we have very few old ships to look at. Probably we would have NO old ships to look at if it wasn’t for some exceptional events.


It just happens that if wood is buried in muddy soil so that the air cannot get to it, then neither can the creepy-crawlies or fungus, so it will last a lot longer. The water in the mud stops it from drying out and shrinking and it gets preserved. You can guess that if a ship gets sunk, there is a rare chance that some bits of it will survive in the mud, if only we could find them. If a ship is buried on land, the same could happen. But who would take the trouble to bury a whole ship on land?


We will have to look at Wood in much greater detail later. (Investigation 8 & 9)


Problem 2. Writing and Recording

We know a bit about Roman ships that came hundreds of years before the Anglo-Saxon times that we are interested in, because the Romans were really good at writing and describing. They were also good artists with a great interest in technology of all kinds and loved to draw and record their achievements. The same can’t be said for the Anglo-Saxons. They knew lots of things, they were superb artists and had wonderful skills, but they mainly talked about them and explained them to each other, rather than writing their thoughts down. The Anglo-Saxons had to live their lives in their own ways and there were many similarities with the Romans. Just like the Romans they were involved in lots of fighting and like the early Romans they had lots of Gods that they had to say ‘Thank you’ to … if they were lucky, or things went their way in their latest battle, but the way that they did these things were different.


We will look again at Writing and Recording on the page Postcards and Bede in Why? When? and How? at the top of the page.


Some later ships. 800AD onwards

The period of ship history that we are want to know about, runs from about 3 or 400AD to about 800AD when the Vikings arrived. We DO know what the Viking ships looked like, because we have found quite a few of them. Luckily for us, almost half a dozen of them were sunk in Denmark to block the entrance to a fjord in about 1,000AD in a place called Roskilde. Sometimes they are also called the Skuldelev ships. Slightly earlier in Norway the people did take the trouble to bury some ships on land and the two most famous ones called the Oseberg ship and the Gokstad ship are definitely sailing ships. We therefore do have buried ships from about 800AD to look at. Burying ships was part of a common religious belief that we can see examples of from all across the world. The belief is that the person who has died will need possessions to help them live in their next life in another world. In China we can marvel at the Terracotta Army buried with their ruler, or in Egypt we can appreciate the treasures buried with the Pharaohs.


300 – 350AD

What about ships before the Anglo Saxons? We are fortunate that around 300AD some ships were deliberately sunk in shallow lakes that eventually became peat bogs in Denmark. They are called the Nydam ships and one, called the Oak ship is virtually complete, so it gives us plenty of information about the construction methods of its day. This leaves a 500 year ship-information gap from 300 to 800AD and sitting neatly in the middle of it is the Sutton Hoo ship that was buried about 625AD. It bridges the gap and has features similar to both the Nydam ships and the later Viking ships, but it is different from both types, although fundamentally it most closely resembles the Nydam ships.


Closing the 500 year gap 325 - 825AD

There are 2 important craft in this 500 year gap. One is the Sutton Hoo ship from East Anglia and the other is the Kvalsund ship from Norway. This craft discovered in 1920 is considerably smaller than the other craft listed here.

Here are some figures.


Nydam.        23m long x 4m wide.         Dated 330. War booty destroyed through religious belief.       15 pairs/oars.

Sutton Hoo. 27m long x 4.5m wide.      Dated 625. Burial one rich warrior king.                    Possibly 20 pairs/oars.

Kvalsund.    18m long x 3.2m wide.      Dated 690. Deliberately sunk.                                                 10 pairs of oars.

Oseberg.      21.58m long x 5.1m wide. Dated 830. Richest Viking find. Burial for 2 women.               15 Pair/oars

Gokstad.      25m long x 5.2m               Dated 890.  Burial one man. Also had 12 horses and 6 dogs. 16 pairs/oars



If you click on Why? When? and How? at the top of the page you will find something to help you with historical dates.

You will also find more information on Writing and Recording under Postcards and Bede.

Find out more about Countries and Why the Anglo-saxon stayed in East Anglia in Looking at Lands