As the greatest and most-feared power in Northern Europe for 500 years, the Vikings get little respect within the public consciousness today for their role in the advancement of history and technology. In spite of the popular stereotype of marauding barbarians, the Norse peoples from which the Viking warriors sprang were just as technologically superior compared to those they subjugated as any for the next thousand years; this highly organized society was as far beyond barbaric as any notable empire since.
At the height of the Viking Age, the Norse people had established settlements throughout Northern Europe, from the modern-day UK and Ireland to Russia – but the discovery of uninhabited (or nearly uninhabited) lands in the North would set Viking exploration in the history books forever.
The first among the colonial expansion of the Scandinavian peoples was to the Faroe Islands, a group of islands which had been noted by the Irish monk Brendan in the 6th century AD. The exact date of the Faroes’ settlement is generally placed in the early 800s, and historical records indicate that Viking presence in the area was significant enough by 1000 that the island group was converted to Christianity; the King of Norway officially claimed the lands for his country in 1035.
A short while after the Faroe Islands had been charted and explored by Viking seamen, Iceland was “discovered” by the Norwegian captain Naddodd, one of the original Viking settlers of the Faroes, in 825. Traveling from Norway to the Faroes, Naddodd’s ship went off-course northwesterly enough to land on the east coast of Iceland. A few years later, Gardar Svavarsson of Sweden circumnavigated the island and even established a temporary settlement near present-day Husavik.
Permanent Viking settlement of Iceland began soon thereafter, with the influx of Scandinavians enough to force a few hundred Irish monks off the land permanently.
A descendant of Naddodd, Leif Erikson, ultimately became perhaps the greatest Viking explorer of all: Not only did his banishment from Iceland lead to his establishment of the first Viking settlement in Greenland in 970, but also the “discovery” and charting of routes to a spot in North America that he called “Vineland” some 30 years later (not to mention almost 500 years below Chiristopher Columbus made the voyage).
Of course, responsible in no small part for the Norse people’s steady (and bloody) building of an empire was that Viking technology for which the marauders have become known: Naval vessels and weaponry.
The longship was most crucial to the Vikings, at first for exploration and subsequent pillaging but later for commercial trade that kept the territorial network together socially. Longships were an evolutionary descendant of the umiak boats used by Inuit people for transportation and hunting. As early as 800 AD, Vikings may have been traveling in these ships which became a symbol of terror from the 900s to 1100s.
Key to both the umiak and longship designs was the flat bottom allowing for much greater maneuverability than craft which had been employed in Europe since the days of Ancient Egypt: longships could easily shift direction in just three feet of water and could literally make landfall – quite handy for purposes of invasion. In addition, the Norse super-sized the umiak and its successors in crafting the longship, thereby allowing crews of two to three dozen and portage of massive quantities of goods.
A spinoff of the longship developed during the later years of the Viking Age were known to the Vikings as “knarr” and were built specifically for trips on the Atlantic, particularly to and from Greenland. Knarrs were typically about 54 feet long with a maximum width of about 15 feet and could transport livestock along with up to 30 men.
The weapon with which the Vikings are today most commonly associated, colloquially known as the “Viking sword,” was actually not an original Norse invention – but the Vikings naturally put their unique stamp on this technology. The Viking sword was actually developed in the Frankish Empire of the 9th to early 10th century and was exported throughout Europe. Nowhere was this weapon more popular than in Scandinavia, it seems, as King Charles the Bald, who would later become Holy Roman Emperor, declared selling weaponry to the Vikings specifically was an offense punishable by death.
Thanks to this importation of Frankish swords, Norse technology in smelting grew exponentially, a boon to the creation and maintenance of helmets, axes and even boating technology. Smelting also played on the vanity of Viking warriors, as blade inscriptions became popular with the rise of Nordic dominance of the northern seas.
Like all civilizations, the Vikings’ success was dependent on the ability to create fire, particularly with the heating of metals so emphasized. The fire-steel was a convenient and compact tool that allowed for the quick creation of sparks. Designed to be carried on a belt, this 6” to 8”-long tool was essentially a portable flint thought to be so important that many have been found throughout modern-day Scandinavia alongside the remains of their ritualistically-buried owners.
So effective was this technology that similar forms of the C-shaped fire-steel of the Vikings were used throughout Europe for seven centuries until the “friction match” became popular in the 1800s.
Modern archaeological evidence suggests, too, that the Vikings had a second shortcut to fire creation as well: rock crystal lenses (or “Visby lenses,” named for a museum which holds the world’s largest collection of these pieces). In 1999, several of these lenses dating back to the 11th century were found in archaeological digs near Fröjel on the island of Gotland. Prior to this point, most historians had maintained that Visby lenses had merely been acquired by Norse cultures via trade with Byzantium. The Fröjel finds have dispelled this belief somewhat with their uncovering of partially-finished pieces as well as glass bead jewelry using the same manufacturing process.
Visby lenses were used in Viking settlements in a way familiar to any modern-day child who has ever been armed with a magnifying glass: By focusing sunlight to create a beam of heat. One can only wonder how frequently used these lenses actually were, with the relatively short days of Viking lands and frequent inclement skies…
Things weren’t all business in the Viking lands, forever, as the distinct and ornate brooches found at formerly populated sites indicates. This metal jewelry was crafted for both women and men. These accessories were so painstaking created that modern science can still not explain the specific techniques.
We do know, however, that molds and crucibles were required for the manufacture of the brooches and that such creation typically took place in port towns, due to the necessity of having to import bronze ingots from mainland Europe.