What Were the Inventions of the Vikings?

by Pauline Mill

The Vikings were a powerful seafaring culture that rose to prominence in 8th-century Scandinavia and carried out large-scale mercantile and military explorations of Europe, Russia and beyond until the late 11th century. They were a rugged people often depicted as savage and barbaric, but they were actually an innovative, cosmopolitan group of people. Much of what they invented and pioneered is still with us today.

Globalization

A viking boat in a small harbour.

We often think of globalization as a recent process of integration made possible by advances in technology. But the Vikings were early pioneers of the practice. The sheer amount of travel they accomplished would be extraordinary now; at the time, it seemed almost magical to the people they encountered. Despite what many histories depict, Vikings did not always have a destructive effect on the hundreds of societies they came upon. They did not plunder or subjugate most of the peoples they encountered, although they were active slave traders. Vikings were the preeminent merchants of their day, and like merchants today, their motivation to globalize was largely financial. Where they set up their (predominantly male) settlements, they integrated into the ruling culture, often intermarrying with local women. The Vikings sailed uncharted seas as far south as North Africa and east to modern-day Russia. They created settlements in the British Isles. They had a short-lived settlement on the coast of North America, and one in what is now Baghdad, traveling and trading deep into the Middle East.

Longships

The rudder on a viking boat.

As the leading mariners of their time, Vikings employed state-of-the-art boat building technology. One of their signature inventions was the longship, a wooden boat with a shallow-draft hull and one long row of oars along each side. Side-mounted rudders allowed these boats to be pulled from water onto land quickly, instead of being anchored at the shore. Longships were sleek, lightweight and symmetrical, easily turning in any direction and going backwards and forwards with little exertion by the oarsmen. Maneuvering and docking longships required much less effort and time than previous ships, and this gave Vikings a distinct advantage when traveling long distances to foreign lands.

Sun Compass and Sunstones

Man's hand holding a modern compass.

The Vikings’ standing as the world’s greatest explorers was only as good as their navigational aids. Their sun compass is a marvel in engineering. The tool has a light, portable circular wooden sundial with a peg in the middle call a gnomon. Viking mariners carried gnomons of different lengths on their long journeys, to adjust for seasonal variation. The gnomon would cast a shadow onto the wooden disc, allowing the Vikings to determine the latitude of their position within a 4-degree margin of error of our modern magnetic compass - very accurate for the time. On overcast days, the clever Vikings used the compass in conjunction with calcite crystals from Iceland that they called "sunstones." They carved the crystals into large square blocks when on land. Then, at sea, they would hold up a crystal and rotate it slowly until it caught the light of the sun, even a setting sun. Once they could identify where the sun was, they had established a reference point from which to plot the ship’s direction. These simple, brilliantly conceived tools allowed the Vikings to travel more widely on sea than any other culture at the time.

Skis

Man downhill skiing in snow.

We have the Vikings to thank for present-day skiing. The origin of skiing is not absolutely determined: The earliest known skis, the Kalvträsk skis, were discovered in Sweden and carbon-date from 3200 BC, but there are also descriptions of items that may have been skis mentioned in Chinese records from around 200 BC. In any case, the Western skiing tradition comes directly from the Vikings, who skied for both recreation and practical transport in their snowy lands, and whose descendents in Scandinavia have carried on the unbroken tradition of skiing. In fact, the word ‘ski’ comes from the old Norse word 'skío.' The Vikings' mythological pantheon included the Norse goddess Skaoi and god Ullr, both often depicted on skis or snowshoes.

About the Author

Pauline Mill is a professional writer and researcher. She has written for independent film producers and documentarians on a variety of topics including Christian theology, early American history and political science. She was the beneficiary of an Arcus Foundation grant to work in news and documentary production at PBS. She studied humanities at New York University.

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