Welcome to Bronze Age Scandinavia

In this third installment we look at the ships that made trading and raiding possible

Birkedal - Bronze Age ship

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A model of the reconstructed Hjortspring boat that was found in a bog in Denmark. Note its sleek lines and the fact that it was propelled by wooden paddles. Though it dates from the early Iron Age, archeologists believe it closely resembles the ships that were used in Bronze Age Scandinavia.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

As we learned in earlier installments in this series (Feb. 8: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/birkedal-bronze-age-scandinavia-01 and April 17: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/birkedal-bronze-age-scandinavia-02), Bronze Age Scandinavia—between 1500 BCE and 1100 BCE—was populated by hundreds of small predatory maritime chiefdoms. The great wealth of the chieftains rested on their lands and cattle as well as their control of trade in bronze, amber, and other highly regarded goods such as slaves.

Essential to their control of trade and the protection of their tiny realms were ships. Though very different from the Viking ships of a thousand years later, the ships of the Nordic Bronze Age were nonetheless magnificently crafted sea-going vessels. Unlike Viking ships they did not employ sails and they were designed to hug the coasts or ply the Baltic Sea rather than venture far out in the open storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean. No actual remains of a ship of the period have been found to date, but yet we know much about them from their portrayal in thousands of petroglyphs pecked into the coastal rocky shores of Scandinavia. Careful comparative research by archeologists has demonstrated that these “rock art” ships of the Bronze Age closely resemble a buried early Iron Age ship discovered in a bog in Denmark. This well-preserved ship is known as the Hjortspring boat and dates from between 400 BCE and 300 BCE.

The Hjortspring boat is a large sleek-lined canoe that measures 70 feet in total length yet only 2.5 feet in width. Its sides are somewhat low, being only 2 feet 4 inches high. It is clinker-built of lime wood planks sewn together with bast. The lowest side planks are larger than the rest and are lashed to a sturdy keel plank. The prow and stern are identical in construction and each sport prominent horn-like projections that are placed one above the other to form what resembles a beak at each end of the ship. The interior of the boat is 43 feet in length and contains 10 thwarts that once served as seats for 20 paired paddlers.

Sea trials with an exact reconstruction of the Hjortspring boat has demonstrated that it handles well in even rough seas and high winds. With an experienced crew, a boat of this type could travel up to 62 miles per day, making it ideal for long-distance trading and raiding. Practice runs with the reconstructed craft also demonstrated that the ship rides high in the water and therefore can carry a great deal of weight and can easily navigate in very shallow water.

Birkedal - Bronze Age

Photo: Ruth Kvernplassen
Middle Nordic Bronze Age petroglyphs (pecked rock art) of ships from Tanum in Western Sweden. Note the varying sizes of the ships that have been pecked into the surface of this great rock slab.

Studies of the rock art ships of the Bronze Age tell us that boats of this kind were guided by a helmsman using a steering oar. But interestingly, there was also a stemsman at the prow with his own steering oar; so the ship could quickly reverse direction since its stem and stern were both identical in construction. This characteristic would have made the ships supremely maneuverable, a clear advantage in war and in raiding.

The ships of the middle Bronze Age depicted in the rock art only vary slightly from the Hjortspring boat in that their fore and aft beaks turn inward to form a more hook-like shape in contrast to the gentle forward incline followed by the Hjortspring’s wooden beaks. Archeologists have found that 90% of the rock-art ships have the same proportions and construction lines as the Hjortspring boat. Seventy percent of the length of each boat is taken up by the hull, whereas the stern and bow keel extensions along with the “beaks” make up 30% of the length of the boat.

From close analysis the Bronze Age rock art archeologists have learned that most ships of the period carried between seven and 20 men. A few of the larger ships provided space for 40 to 60 men. Some of the rock art panels show smaller ships surrounding a single large ship; perhaps the smaller vessels are maneuvering to protect the larger “mother ship” from attack by the enemy.

Building vessels like the Hjortspring was a major undertaking. It has been estimated that a ship like the Hjortspring would have taken up to 6,500 person hours to construct. Only chieftains and other high-ranking men could have sponsored such labor-intensive efforts. So the ships and their use would have most likely been under the command and control of the wealthy chieftains and possibly one or two of their closest relatives.

These beautiful clean-lined ships underpinned the power and wealth of the Bronze Age chieftains. With them they could engage in profitable long-distance trade in metals, weapons, amber, slaves, leather, and fur along the coasts of Scandinavia. The ships also provided protection against other predatory chiefdoms that sought advantage. When not engaged in peaceful trade, they could become stealthy warrior delivery systems that could bring death and mayhem to even the most distant enemies.

Through either warfare or trade, these sea-going canoes connected all of coastal Scandinavia in the Bronze Age. With these ships the sea was not a barrier but a well-used highway that linked the people of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in a web of different relationships and enabled them to share a common culture in the Bronze Age. It was also these same ships that connected Scandinavia to a wider Europe between 3,500 and 3,100 years ago in both commerce and the flow of ideas.

See Part 1: The Chieftans

See Part 2: The Free Farmer-Warriors

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway.  He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.


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