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Viking boats in medieval Russia from written and archaeological evidence

Petr Sorokin
p. 373-377


Les mentions des navires vikings en Russie sont rares et brèves tant dans les letopis (chroniques) russes que dans la littérature nordique ancienne. Les noms de bateaux en langue étrangère étaient généralement utilisés dans les documents russes médiévaux pour désigner les navires étrangers, tandis que les navires locaux, ainsi que leurs pièces et gréements, portaient pratiquement toujours des noms locaux. Les témoignages archéologiques de bateaux du début du Moyen Âge sur le territoire de la Russie comprennent des éléments de navires scandinaves et des représentations de bateaux vikings. Ils ont été découverts dans les niveaux médiévaux de villes russes situées le long des principales voies navigables intérieures reliées à la Baltique du milieu du viiie au début du xie siècle, ainsi que dans des bateaux-tombes. La tradition de la construction navale scandinave a existé en Russie au moment des contacts intensifs russo-scandinaves de l’époque viking.

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1The development and spread of early medieval boatbuilding traditions in the Baltic region is an important topic related to the history and contacts of its peoples. The study of it is especially advanced with an accumulation of archaeological data since the mid-20th century.

2One of the main criteria for differences in the boatbuilding traditions is the method of plank connection and caulking. The joining of overlapping wooden planks (clinker-built) with iron rivets and wool caulking was used by Scandinavians, whereas wooden nails with moss caulking were used by western Slavs (Crumlin-Pedersen 1991, p. 72). The sewing technique with various vegetal fibres and roots, and moss caulking is associated with Sami, Finnish and Russian boatbuilding (Westerdahl 1985, p. 52-55, 1995, p. 233-260; Forssell 1995, p. 201). The Vikings visited and settled some Russian areas in early medie­val times. The extent of the use of Scandinavian vessels or boatbuilding tradition in Russia, the distribution, type and size of vessels, as well as the period of this use are the subject of this study.

1. Archaeological data of Viking ship elements

3Parts of medieval vessels and elements of their gear have been excavated in medieval layers of Russian towns and in boat burials. Boats with clinker planking have been identified among several construction technique types of archaeological vessels, but they are not the most common. The natural conditions of Rus’ – low-lying areas with fast-flowing rivers linking towns with the sea, as well as rich forests – meant the predominance in this region of flat-bottomed vessels and plank boats with a dugout base. Such boats were suited for the transportation of people and cargo over long distances and could successfully overcome obstacles on rivers and lakes. The clinker-built boats, according to archaeological finds, had two types of plank connection. The first, using iron rivets, is confirmed by finds from Staraya Ladoga dating back to the mid-8th century, and belongs to the Scandinavian boatbuilding tradition (Rjabinin, Sorokin 1998). The second, sewing with bast ropes or pine tree roots is of local origin and is confirmed by Novgorod finds dating to the 10th century (Dubrovin et al. 2001).

Fig. 1: The main settlements and boat graves with finds of boat rivets in the territory of ancient Russia

Fig. 1: The main settlements and boat graves with finds of boat rivets in the territory of ancient Russia

1. Staraya Ladoga; 2. Ust’-Rybezna; 3. Kalmaniemi; 4. Zalahtovie; 5. Gnezdovo; 6. Shestovitsy; 7. Timerevo; 8. Sarskoe Gorodische; 9. Beloozero; 10. Novgorod; 11. Pskov; 12. Polock.

4Boat rivets, sometimes with fragments of wooden planks adjoined, have been found primarily in the towns of northern Russia connected by river systems to the Baltic Sea (fig. 1.1, 9-12, fig. 2.1). They date from the mid-8th to the early 11th century, although some finds have turned up in archaeological layers of the 12th to 17th centuries. Boat rivets dating to the 10th to early 11th century have been found in the settlements of the Dnieper basin, Gnezdovo and Shestovitsy, and in the Upper Volga at Timerevo and Sarskoye Gorodische, separated from the Baltic by portages (fig. 1.5-8).

5Boat graves and graves with boat parts in cremation burial mounds of the mid 9th to early 11th centuries have been disco­vered in the Ladoga Lake area (Staraya Ladoga, Ust’-Rybezna and Kalmaniemi) (fig. 1.1-3), in the Upper and Middle Dnieper (Gnezdovo, Shestovitsy), and in the Upper Volga (Timerevo) (fig. 1.5-7). Mounds with such burials have different shapes and sizes, reaching 11-38 m in diameter and 0.5-8 m in height: the cremation sites inside mounds vary in size from 6 × 3 m to 23.5 × 12.8 m. They have been recognised by the concentrations of iron rivets that connected boat parts. From about 100 burials with rivets, only 11 included 50 to 276 examples, most of them have only one to three. A few of them can be used to determine the approximate dimensions of the vessel. The reconstructed length of the burned boats is about 6 to 10 m, which corresponds to the average size of vessels in Viking-age burial mounds of central Sweden (Sorokin 2018).

6The length of the iron rivets varies from 2.1 to 8.7 cm, with shaft diameter of 0.4 to 1 cm. The shafts are mostly of irregular shape, rounded in section, and tend to become thicker from the middle to the edges, although there are also some rivets rectangular and round in section. Based on size, shape and general context of the finds, most of the rivets are interpreted as elements from vessels. J. Bill, who has studied ship rivets in different parts of northern Europe, concluded that there are local variations that can be distinguished by the shape of the shaft: a rounded section in Scandinavia and square in Slavic and Finnish zones (Bill 1994). The study of boat rivets in the territory of Russia shows that the first version prevails, but the second is also present. This may indicate that the majority of boat rivets found in Russia are of Scandinavian origin.

7The joining technique using iron rivets was not at all typical of medieval Russian craft production and such evidence is seldom found in urban layers, except in towns located along the main water routes in areas with Scandinavian populations. The technique was brought to northwest Russia by Scandinavians as early as the 8th-9th centuries.

Fig. 2: Finds from Staraya Ladoga of elements from vessels

Fig. 2: Finds from Staraya Ladoga of elements from vessels

1. Boat rivets, mid-8th century (after Rjabinin, Sorokin 1998); 2. T-shaped post for a ship’s tent (drawing P. Sorokin).

8Apart from rivets and fragments of wooden planks, some other elements of rigging and equipment found in Staraya Ladoga also originate from clinker-built boats, probably ore ships (Sorokin 2006, p. 157-162). These include several variants of rowlocks fastened to a vessel’s plank through holes in their base with the help of wooden treenails or binders. A T-shaped post for a ship’s tent (2.4 m tall and about 1.2 m wide) with an extension of the upper part for laying yards was excavated by the wooden causeway, dated to 865-920, near a large Viking house (fig. 2.2). Its structure and size are similar to a post from the Gokstad ship. Such an element could only be used on large ships. Its upper part has a carved graffito of a Scandinavian deity with a pointed beard and long moustache that resembles Thor in appearance. A similar graffito was on a tent post from the Oseberg ship. Images of deities on ships’ tents served as amulets reflecting some religious tradition connected with navigation.

9A graffito on a bone comb and on a piece of birch bark, both depicting a large ship with high arched stem and stern, common for Scandinavian vessels, with a mast in one case, and with a square sail in the other, with rigging and flag, were found in archaeological layers of the 9th-11th centuries in Pskov and Staraya Ladoga.

10Some of the boat finds could belong to different types of vessel, but most likely to clinker-built boats. These include elements of a vessel’s equipment: rudders and rowing oars, rowlocks, frames, and elements of rigging.

2. Written sources concerning Viking boats

11Mention of Scandinavian vessels in northwest Rus’ dating back to the Viking Age are rare and brief both in Russian letopis (chronicles) and Nordic literature of the 12th-13th centuries. Scandinavian vessels that sailed into Ladoga Lake at the end of the 10th to mid-11th century are mentioned in sagas as skip (ship). Runic stones of central Sweden bear mentions of ships that used to sail along the austerweg (the eastern way): knorr, knar – a large ore cargo and military ship; and skeid – a large military ship. One inscription of the 11th century contains information about Sigvid who “fell in Holmgard” (Novgorod) (Mel’nikova 1977, p. 34, 77-93, 111, 191; Sorokin 2017, p. 50).

12Documents describing Russian medieval life mention about 20 variants of vessel names. They include generic and proper, Russian and foreign names. The Russkaya Pravda legal code of the mid-11th century mentions among certain types of vessels a sea lodia or overseas lodia, which could also be used for Scandinavian ships. Russian documents describing events since the 12th century name some types of Scandinavian vessels that came to the Russia from the Baltic Sea, predominantly during military campaigns: korabl and sneka. The sneka was a large sailing and rowing boat that is frequently mentioned in the Scandinavian literature. Korabl was a Russian generic name for large seagoing vessels (Sorokin 2017, p. 50). Normally the sneka had about 20 pairs of oars (Jesch 2001, p. 126), but larger versions could hold 30 rowing benches (Struluson 1980, p. 142).

13Visits to Ladoga by Scandinavian nobles, including representatives of royalty, during the reign of Prince Vladimir and Prince Yaroslav (970-1054) were also likely to have been made on large Viking ships, which corresponded to their status and provided security. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us of an embassy that arrived from Norway to Aldeigjuborg (Staraya Ladoga) to take Magnus, Saint Olaf’s son, from Prince Yaroslav, continuing on from there to Holmgard (Novgorod) by horse. When their mission was complete, “…down to Aldeigjuborg they sailed, and brought ships there; they set forth from the East as soon as ice disappeared”. The Saga of Harald Hardrada has a similar trip description, “… He got ready and sailed from Holmgard, and travelled to Aldeigjuborg in spring, took a ship there, and sailed from the East in summer” (Glazyrina, Dzhakson 1987, p. 87 and p. 81). According to “The History of Norway”, Olav Tryggvasson, another would-be king of Norway, while serving Prince Vladimir, undertook sea raids to Baltic shores, supposedly from Ladoga: “After he had conquered many lands and cities for King Valdemar, … he set forth for home to Gardy” (Dzhakson 2000, p. 38 and p. 40). Written records contain only general information about the Scandinavian vessels that visited Russia, but they were all seagoing and in most cases could not navigate inland waterways.

3. Conclusion

14Russia was included in Baltic connections from early medie­val times and had economic, political and military relations with Scandinavian peoples. The spread of Scandinavian boatbuilding traditions in Russia according to archaeological and written data coincides mainly with the areas of Viking presence in Russia. Iron rivets and wooden elements belonging to the vessels, and graffiti of ships are found primarily in towns of northwest Russia: Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Pskov. The signs of this tradition are fixed along the main waterways of Eastern Europe during the Viking Age (mid 8th-early 11th centuries), a period of intensive contacts between Russia and Scandinavia. Evidence of the use of clinker-built boats has been discovered in the Dnieper basin and in the Upper Volga region. In addition to iron rivets and fragments of wooden planks, some other parts of rigging probably also originate from Scandinavian boats and ships (fig. 2.2).

15A comparative analysis of written and archaeological sources shows that large Scandinavian ships stopped at Staraya Ladoga, the closest town to the Baltic Sea. Smaller plank boats (6-9 m long), similar to the Gokstad ships 1-3, were used for communications up the inland water systems of Eastern Europe because they could easily sail in shallow waters and could be portaged over rapids both by water and by land. From the 9-10th century, clinker-built boats assembled with iron rivets were visiting the basins of both the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, from where they could pass through to the Black and Caspian Seas. We cannot, however, rule out the possibility that some parts of the clinker planking may have belonged to boats with a dugout base. Russian and Byzantine chronicles mention two types of vessels used in the Black Sea during Russian expeditions to Byzantium in the 9th to early 11th century. The Arab traveller, Ibn Fadlan, gives a detailed description of a Russian nobleman’s boat burial in the Upper Volga in 921. In both cases, the vessels described appear to be large. The types and sizes of vessels used for sailing along the inland waterways of Eastern Europe “from the Varangians to the Greeks” and “to Arabian East” (Likhachev 2007, p. 8-9) were chosen in accordance to the purpose and the natural and political possibilities of travelling.

16No reliable evidence of building clinker vessels with iron rivets in Russian towns has been found so far, although there are potential signs of this on the sites: iron and woodworking industries with all the necessary tools and resources. It is unknown whether all vessels of this type came from Scandinavia or some of them were built in Russia. In early medieval Russia, where inland waterways prevailed, local types of vessels were mainly used for such voyages. The method of joining planks with iron rivets, common in Scandinavian places of residence in Russia, did not spread into local boatbuilding. Traditional shipbuilding on the White and Barents Seas in the 19th century produced a type of ship known as schnjaka, close to the Scandinavian sneka, however, the connection of the planks follo­wed a local technique of sewing. Thus, the Scandinavian shipbuilding tradition in Russia was mainly typical of people from Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

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Bill J.
1994 “Iron nails in Iron Age and Medieval Shipbuilding,” in C. Westerdahl (ed.), Crossroads in Ancient Shipbuilding, Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 6), Roskilde 1991, Oxford, Oxbow Books, p. 54-63.

Crumlin-Pedersen O.
1991. “Ship Types and Sizes AD 800-1400,” in O. Crumlin-Pedersen (ed.), Aspects of Maritime Scandinavia AD 200-1200, Proceedings of the Nordic Seminar on Maritime Aspects of Archaeology, Roskilde 1989, Roskilde, Viking Ship Museum, p. 69-82.

Dubrovin G. E., Okorokov A.V., Starkov V.F., Chernosvitov P. Ju.
2001 Istorija severorusskogo sudostroenija, Sankt-Petersburg, Aleteja.

Forssell H.
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1987 Drevnerusskie goroda v drevneskandinavskoj pis’mennosti, Moskva, Nauka.

Dzhakson T. N.
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Jesch J.
2001 Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. The vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer.

Mel’nikova E. A.
1977 Skandinavskie runicheskie nadpisi, Moskva, Vostochnaja literatura.

Likhachev D. S. (ed.)
2007 Povest’ vremennih let, Sankt-Petersburg, Nauka.

Rjabinin E. A., Sorokin P. E.
1998 “Nekotorye sudovye nahodki iz raskopok v Staroy Ladoge,” in Izuchenie pamjatnikov morskoj arheologii 3, St Petersburg, The Institute of the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Science, p. 187-194.

Sorokin P. E.
2006 “Staraya Ladoga: a Seaport in Medieval Russia,” in L. Blue, A. Englert, F. Hocker (eds), Connected by the Sea. Proceedings of the Tenth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 10), Roskilde 2003, Oxford, Oxbow Books, p. 157-162.

Sorokin P. E.
2017 “The medieval vessels in northwestern Russia in written and archaeological sources,” in J. Litwin (ed.), Baltic and Beyond, Change and Continuity in Shipbuilding, Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA 14), Gdańsk 2015, Gdańsk, National Maritime Museum, p. 49-52.

Sorokin P. E.
2018 “The boats from graves on the territory of Old Russia,” Stratum plus 5, p. 235-250.

Struluson S.
1980 Krug zemnoi, Moskva, Nauka.

Westerdahl C.
1985 “Sewn boats of the North: A preliminary catalogue with introductory comments. Part 1,” IJNA 14.1, p. 33-62.

Westerdahl C.
1995 “Samischer bootsbau, teil 1,” Deutsches Schiffahrtarchiv 18, p. 233-260.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: The main settlements and boat graves with finds of boat rivets in the territory of ancient Russia
Légende 1. Staraya Ladoga; 2. Ust’-Rybezna; 3. Kalmaniemi; 4. Zalahtovie; 5. Gnezdovo; 6. Shestovitsy; 7. Timerevo; 8. Sarskoe Gorodische; 9. Beloozero; 10. Novgorod; 11. Pskov; 12. Polock.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Fig. 2: Finds from Staraya Ladoga of elements from vessels
Légende 1. Boat rivets, mid-8th century (after Rjabinin, Sorokin 1998); 2. T-shaped post for a ship’s tent (drawing P. Sorokin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 315k
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