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Viking Sails - What were they like?

Our imagination of a Vikings Longship undoubtedly depicts the ship with a square or rectangular sail. However, we do not have any sails from the Viking Age. The simply haven’t survived decomposition. This doesn’t mean that archaeologists are simply guessing that Viking sails were square or rectangular. There is enough historical evidence to confidently claim that this was indeed the shape and rigging method use by the Vikings.

The sail was introduced from Southern Europe immediately before the Viking Age. There are ships with large square or rectangular sails carved into stones from 6th and 7th century. There is no reason to believe that this would have changed on the ships used during the Viking Age. Yet, to date no complete sails have yet been discovered.

Fragments of Viking sails have been discovered and it appears as though Vikings made their sails with wool or linen, and they would often be dyed blood red for a more fearsome appearance.

There have been numerous finds which do support the square rigging. Some of the ships found such as the Gokstad ship, the Oseberg ship and the Skudelev ships (Roskilde), have given archaeologists many iron pieces which are clearly to mount a square sail on a central mast.

A square or rectangular sail mounted on a central mast would not have allowed the Vikings to travel head-on towards the wind. This would obviously be a time when they would need to use the many oars which were a part of Viking ships. The oars would not only allow them to travel straight towards the wind, they would also allow to have much better control and agility on the open seas, as well as in the multiple river systems which the Vikings used.

We may never know the exact dimensions of the sails the Vikings used, but today we can with some degree of confidence say that Vikings did in fact use square or rectangular centrally mounted sails.