Viking Era

Detailed estimate of time to construct and outfit a Viking longship – part 1 of 5

Illustration of 14 bench, medium-sized Viking longship. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

For a dive into how much time it would take to construct a Viking ship, weave the mainsail along with a spare, and manufacturer the seagoing outfits for a full crew, we can take a look at information provided by Neil Price in his delightful book Children of Ash and Elm / A history of the Vikings. Will have more to say about the book.

I will list the detail components he describes, accumulating the various time estimates. Then I’ll tabulate the amounts. Final step will be to combine the amounts to get some estimates expressed in terms of full-time people-years of labor as well as converting the estimates to people-hours. That will allow us to look at the time involved if a rich yarl or sea-king wanted to hire all the people to build a boat or if a large community wanted to do it using the spare time available in a larger area.

Surplus production

Surplus production is a phrase I’ll bring into the discussion later. This is the amount of extra time a person has available after taking care of the needs for subsistence living. In other words how much time is left over after tending the farm and other chores to keep her family fed and clothed.

One estimate of this, which I have mentioned before, can be found from Philip Line in his book The Vikings and Their Enemies – Warfare in Northern Europe, 750 -1100. A key comment he made on page 51, which I will quote, said:

“Experimental archaeologists have estimated that 40,000 working hours may have been needed to produce all the components of a 30-meter longship, consuming the surplus production of 100 persons for a year.”

The value in this comment is the estimate one person had 400 surplus hours per year. That averages about 10 hours per week and probably is far higher in the winter months and lower during planting and harvest time. Since building a boat would be a long-term project I will go with the average of 400 hours per year surplus labor.

Time estimates from Price

First, time for the ship itself.

Text points out the Skuldelev 2 worship has been painstakingly reconstructed using traditional techniques. From that work text reports it was estimated to take 2,650 person-days to build a boat and another 13,500 hours ironwork to manufacture the rivets and all the other necessary fittings going into the ship.

There would also be weaving of 2 kilometers of ropes and a sail measuring 120 square meters.

Text does not speculate on the time to manufacture two kilometers of rope.

Price’s discussion is on page 360 through 363.

Text uses the Ladby ship as a frame of restaurants for estimating time involved. The Ladby is from one of many burial sites that have not been discovered. It is a medium-sized longship.

Text says textile archaeologists (amazing for this accountant to learn the level of specialization in the archaeological field!) estimate a sail for ship the size of the Ladby would take two person-years working 10 hours a day. Text also points out it would be dangerous to go to sea without a spare sail, so assume there would be a second sail packed away before setting sail for glory and plunder. Author says this is a likely aggressive time calculations so he adjusted to between three and four years.

I will assume something between two and three people-years per sail.

When setting out to sea, the Vikings would take special sea-clothes. Text says these were coarse, thickly lined, consisting of multiple layers, woven from wool of course, and sealed somehow. Such an outfit would be needed to withstand the harsh weather at sea. Estimates are the Ladby ship had 32 sailing positions. Production time to create 32 sets of sea-clothes is estimated at something in the range of a whopping 24 person-years.

In addition to this the text mentions but does not quantify a spare change of clothes, some rugs, a tent to cover the center area of the boat and other sundry items needed.

I’m also thinking of 32 sea-chests to carry personal belongings. Don’t forget food for a couple weeks. Oh, yeah, there would be a battle ax, shield, and short seax knife for each crewman along with maybe some helmets and swords for some or many of the crew.

Text makes an educated but fuzzy estimate of around 30 people-years to construct the ship and outfit the crew.

Next post: accumulating the time for each component.

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