Detailed estimate of time to construct and outfit a Viking longship – part 3 of 5

Panoramic view of the two Viking ships on the embankment of the Salakkalahti Bay, Vyborg, Leningrad Oblast, Russia. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Previous posts here and here accumulated time estimates involved to construct and outfit a medium-sized Viking longship. The starting point for this series of discussions is Neil Price’s book, Children of Ash and Elm / A history of the Vikings.

How do we roll those separate amounts in hours, days, and years to one number? I can’t think in terms of subtotals in all three categories. What we can do is adjust the hours, days, and years into the same unit.

The standard workday was 10 hours a day. That is the author’s assumption and that is my understanding of the normal work day around the world until the industrial revolution created enough worker productivity that the standard day could be cut back to eight hours.

The norm until several decades ago across the planet was at least six days of work a week.

So I will bring those different units of measure together by assuming 10 hours per day, six days per week, and 52 weeks per year. In an agricultural world holidays and vacations are a somewhat difficult concept to apply since animals don’t much mind whether you think this is a vacation day or not. They still need attention every day.

Bringing all those estimates into common size by converting each of the estimates into years, and days, and hours shows the following :

estimate years days hours
conversion ratio          312           10
   —-    —-    —-
years, low estimate            31         31       9,672       96,720
days       2,650           8       2,650       26,500
hours     13,500           4       1,350       13,500
subtotal, low estimate         44     13,672     136,720
additional for high estimate              3           3          936        9,360
total, high estimate         47     14,608    146,080
surplus production/year           400
years of surplus production           365
rounded years surplus production           370


When we string together all those assumptions discussed in this series, my arithmetic suggests the following time needed to construct and outfit one medium-sized seagoing Viking longship:

  • 44 to 47 people-years
  • 13,672 to 14,608 people-days
  • 136,720 to 146,080 people-hours

Keeping in mind the large uncertainty around every single assumption involved in the calculation leads me to round off the estimates:

  • 44 to 47 people-years
  • 13K to 15K people-days
  • 135K to 145K people-hours

In terms of surplus production at the rate of 400 hours per person per year it would take something in the range of 370 surplus-production-years for a large community to create and outfit one longship.

Vikings took slaves. Lots of slaves. They were really into human trafficking. At this point we need to bring in the author’s discussion of how all those slaves who were not sold were put to work when they were instead hauled back to Scandinavia.

The massive need for sails combined with a large number of outbuildings with sunken floors, some with apparent locks on the door, suggest those slaves (women obviously) were put to work weaving.

Now you can start breaking apart the time estimates in a manner you wish based on whatever additional string of assumptions you want to bring into the discussion.

Obviously, the ship construction and probably most of the ironwork would have been done by skilled freemen.

A large portion of the weaving could be done by slaves put to work full-time. A yarl or sea-king would only have to provide subsistence food to obtain that labor.

Combine these factors anyway you wish and you can see that sending a medium-sized longship to sea with 32 Vikings was a major capital investment.

Reconcile estimates

Author Neil Price makes a rough guess that it would take about 30 person-years to construct and outfit a medium-size longship. My estimate above is between 44 and 47 person-years. The difference is I added guesses for tar, rope, sea-clothes, and rugs, while his estimate appears to include only sea-clothes and the sails, without ship construction.

Next post will consider how large a community would be needed to set a ship to sea.

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