Jorvik Viking Festival

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As well as travelling for trading and raiding, the Vikings also travelled for discovery, setting off on expeditions around the world; they discovered new land, riches and knowledge along the way, leaving an impact across the globe that is still felt today.

The Vikings were masters of boat building techniques – early sources refer to them as ‘shipmen’. The incredible long, sleek and fast build of Viking longships enabled them to travel vast distances quickly, as well as along rivers and in shallow water. They sailed across the Baltic Sea and down Russian rivers as far as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to Byzantium and the Caliphate of Baghdad. They were also the first Europeans to reach Greenland and North America.

Without a compass, Norse explorers had to use the night sky for navigation. At night they would watch the skies and use the position of the stars to chart their course. As experienced seafarers, they were able to tell when land was close by watching birds and the colour of the water.

Not all Viking voyages were successful. There were many failed expeditions, ending in shipwreck, illness or conflict, and sometimes all three. There were many famous Viking explorers, whose turbulent travels are recorded in the sagas, such as Ingvar the Far Travelled, Leif Erikson and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

Ingvar’s attempts to re-open trade routes in the Volga (Russia) failed, with most men dying of illness, but he and his warriors were seen as heroes. This is recorded in the Ingvar runestones which commemorate the many warriors who never came home from the expedition. Read about Ingvar the Far Travelled here.

Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot on continental North American soil (excluding Greenland), around five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Erikson’s extraordinary journey to Vinland depicted in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir is viewed as the most travelled European of the 11th Century. She was born in Iceland, gave birth to a son in Vinland, farmed in Iceland and made a pilgrimage to Rome on foot. Read more about Gudrid’s travels here.

These three stories are just some of the extraordinary tales of Viking explorers who travelled around the world in this age. Much of what we know of these individual tales is from the sagas, written after the Viking Age. However, we also know from primary sources and archaeological evidence that the Vikings certainly travelled far and wide around the globe. Long term Viking settlements were established in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Great Britain, Ireland and Normandy.

Objects excavated at sites like Coppergate, York show how far the Vikings reached and the lands and goods they discovered along the way, with objects found from Norway, the Rhineland, the Baltic, Uzbekistan and the Red Sea.

Discover stories of Viking discovery at JORVIK Viking Festival 2020