Who Were the Vikings?

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13312

They were farmers, explorers, expert shipbuilders, and plunderers. Why did they leave their homelands, and what made them so successful? Learn all about the Vikings! Sorry, no horned helmets here!



learning style
Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The Vikings spread their influence across the world from Russia to North America.

  • How did they travel so far?
  • How did they become the most feared raiders in Europe?

For a quick introduction to the history of the Vikings, watch The Vikings - In a nutshell by NutshellEdu:

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Where were they from?

The Vikings came from the countries that we now call Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

map of Scandinavia

How did they live?

They lived in longhouses such as this:

Viking house in Ale, Sweden

Image by Sven Rosborn, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 3.0 license.

They kept livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. They ate seafood, meat, vegetables, fruits, berries, and nuts and drank beer and wine.

They were a very athletic people and participated in sports such as wrestling, mountain climbing, and swimming. Being from a cold climate, they also loved sports such as skiing and skating, and they even had a game that was similar to hockey.

They had a written language, using an alphabet called runor, which was used by many Germanic peoples before the Roman alphabet became the standard. Their letters looked like this:

Codex runicus, written in runes

Image [cropped] by Asztalos Gyula, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

There are thousands of runestones all over Scandinavia that bear these markings. Most of them commemorate Viking explorations and wars.


What did they look like?

The image of the wild-looking, dirty, savage Viking with horns on his helmet is probably not correct.

Many Viking burial sites contained combs and grooming products, showing that appearance was important to them. And their helmets looked like this:

Gjermundbu helmet

Image by NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Why did they leave Scandinavia?

Around 700 AD, the people realized that they needed more land for their farms and settlements. They began to build large ships for sailing to explore the world and find other places to settle. They also found they could easily raid some other peoples and gain wealth for themselves.

The word viking means to go out raiding. While many of those people did go out raiding, many did not. They stayed at home to tend the farms and work at their crafts. However, the word came to be used for all the Scandinavian peoples who lived during this time period---700 to 1000 AD---which became known as the Viking Age.

They often settled in the lands they had raided, and blended in with the people there.

They had very large and successful trading networks around the world. They imported (bought for themselves) items such as spices, wine, glass, and silk and exported (sold to others far away) things like cloth, wool, fur, and amber. (Amber is the resin of a pine tree which has become a fossil. It was used to make beads.)

Why were they so successful at exploration?

One of the secrets to the Vikings' success was their great skill at building ships.

Watch What's so special about Viking ships? - Jan Bill from TED-Ed:

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Of course, the Vikings not only built great ships, they became great sailors as well. They were able to travel all over Europe without maps or compasses!

They established settlements on Iceland and Greenland, which they called green in the hopes of attracting more settlers. (It is a cold, frozen land, three-quarters of which is a permanent sheet of ice!)

The area called Vinland is now called Newfoundland; it's part of Canada.

Look at the map below and trace how far west they went:

Viking voyages

Image by Bogdangiusca, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Viking explorer Leif Erikson was the first European to reach North America. He arrived there around the year 1000, about 492 years before Christopher Columbus!

Watch Leif Eriksson - The First European in North America, from Viking River Cruises, to learn about the Vikings' exploration of Iceland, Greenland, and North America:

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The Vikings tried to establish a settlement in North America.

Take a look at a reconstructed longhouse from those remains of Viking homes found in Canada:

Norse longhouse in Canada

Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Although this settlement didn't last, many of their settlements all over the world survived and thrived. That is why much of European history, from Russia to England and Ireland, has been influenced by the Vikings!

Now that you have met the Vikings, sail on to the Got It? section to review what you've learned!

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