Judging from the literature and numerous archaeological finds, ropes in the Viking period and the Middle Ages, and also up to recent times, were made of lime bast, flax, hemp, heather, pine, hide and hair etc. Walrus hide was used for the halyard, shroud and stay (rosmalreip, svarðreip). Use was also made of hide rope of seal, deer, elk or ox. Horsehair (simereip) was used for the sail’s bolt rope (liksima), or for sheets, bowline, braces etc. Rope made of cow tail hair, the coarse hair from sheep fleece or pig hair (bustreip) has also been used.
The actual combinations of rope types used on the individual types of boat and ship is naturally very difficult to determine as local conditions play a great role. But by testing the different types on a full-scale reconstruction, crucial knowledge can be gained on strength and suitability.
It is also important to be aware that in the various sources and traditions a material distinction is often made between cord (reip) and rope (tog). Reip is made of animal material and tog of plant fibres. When working with sources such as the sagas and legal texts it is therefore always necessary to return to the original text and check the translation on these points.
We do not know today the extent to which hide rope was used in the ships relative to, for example, bast rope and how much this has varied with geographical situation, type of ship, operational waters, period, changing resources etc. In Norwegian legislation for the equipment of warships, comprising both the Gulating Law and the Frostating Law, rope of both hide and hair in rigging and sail is included as a matter of course. Ship’s rope of walrus can be traced in the literature as a Norwegian speciality used especially for the shroud and cable. These could also be of bast rope. Hide rope seems also to have been in demand in other countries, but the extent to which it was used is unclear. Hide ropes probably had very many different forms and some of the rope, made for example from seal and walrus, was in the form of straps or thongs as was also the case later. The archaeological finds show so far a great deal of bast but no hemp.
On our reconstructions we generally use hemp rope in both the standing and the running rigging. Many of our boats today are rigged from the start with horsehair rope in the sheets.
Andersen, Erik, Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, Søren Vadstrup & Max Vinner 1997: Roar Ege. Skuldelev 3 skibet som arkæologisk eksperiment. Roskilde.