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Viking Houses

October 25, 2023 7 min read

Viking houses: the heritage of Scandinavian architecture | Viking Heritage

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture

The Viking civilization exhibits a striking cultural dichotomy. On one hand, there are the brave warriors and the divine feats of Viking mythology. On the other hand, we discover the fine art of the Vikings in all its glory.

Master jewelers, painters, and sculptors, the Vikings were also skilled carpenters and architects. Viking houses thus represent one of the many legacies of their culture, a characteristic signature that enhances the Nordic regions.

The Architecture of Viking Houses, an Art in Its Own Right

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage

Art and Viking culture enthusiasts are not the only ones to recognize the characteristic style of Scandinavian architecture. These monuments and buildings, now considered historical heritage, continue to inspire modern architectural styles in the Nordic countries.

A Marked Diversity

Medieval Scandinavian architecture is very present in Denmark. There, one finds all types of constructions, namely: Viking houses in multiple variants, imposing Viking fortresses (or trelleborg), and boat sheds (naust or nøst in Old Norse). Places of worship, linked to the Christianization of the Scandinavian peoples, were created later.

Most often, Viking houses were isolated. They were located at the center of farms, surrounded by fertile lands. Some chicken coops and stables were annexed to them. It was only rarely that constructions were aggregated into small towns. In addition to what has been mentioned, all other types of dwellings, businesses, and workshops were established there.

On the other hand, the construction techniques exploited during the construction of Viking houses were multiple:

  • Sometimes, they manipulated wood, the main building material, by arranging and interweaving beams and planks;
  • Sometimes, they completed their work with clay or manure partitions, or they replaced wood with more readily available materials.

Characteristics of Viking Houses

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One of the striking elements of Viking house architecture is the ratio of proportions. The constructions were almost never tall, but rather wide and long. With the exception of fortress towers, the buildings were low and spanned several meters in length.

Furthermore, the majority of Viking houses were constructed from high-quality oak wood harvested from Danish forests. In Sweden and Norway, it was substituted with cut and joined coniferous wood. The wooden framework was most often visible inside, between beams engraved with Viking symbols and horizontal support beams.

Over time, construction techniques were refined to allow for better durability. Moisture, the primary factor of wear, was avoided through finishes made of clay and dung.

Another known insulator is peat, derived from the soil's surface layer, which was arranged in strips or blocks. To protect the beams from water-infiltrated soil, stones were placed deep to surround their bases.

Finally, the triangular roofing of Viking houses is almost constant. It consists of three layers: an inner layer of peat with the grass turned downwards, then a middle layer of compacted soil, and a final layer of peat oriented upwards. As we will see below, they can also be made of wood.

To keep warm, the Vikings lit fires indoors. Smoke was evacuated through a hole in the roof. It was only much later that chimneys were developed. That's why Viking houses were called smoke houses. The lack of ventilation and the poor ventilation system were also responsible for many respiratory diseases.

Types of Viking Constructions Described in Literature

Although Viking houses may look similar at first glance, an experienced eye can tell the difference between the different types of constructions. Depending on their function and the social status of their owners, dwellings distinguish themselves from one another through fine nuances. Researchers and archaeologists have managed to categorize Viking constructions into several categories.

1 — Viking Longhouses

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage
Reconstruction of a Viking chief's longhouse at the Lofotr Viking Museum, on the Lofoten Islands in Norway.

Viking longhouses (or langhús in Old Norse, skalar in Icelandic) are ancient Viking dwellings. While they were built lengthwise, they were only 5 to 7 meters wide.

Moreover, their dimensions vary depending on the wealth of the owner. Modest rural homes are only 15 meters long, while the houses of more renowned Vikings exceeded 25 meters.

The walls are oval, curved at an obtuse angle, so much so that the roof resembles an upside-down boat. This aspect is even more striking as the ends are thinner than the central part. Inside, researchers even doubt that the pillars are vertical, as they seem to be rather oblique.

Inside a Viking longhouse, there are two central rows of beams aligned parallel to its long axis. The house is subdivided into several rooms by wooden partitions.

In fact, it is the descendants of the same family who sleep under the same roof, and optionally the household slaves. So there are approximately fifty people per longhouse. Slaves and animals were separated from the other inhabitants, remaining at the eastern end.

On the central main aisle, wood was burned to warm the place. The floor was made of fresh earth to partially absorb moisture.

Obviously, the construction of Viking longhouses was laborious. In addition to requiring a lot of manpower, there had to be enough wood. If oaks were scarce, they would be replaced by woven twigs.

2 — Viking Pit Houses

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage

As its name suggests, the pit house (also referred to as grubehus in Danish) is partially built underground. These are semi-subterranean houses: their foundations are dug 4 to 5 meters into the ground. The ground itself forms the lower part of the walls, utilizing the environment for thermal insulation.

Unlike the longhouses, these dwellings are as long as they are wide, and sometimes circular in shape. Since the construction materials are not too significant, it is estimated that their construction cost was low.

Therefore, these are small houses intended for the most modest households, and they occasionally served as workshops for crafting or trade. Furthermore, evidence has shown that food and supplies were also stored there. In Löddeköppinge, Sweden, there are several groups of pit houses that would have temporarily housed traveling merchants.

Although research has found residues of excrement, it is unlikely that the pit houses were actually Viking toilets. Instead, these were likely waste materials evacuated once the place deteriorated. After the end of the Viking era, this type of construction was abandoned.

3 — Viking Town Houses

Away from the countryside constructions organized around farms and agricultural lands, Viking town houses were rare. The construction materials and insulation techniques were more advanced. It is immediately noticeable that the houses are more sophisticated, and their architecture more modern. They were slightly taller, and had an upper level for sleeping.

From these settlements, we mention Uppsala, Kaupang, and Ribe, ancient renowned cities from the Viking era. The most notable of these small towns is Heiðabýr, now known as Hedeby. In the past, this town was so remarkable that it was protected by two large walls to the south: Dannevirke and Kovirke.

It has recently been annexed to German territory, after having belonged to Denmark for a long time. Given that constructions dating back more than a millennium are remarkably preserved there, the town has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

4 — Viking Fortresses

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage
Reconstruction of Fyrkat fortress near Hobro, Denmark.

The fortresses are circular Viking houses reinforced by rows of vertical wooden pillars supporting the walls from the outside. Their purpose was to protect the towns from enemy attacks. For added security, the roof was also made of wooden tiles.

Two historical sites depict Viking fortresses: Fyrkat fortress in Hobro, the oldest discovered in Denmark, and Trelleborg house, located near Slagelse.

5 — Boat Sheds

These Viking constructions had a very specific function: to store ships and boats when they were not at sea. Naturally, their size evolved according to that of the Viking ships. For example, langskip required sheds several meters long. Numerous archaeological excavations have discovered traces of these constructions near large lakes leading to the sea.

Geographical Variations of Viking Houses

As great explorers, the Vikings quickly dominated the region. Nordic architecture thus experienced slight regional variations, mainly related to the climate and the properties of the environment in question. Two types of Viking houses stand out:

  • The torfbæir, Viking houses of Iceland or turf houses. Their roofs are covered with clayey soil topped with turf. Dating back to the Viking era, these are farmhouses divided into two parts. The first part, the Innhus, served as living space and food storage area, while the second, the Uthus, was dedicated to tools and livestock. Following a volcanic eruption, the majority of turf houses disappeared. One of the most emblematic constructions is Eiríksstaðir house located in the Haukadalur valley.
Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage
  • Viking Houses of Greenland: the lands conquered by Erik the Red had small Viking colonies. In the absence of robust oak wood, the Viking houses found there were almost entirely built using turf and peat blocks. Erik Torvaldsson's house, known as the Red, is named Brattahlid and can be found in Qassiarsuk.
Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage

Organization, Interior Decor, and Viking Furniture

While the exterior architecture of Viking houses varies drastically depending on the environment, function, and needs of the inhabitants, the interior is rather consistent. Throughout Scandinavia, Viking heritage was uniform and characteristic of the Viking era.

The Different Spaces of a Viking House

At the entrance, there is a long hall that serves as the central room, eldaskali. Typically, the halls in townhouses were less spacious, but this is explained by the fact that there were also fewer inhabitants within them.

This is a common living space, just like the banquet hall where feasts were held. Community life was of paramount importance during the Viking era, which explains why such collective areas existed.

In the other rooms, benches are lined up on the side for sleeping, away from the central corridor formed by the beams. For elevated dwellings, such as fortresses and Viking townhouses, there is sometimes a second sleeping area upstairs.

High-ranking Vikings could afford to organize special rooms for certain family members, and separated slaves and visitors.

And There Was Light

Viking Houses: The Legacy of Scandinavian Architecture | Viking Heritage

On the central strip, the floor is made of packed earth. Wooden floors, on the other hand, were reserved for luxurious dwellings.

This is how elementary forms of fireplaces came into existence. Several cemented pits bordered by stones were distributed along the alley, each with a corresponding hole in the roof.

These devices served not only to generate light and heat, but also for cooking food. If needed, an additional light source was added: wooden torches.

The Distinctive Viking Touch

The Nordic people animated the soulless walls with the passion they felt towards their culture. This is what brings all the charm to the ancient archaeological finds dating back to this era. Throughout Scandinavia, in museums, one can admire:

  • Viking Furniture: including stools, chests, beds, and carved wooden tables. Such precious objects were found by inspecting the graves of wealthy Vikings and places of worship.
  • Viking Decorations: enriched by the discovery of pigments on woodwork, sculptures, and engravings of Viking runes delicately imprinted on the beams of houses and remnants of tapestries.

Viking houses were a true sanctuary; a haven of peace where Viking warriors celebrated their victories and where Nordic culture flourished. Despite modest means, modern Scandinavian homes have been greatly influenced by their simplicity and originality.

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