Viking Age Iceland: Turf Housing

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 19 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

With limited quantities of building wood, and with volcanic rock suitable mainly for foundation stones and rough walls, the Icelanders depended on turf for constructing their houses. Around frames of timber they constructed sod homes with thick, heat-retaining walls. The timbers were fashioned from imported wood or driftwood. Most of the latter was carried by currents from Siberia, collecting in many places along Iceland’s coast. With the damaged portions cut away, driftwood timbers were often short and imperfect. By the end of the settlement period, the supply of stout timbers was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of the population.

The turf farmhouse was a focal point of everyday life, and its development was a crucial chapter in the settlers’ adaptation to their northern environment. In the few centuries of the Viking Age, the Icelandic and the related Greenlandic turf house grew in complexity. With some sleuthing, the construction and the history of these buildings can be determined from archaeology, written sources and comparison with architectural developments in mainland Scandinavia, especially Norway.[i]

At the time of Iceland’s settlement, the turf longhouse (langhús) already had a long history in Scandinavia, reaching far back into prehistory. In the North Atlantic region of the ninth-century Viking world, most houses were built of turf. The landnámsmenn brought to Iceland the turf-building techniques used in their homelands. The traditional turf longhouse, called both a skáli (hall) and an eldskáli (fire-hall) in the sources, was a narrow, oblong structure, slightly wider in the middle than at the ends. The entrance was through the front wall, under a small gable near one of the ends.

[i] My thanks to colleagues and friends who aided me in researching this section and Appendix 3 on turf houses. Guðmundur Ólafsson lent me the Grelutótt floor plan. Hörður Ágústsson (1974, 1987, 1989) also discussed turf-house structure with me and lent me drawings. Grétar Markússon and Stefán Örn Stefánsson helped with several architectural illustrations. Robert Guillemette and Lori Gudmundson provided graphics. Hjörleifur Stefánsson and Harold Zellman offered expert advice.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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