Viking Age Iceland: Turf Houses

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

This is Part 20 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.

Turf houses were built in stages, and required a significant degree of expertise. The outside walls were built first and then left to settle. Next came the wooden frame and then finally the roof. From later centuries it is known that rock and driftwood timbers for building were gathered in summer and autumn. During the winter these materials were transported by sled to the construction site. Turf (grass with the underlying sod attached) was usually cut near the site in early summer. The walls of some Icelandic buildings were made of rock; they resembled turf construction because soil and turf were wedged between the uncut rocks to seal and keep them steady. Depending on the location, turf walls were often easier to construct than stone ones.

Well-built turf walls lasted from thirty years to a century, whereas whole buildings were often much older. The difference was maintenance, especially when there was water damage. Sections of the walls and roofs had to be replaced at intervals, and turf buildings required a substantial amount of upkeep. At times stray sheep and even cows might climb on to a turf roof, where the grass was usually particularly rich. With the passage of years, grass often grew over the lower outside walls, and turf buildings tended to melt into the surrounding ground, looking like small hillocks from a distance.

In Norway as the Viking Age advanced, the turf house gradually gave way to the timber house.[i] This change did not occur in Iceland or in the Norse/Icelandic settlement in Greenland, where the scarcity of large building timbers and the presence of suitable sod favoured turf construction. In keeping with the building techniques of Greenland and Iceland, the Norse settlement in about the year 1000 at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland relied on turf houses.[ii]

In Iceland, the ruin of a settlement-period farmhouse, called Grelutótt, in Arnarfjord in the West Fjords is a good example of a traditional Scandinavian longhouse (skáli).[iii] Many similar settlement-period longhouses, such as Granastaðir in Eyjafjord and the larger Hofstaðir in the Mývatn district, have been found.[iv] [IS1] Grelutótt was a small house with room for little more than a family and a few workers. Animals were housed in separate buildings. The site showed evidence of considerable iron-working, and two smithies were found near the longhouse. There were also a number of everyday Viking Age artifacts radiocarbon dated to AD 800-900.[v] The finds included fragments of soapstone bowls and containers, common Norwegian exports during Viking times. No evidence exists of an earlier house on this landnám-period site.

[i] Parts of south-western Norway were an exception. Over the centuries the different regions of Iceland developed characteristic styles of turf construction, but in southern Iceland the basic Viking Age longhouse remained a common building type until the eighteenth century.

[ii] Wallace 1991.

[iii] Guðmundur Ólafsson 1979.

[iv] Bjarni Einarsson 1995; Archaeologia Islandica 1998.

[v] Guðmundur Ólafsson 1979: 73.

— 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.