Viking Age Iceland: Grelutótt in Iceland’s West Fjords

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

This is Part 21 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.

Archaeologically Grelutótt fits well into the picture of a small Icelandic Viking Age house. The interior of the Grelutótt building was 13.4 metres long and 5.4 metres wide. It was equipped along the inside walls with wide benches, called set, a word related to the English “sit”. Here people sat, worked, ate and slept. In the centre of the floor was the long-fire (langeld), where wood and peat were burned. The smoke exited through a hole in the roof, and the interior was probably smoky, especially during rains.

In Iceland’s wet maritime climate people were forced to spend considerable time indoors, and traditional longhouses such as Grelutótt were not very comfortable. In order to improve their housing, the settlers combined the most useful aspects of two types of structure. One was the outside turf shell of the traditional Scandinavian turf longhouse; the other was the internal timber framework used in the construction of contemporary Scandinavian wooden buildings. Other Norse communities may have also devised or incorporated these changes to turf buildings during the Viking Age, but the major evidence for such a development comes from archaeological work in Iceland and Greenland, where innovations were spurred by environmental conditions.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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