Viking Age Iceland: Outbuildings and Farmhouses

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

This is Part 23 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.

Laxdæla saga, in relating the story of Kjartan’s vengeance, gives another example (in Chapter 47) of the danger of having latrines as separate outbuildings. Kjartan, who lived at Hjarðarholt (Herd’s Hill), shamed the family of his previously betrothed Gudrun at Laugar (Hot Springs) by denying them access to the outdoor latrine:

Kjartan assembled a group, getting sixty men together … He took with him tents and provisions and rode until he came to Laugar … In those days it was the custom to have the latrine outside, some way away from the farmhouse, and this was the layout at Laugar. Kjartan, seizing all the house doors, refused to let anyone go outside. For three days he forced them all to stay indoors without access to the latrine. After that incident Kjartan rode back to Hjarðarholt and his followers went home.

By the eleventh century, Icelanders were building large farmhouses. The farmstead excavated at Stöng in southern Iceland is an example of the home of a prosperous farmer or chieftain, with room for twenty or more people. Its exceptionally well-preserved foundations and turf walls were buried under pumice and ash in 1104, when the Mount Hekla volcano erupted for the first time since the area had been settled.[i] Spacious and liveable, Stöng included several different rooms, including an indoor latrine. The floor plan shows the front door opening into a large entrance room, a kind of “mud room” for wet clothes, dirty footwear and equipment. This entrance room also contained a wooden closet used for storing smoked and dried fish and meat, or possibly for sleeping, and was separated from the central part of the main hall by a wooden partition. People entering from the outside went through the entrance room before opening the door to the main hall. This arrangement kept those inside the main hall from being exposed to cold drafts from the outside.


[i] Grönvold 1994. Grönvold dates the abandonment to the 1104 eruption using tephrochronology and ice core analysis. He questions the hypothesis that Stöng was abandoned later.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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