The longhouse was as essential to the Viking way of life as the longships were to their seafaring adventures. 

While the discovery of a magnificent vessel from the first millennium always creates tremendous excitement, researchers finding the outline of a longhouse are greeted with equal enthusiasm by historians and researchers because of the clues it may offer about everyday activities in Viking society. 

Historic evidence 

A recent example occurred in Gjellestad, Norway, in 2021, ironically three years after a longship had been found at the same location. 

Using ground-penetrating radar, experts from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, NIKU, hit upon one of the largest Viking longhouses yet discovered. 

Sixty meters long and 15 meters wide, it was surrounded by evidence of four other, smaller buildings and plowed-out burial mounds. 

In other words, this was a sizable community that lived during the Nordic Iron Age. 

Over in Sweden, visitors regularly come into personal contact with the former walls of another Viking longhouse at Gränby, a former farmstead within easy reach of Stockholm. 

Here, you can also study a runestone likely commissioned by a farmer of good social standing, as the rune masters who carved these historic documents often worked for wealthy patrons. 

The stone stands in front of a large longhouse measuring 33 x 7 meters (108 x 23 feet). 

The foundations are slightly over a meter long, and a stone ramp leads into the house from the front. The house faces a beautiful view from high up on a hill. 

The longhouse, along with a few other houses and burial sites, was first excavated in 1989 by a team of amateur archeologists led by the qualified Anders Hedman. 

However, its historical value has been known since at least the 18th century, when a priest and hobby historian, Johan Göransson, sketched it. 

The carving was also depicted in 1859 when Swedish antiquity investigator Richard Dybeck, who wrote the Swedish national anthem, visited the location. 

He recorded a local farmer's tale about a song celebrating an ancient Viking chieftain, although its veracity cannot be confirmed today. 

Dybeck described the long foundations, interpreted by many to be a house. 

The 1989 excavations aimed to discover the meaning of these rectangles in stone. In their report, the archaeologists confirmed the presence of six houses. 

In each of these cases, in Norway and Sweden, the longhouse was the center of activity for small farming communities. 

So, who would have lived in them, and in what kind of conditions? 

Life on Viking farms revolved around self-sufficiency, with each family inhabiting a cluster of buildings, including a longhouse for communal living and smaller structures for storage, livestock, and workshops. Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock

Life on the farm 

The farm was often a tiny cluster of buildings that provided each family with a great deal of self-sufficiency. 

Each farm consisted of a longhouse and several smaller buildings, mostly for storing hay, livestock, or food products. 

If at all possible, these farms were built on top of a hill, a lofty setting well-suited to spot any approach by strangers. Fire signals calling for assistance could be lit and seen for a great distance from this vantage point. 

Given Scandinavia's climate and relatively modest expanse of arable land, animal husbandry was the main farming activity. 

A few crops could withstand the harsh northern climate – mostly grains such as barley, rye, and oats – along with beans, onions, and other sturdier vegetables. 

Cattle and sheep were the two most important animals for many people in Viking societies. The Old Norse word for cattle and money is the same and interchangeable:

Until the full Christianization of Scandinavia in the 1200s, horses were also kept as part of blót ceremonies, pagan sacrifices of animals – which also provided an inexpensive source of meat, of course. 

Although each main communal building differed in size and composition, longhouses all shared one common factor: a lack of privacy. 

Given that longhouses stretched to about a third of the length of a football pitch, longer in some cases, this would initially seem to be quite ample for a nuclear family of four, say. 

But the average Viking household consisted of several others who lived in it, related or hired, free or enslaved. 

At the head of the household was the farm owner, generally, but not always, a man. Female ownership, particularly if the woman had been widowed, was not uncommon.

The owner, whether male or female, not only lived with their immediate kin but also with their extended family. There might have been two or three generations living side by side.

Depending on the size of the farm and the social status of the family within it, servants, slaves, and hired help would have been around them. 

The interior typically featured sleeping areas along one side, with benches or platforms covered in sheepskin for warmth, while the central space was used for activities like cooking, eating, and storytelling around the hearth. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels

Wood and wattle 

As a symbol of Viking engineering, the longhouse, langhús, is as ingenious as the longship.

Houses were built around wooden frames with stone foundations, ranging in length from 15 meters to 75 meters (approximately 49 to 246 feet). A construction 30 meters long (around 98 feet) was quite substantial. 

Size also indicated the wealth of the inhabitants. Walls were made of log planks and often insulated with wattle, straw, animal dung, or sand. 

In regions such as Iceland, where wood was scarce, the walls of these longhouses were often made of turf. 

One theory about why Vikings sailed from Greenland to the shores of North America was to seek a plentiful supply of wood. 

A standard longhouse had several rooms and was often divided by two rows of posts running down its length. These posts divided the interior into three long aisles and carried the weight of the roof beams. 

The walls were often bowed, mirroring the shape of a ship, and required similar, familiar construction techniques. 

The focal point of every longhouse was the hearth. This was a gathering place where meals were prepared and consumed, and tales were told on dark winter evenings. 

There were no windows. Lights were fueled by oil from fish, seals, or whales, and wicks fashioned from twisted moss or cottongrass. 

These would be placed in ashtray-like containers that allowed these DIY candles to burn steadily. Actual candles were not unknown, but beeswax was a valuable trading material. 

Smoke holes provided ventilation and, to a certain extent, light, but for months at a time, when they weren't spending most of the day outside, longhouse residents would have smelled of smoke. 

One of the two rows outside the central corridor would have been used for sleeping, with sheepskin providing warmth and protection from the hard floor or benches. 

Decoration would have been sparse, perhaps a tapestry or even a shield. 

Foodstuffs were kept in storage rooms, both inner and outer, along with any other valuables. 

Other smaller surrounding buildings could have been used as a forge or workshop for textiles, increasing the self-sufficiency of any family. 

To learn more about the farmstead at Gränby, take the STOEX Viking History Extended tour from Stockholm. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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