The long fire pit in the center of the longhouse

Viking Longhouse Discovery Rewrites the History of Icelandic Capital City

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Archaeologists conducting an excavation in the center of Reykjavik, Iceland were actually looking for a farm cottage from 1799. Instead, they discovered something much older, a Viking longhouse 20 meters (65.6 feet) in length, 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide and with one of the largest ‘long fire’ pits ever found in the country at over 5.2 meters (17 feet) long.

The longhouse dates back to when the Vikings first settled in Iceland, between 870 and 930 AD. Archaeologists expect to obtain a more exact date following completion of the excavation. The team has discovered a number of artifacts inside the hut, including weaving implements, a silver ring and a pearl.

“This find came as a great surprise for everybody” Þor­steinn Bergs­son told The Iceland Monitor . “This rewrites the history of Reykjavik.” Mr. Bergsson is the Managing Director of Minja­vernd, an independent association working for the preservation of old buildings in Iceland.

Stamps Showing Everyday Life in the Viking Age

Stamps Showing Everyday Life in the Viking Age (Wikimedia Commons )

Although it would be nice to find out who actually lived in the longhouse, the chances of ever doing this are exceedingly difficult if not impossible, according to Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir, archaeologist at the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology.

“We have no records of any building on this spot other than the cottage built in 1799” Ms Guðmundsdóttir explained. “The cottage was built on a meadow with no remnants of anything else.”

A longhouse was a long and probably very chaotic structure, plagued by noise and dirt . This was primarily because a number of families tended to live in the same house along with their animals which were kept at one end of the structure which they used as a barn. This area would also be where the crops were stored and it would have been separated into stalls for animals and crops. The animals served a secondary purpose in that they helped to keep the longhouse warm, despite the noise. Keeping the animals in the barn also protected them from cattle thieves, as animals were also a valued form of currency.

The fire was a source of heat and light but there was no chimney and that meant the longhouse would have been very smoky. Sometimes, additional lighting was provided in the form of stone lamps with fish liver oil or whale oil as the fuel. Seating was either in the form of wooden benches along the walls or an available spot on the floor. The benches also served as beds.

Reconstruction of Viking Longhouse, Iceland

Reconstruction of Viking Longhouse, Iceland ( Wikimedia Commons )

Longhouses were constructed in a number of ways but generally according to the same basic plan. The walls were commonly made from a structure of wooden poles with wattle and daub infilling. In Denmark, some longhouses had forges inside them, although more commonly the forge was housed in a separate building. The size of the longhouse depended on the wealth of the owner. Some of the largest were decorated with tapestries and rugs. The occupants may also have hung their shields on the walls. Some of the Norse sagas mention the use of tables for feasting as well. The Viking diet largely consisted of salted meat, porridge, stew, bread, cheese and honey. Viking settlers in more northerly regions hunted polar bear and seals.

In some areas of Denmark, royal longhouses were located in settlements within round earthen embankments consisting of four longhouses. Each longhouse accommodated the crew of a ship and their families. The roof was made of thatch or wooden shingles

Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse,by P. Raadsig (1850). Depicting Ingólfur Arnarson, the first permanent settler in Iceland. Legend says he threw two pillars overboard and vowed to settle wherever they landed. They landed in what is known today as Reykjavik (Cove of Smoke).

Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse,by P. Raadsig (1850). Depicting Ingólfur Arnarson, the first permanent settler in Iceland. Legend says he threw two pillars overboard and vowed to settle wherever they landed. They landed in what is known today as Reykjavik (Cove of Smoke). (Wikimedia Commons )

The last time a longhouse was discovered in Iceland was in 2001, at Aðalstræti. The relics found at this site represented the oldest evidence of human habitation in Reykjavik, dating back to before 871 AD. The longhouse has been preserved as the center for an exhibition about the Viking settlement of the site.

Featured Image: The long fire pit in the center of the longhouse. ( Kristinn Ingvarsson/Iceland Monitor )

By Robin Whitlock


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