Viking Settlement - How the Norse Lived in their Conquered Lands

Life as a Norse Farmer-Colonist

Reconstructed farm with nine houses of a large-scale farmer from the Viking Age, Viking Center Fyrkat, Fyrkat, Hobro, Denmark, Europe
Reconstructed farm with nine houses of a large-scale farmer from the Viking Age, Viking Center Fyrkat, Fyrkat, Hobro, Denmark, Europe. Olfa Kruger / ImageBroker / Getty Images /

The Viking settlers and their descendants who established homes in their conquered lands during the 9th-11th centuries AD used a settlement pattern that was based primarily on their own Scandinavian cultural heritage. That pattern, contrary to the image of the Viking raider, was to live on isolated, regularly spaced farmsteads surrounded by grain fields.

The degree to which the Norse and their following generations adapted their agricultural methods and living styles to local environments and customs varied from place to place, a decision tied to their ultimate success as colonists.

The impacts of that are discussed in detail in the article on Landnám and Shieling.

Viking Settlement

A model Viking settlement was located in a place near the coastline with a reasonable boat access; a flat, reasonably well-drained area for a farmstead; and extensive grazing areas for domestic animals.

Dwellings, storage facilities, and barns were built with stone or stone foundations, with walls made of peat, sod turfs, or wood, or a combination of all three. Fuels used by the Norse included peat, peaty turf, and wood; in addition for heating and building construction, much wood was used for iron smelting.

Communities were led by chieftains who owned multiple farmsteads. Early Icelandic chieftains competed with each other for the support from local farmers through conspicuous consumption, gift-giving, and legal contests. Feasting was a key element of leadership, as described in the Icelandic sagas.

After Christianization of the Norse, churches were established as small square buildings in the center of a circular churchyard.

Landnám and Shieling

The traditional Scandinavian farming economy (called landnám) included a focus on barley, and domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses. Marine resources exploited by Norse colonists included seaweed, fish, shellfish, and whale.

Seabirds were exploited for their eggs and meat, and driftwood and peat were used to build fires and buildings.

Shieling, the Scandinavian system of pasturage, was practiced in upland stations where livestock could be moved during summer seasons. Near the summer pastures, the Norse built small huts, byres, barns, stables, and fences.

An Example Farmstead in the Faroe Islands

In the Faroe Islands, Viking settlement began in the mid-ninth century, and research on the farmsteads there (Arge 2014) has identified several farmsteads with several centuries of continuity. Some of the farmsteads in existence in the Faroes today are in the same locations as those settled during the Viking landnám period. That longevity has created 'farm-mounds', which document the entire history of Norse settlement and later adaptations.

Toftanes: an Early Viking Farm in the Faroes

Toftanes (described in detail with others in Arge 2014) is a farm mound, a permanent farm in the village of Leirvik, occupied from the 9th-10th centuries. The earliest farm constellation consisted of four buildings. The dwelling is a typical Viking longhouse, which sheltered both people and animals. This house was 20 meters (65 feet) in length and had an internal width of 5 m (16 ft).

The curved walls of the longhouse were 1 m (3.5 ft) thick and built of a vertical stack of sod turfs with an outer and inner veneer of dry-stone walling. The middle of the western half of the building where the people lived had a fireplace almost the width of the house, while the eastern half lacked a fireplace at all and likely served as an animal byre. Off the southern wall was a small building with a floor space of about 12 m2 (130 sq ft).

Outbuildings at Toftanes

Other buildings included a storage facility for craft or food production located on the northern side of the longhouse and measuring 13x4 m (42.5x13 ft). It was constructed of a single course of dry-walling without turfs. A smaller building (5x3 m, 16x10 ft), likely served as a firehouse. Its side walls were constructed with veneered turfs, but its west gable was wooden and its eastern wall had been eroded away by a stream.

The floor was paved with flat stones and covered with thick layers of ash and charcoal, and a small stone-built ember pit was located at the eastern end.

Artifacts from Toftanes' original occupation included schist querns (mortars for grinding grain) and a large number of steatite objects, fragments of bowls and saucepans, spindle whorls, line- or net-sinkers for fishing, and whetstones. Steatite (aka soapstone) must have been brought with the Vikings when they arrived from Norway. Large numbers of well-preserved wooden objects included bowls, spoons and barrel staves. Other objects included imported goods and jewelry from the Irish Sea region.

Other Viking Settlements

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to Ancient Vikings and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.