It was around 890 CE when Ohthere, “the Northmost of all Northmen,” arrived at the court of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great. The Vikings had consumed much of King Alfred’s time and energy as king, killing his relatives, invading England, and even setting up camp in London.
Thus, Ohthere’s presence was more than a little awkward. He explained to the court that he came from Norway and lived at the northernmost farm there. He was a wealthy man. He and his comrades hunted walruses and traded their ivory tusks and skins. He owned some 600 reindeer, 20 horned cattle, 20 sheep, and 20 pigs. Ohthere went on to explain that the good farming land of Norway lay along the sea. For his part, he plowed what must have been a substantial farm by horse. Despite his daring trips around the world, it was clear that the center of Ohthere’s world remained his farm in Norway. Likewise, many Vikings maintained close ties to farmsteads dotted around Scandinavia and longed for their longhouses there.
Finding A Viking Longhouse
In 1981, a Norwegian farmer was plowing at the village of Borg on the island of Vestvågøy in Norway. As the plow ran through the fields, traces of the past emerged in its tracks. Shards of glass and ceramics popped out of the earth, and then the farmer spotted a strange amount of charcoal and charred stones. On a ridge, his plow hit traces of buildings that stood from around 200 CE to the 10th century CE.
Farms were important to Viking life; Medieval Scandinavian villages often consisted of six or seven farms bounded by a fence. Domestic animals roamed across these farms, but the epicenter of many Viking farms was the longhouse.
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Beginning in 1982, the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tromsø and the Tromsø University Museum took over excavations on the island of Vestvågøy. Efforts concentrated on the largest structure. Excavations of this structure provided some surprises. Archaeologists found that they were excavating not one, but two longhouses atop one another. Both buildings once stood as three-aisled wooden buildings with somewhere between 16 and 19 pairs of posts that supported the roof. The buildings shared many similarities. Both were insulated by outer sod walls. Over half of each of the buildings functioned as a byre or cattle shed and each building centered on a large hall. But only the top house dated to the Viking Age.
Though the longhouse came to dominate excavation seasons, discoveries around the longhouse indicated that the landscape had long been a place of importance. Archaeologists discovered a field of cooking pits that dated from around the Early Iron Age through to the Roman Period. Evidence of more permanent activity stemmed from the 6th-century CE building. Due to observable rebuilding campaigns and the riches excavated, the area is believed to have been a chieftain’s seat of social and religious power from the Iron Age through the Viking Age. The longhouses of the area were thus a culmination of centuries of Scandinavian history and custom.
Building a Longhouse
Viking longhouses were built on tradition. Some like the longhouse at Borg were literally built atop a previous building, preserving the special spaces in the abode. In other places, longhouses were built on previously unused landscapes using traditional techniques. Although longhouses across Scandinavia shared many similarities, the materials used to build them varied by region.
The longhouse at Borg was made of wood, but others were made of stone. To build a longhouse, Vikings needed wood or stone and sod or clay. The walls were made of wood, laid out in a shape reminiscent of a ship. Norse builders applied a coat of clay to the walls and installed wooden poles into the ground to support the roof. They constructed the roof at a slant using either more wood or straw for a thatched design.
The longhouse also had a unique design for ventilation. The Vikings typically installed a fireplace in the longhouse for cooking and warmth, but they did not install chimneys. Instead, they cut holes in the roofs, allowing minimal ventilation for their homes. Longhouses also lacked windows, however, the longhouse at Borg had five entrances. Nonetheless, it is likely the Viking home had a dark and smoky interior.
On Vestvågøy Island, the younger house measured 83 meters in length (272 feet) and around 7.5-9 meters in width (23-29 feet). The larger building had five rooms and five entrances. Archaeologists dated the second building to around the 7th century CE. Most longhouses measured somewhere between 5-50 meters in length (16-164 feet); thus, the longhouse at Borg stands out as the longest of the longhouses discovered from the Viking Age.
The older longhouse measured around 60 meters in length (197 feet), indicating that the residents had determined more space was needed by the Viking Age. Interestingly, in reconstructing the longhouse, the builders chose to maintain the precise outline of the older building’s central hall. To many scholars, this suggests that the longhouse’s hall held social and possibly religious significance to the Vikings. Though their seafaring and raiding were changing their known world, the Vikings showed a reverence for the past in maintaining parts of the historic longhouse.
Outside the Longhouse: Working on a Viking Farm
Vikings lived with their domestic animals inside the longhouse, though in separate spaces. Medieval Scandinavians typically had one end of the longhouse and the cattle and other animals had the other. The animals might be housed during the colder months and allowed to roam outside during the warmer months. The Vikings’ animal roommates testify to the working nature of the farm. Around the longhouse at Borg, archaeologists found other, smaller structures that likely had utilitarian functions. At Borg, archaeologists excavated many tools essential to working on a farm: arrowheads, knives, sickles, scythes, and swords. The mandatory tasks of maintaining the fields, planting and reaping harvests, and hunting would have consumed a great deal of the Vikings’ time.
Archaeologists also found spindle whorls, pottery, and whetstones during their excavations at the Borg longhouse. Along with farm work, the Vikings of Borg may have been busy with craft production. Archaeologists recovered thirty glass beads from the Viking Age longhouse. Although archaeologists also found melted glass at the farm, this evidence has been insufficient to prove that beads were made in the longhouse. And it is believed that many of the beads were imported from around the medieval world. The presence of spindle whorls suggests that textile production also took up a considerable amount of time. Textiles may have been needed for clothing or even for making sails, the technology critical to Viking Age seafaring. Cooking and brewing beer may also have occupied much of life on a Viking Age farm.
Golden Surprises from the Longhouse
Although Vikings have reputations for amassing glittering riches, artifacts recovered from the longhouse at Borg still surprised archaeologists. The farm excavated at Borg contained several artifacts that alluded to great wealth. In the barn of the older building, archaeologists found a bronze harness mount. Scholars believe the mount came from Southern Scandinavia, possibly as a gift to the head of the farm. It has even been suggested that the chieftain received a saddled horse as some sort of tribute.
Another interesting find consisted of a gold sheet artifact that may be the head of a pointer for holy manuscripts. No corresponding manuscript has been discovered at Borg, but the Vikings’ history of raiding houses of worship in the British Isles has led to speculation that the Vikings of Borg may have been connected to the raids of the period.
A gold bead was also discovered at the farm and archaeologists found five gold plaques depicting human figures. These glittering objects must have stood out among the cattle and smoke of the Borg longhouse. Archaeologists have interpreted these intriguing finds as evidence of the wealth and importance of the leader of the community at Borg.
Archaeologists found many other artifacts at the Borg farmstead. Many of these items were not golden, but they were from places far away. Glass and ceramic vessels from England and Southern Europe have been recovered from the farm. These items would have been useful in everyday life but as exotic items, they may have had special uses in ritual and social feasts held by regional leaders. Beads from Europe and the Near East have also been collected at Borg. Archaeologists believe that exotic goods carried high status in the Viking world. Thus, the exotic goods from Borg point not only to the farm’s external trade relations but also to the prominence and wealth of the Borg chieftain.
Longhouses: An Enduring Viking Legacy
About a hundred meters northeast of the longhouse on the island of Vestvågøy, archaeologists excavated another building. It too proved to be a longhouse, but it had been built after the Viking Age in the Early Middle Ages (c. 1050 CE). The Vikings built many other types of structures throughout medieval Scandinavia including single-aisled houses and two-aisled houses but none of these styles gained the status of the Viking Age longhouse.
Though much of Norse life faded away, the longhouse endured as an icon of the Viking Age and archaeologists continue to discover new longhouses. In 2021, the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research announced the discovery of a longhouse in Gjellestad, Norway. It measured 60 meters (197 feet) in length, making it one of the longest longhouses recorded, but not quite as long as Borg. As the exploration of Viking Age Scandinavia continues, archaeologists yet find a longhouse to rival that of the longhouse at Borg.