Medieval Scandinavian architecture: Viking longhouses

The Viking Age (900 years)

Buildings such as the Viking Longhouse and Icelandic turf houses, and their religious buildings and boathouses too, all found a unique expression in medieval Scandinavian architecture.

Boathouses were usually built back from the waterline, dug into the ground. Their purpose was to hold Viking Ships, in the times they were not sailing, especially during the winter.

The buildings were extraordinarily long, because Vikings boats were up to 82ft long. The base was piled up with stones, and their walls were made of wood.

Medieval Scandinavian architecture, a roof covered with turf. Photo Credit Thomas Ormston CC BY-SA 2.0


Interior of a Viking longhouse, with wooden decorative pillars. Jon Olav Eikenes CC BY-SA 2.0

The Viking ring fortresses were military constructions. The circular forts (there are 6 of them), have a strictly circular shape and they are called Trelleborgs.

They were built during the Viking age: five of them are located in Denmark and were built in the reign of Harold Bluetooth, who died in 986, and one remains in the southern part of Sweden.

Viking Age circular fort or trelleborg. Guillaume Baviere CC BY 2.0


Trelleborg, a view from the inside. Guillaume Baviere CC BY 2.0

Ritual houses and Stave churches were religious buildings. Early ritual houses were built for religious purposes before the Christians arrived in Scandinavia.

These simple wooden buildings were a place used for collecting the weapons of defeated enemies. At the beginning, their design was not much different from other buildings, but with the passing of time their construction become more complex.

The ritual houses started to look like churches; they had multilayer roofs, and the entrance were ornamented with decorations.

A part of the ceremonies was giving a sacrifice to the gods by burning or slaughtering an animal. Therefore, most of the rituals were performed outside, so the decorations were on the outside.

Stave church, built in the 12th century in Norway. Svein Harkestad CC BY-SA 3.0


Borgun staves church, the interior made of wood. Photo credit Micha L. Rieser


Ritual houses, Viking church with multi-layer roof. boulanger.IE CC BY 2.0

The Christians in the Norse region used to gather in Stave churches, which from outside looked like a more complex construction than the ritual houses.

Their roofs were the same as traditional ritual houses, that is, multi-layered, but they often had a tower or spire in the middle.

Stave churches were built with stone walls around the base, and then constructed of wood. The interior was highly decorated with designs and symbols such as the cross or depictions of Jesus.

A reconstructed viking house in Iceland. Anjali Kiggal CC BY-SA 4.0


Icelandic turf house, a fireplace was built in the center. 

The Icelandic turf houses and the viking longhouse were general living buildings in medieval Scandinavian architecture. Countryside buildings were built of wood, and they were similar to log cabins.

These buildings were used for farming, the roofs were covered with earth and grass was planted in the soil. The cabins were divided into two parts, the Innhus and the Uthus.

The first part, the Innhus, was used for living and for food storage, and the Uthus was used for tools and animal fodder.

Viking Age longhouse, reconstructed, Denmark. Sven Rosborn CC BY 3.0


Interior of a longhouse. Theyoungones1994 CC BY 2.0

Viking longhouses were buildings in which people lived throughout the Norse lands. Depending on the social position of the owner, they were built in different dimensions, but mostly from 16 to 23 feet wide and from 50 to 250 feet long.

The longhouses were constructed on simple stone footings and had walls made of logs, planks or wattle and daub.

Icelandic Turf House, traditionally constructed, with wooden doorway. 


Icelandic turf house in Glaumbær. 

The Icelandic turf house has a large foundation made of flat stones with a wooden frame upon that. The turf was fitted around the frame in blocks, and the doorway, which was wooden and often decorative, led into the hall, where there would be a great fire.

The fireplace was usually placed in the center, and would provide the lighting and heating for the whole house.

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An interesting fact about the Icelandic turf houses was the introduction of attached toilets. The floor of the rooms was covered with wood, earth, and stone.