To step inside a Viking longhouse is to understand what everyday life was really like for the norse people of old. While some Vikings lived in small town houses, the majority lived a rural life in tiny villages of half a dozen large farms, with the Longhouse as their centerpieces.
Longhouses would vary in size based on the importance of the owner. They were around 5-7 meters (15-25 feet) wide in the middle and from 15-75 meters (50-250 feet) long. No matter the size, the basic construction was the same.
Two rows of wooden columns ran the length of the house supporting the high points of the roof. Roofs would either be wood, thatched or turf. The walls were made of either clay, wooden planks or wattle and daub.
There were rarely any windows so light would get in through vents built to let out smoke, or through the gaps in the thatching. Some longhouses would have had proper chimneys, but this was very rare.
The two rows of supporting columns served to divide the house lengthways into three. The central section served as a sort of corridor. The house would be sectioned, ether to the sides of, or including, the corridor.
Fires for cooking and heating would be lit in this corridor. Some houses had a central fire pit that served the whole house while others would have had small individual fires in each room or section. The ashes from the fires would be spread out on the packed-dirt floor to absorb moisture and smells.
Along the walls of the longhouse were wooden benches, providing structure and a place to sit or sleep. One section of the house was usually reserved for animals in winter, for homestead where there were no separate outbuildings or stables.
The space under the benches was used for storage and some longhouses would also have loft spaces at each end that could also be used for storage.
As there were no formal chimneys, houses could get smoky but careful design and fire placement could reduce this. Smoke could escape through the gaps in the thatching or through special vents that could be opened to let smoke escape and to let in light.
Furniture was pretty sparse. Most of the inhabitants would have had a storage box or trunk, possibly with a rudimentary lock, to keep their few possessions such as clothing, bedding and tools. These also doubled as seats.
Each home would usually have tables for dining. These were likely collapsible and stored in the rafters and brought down for mealtimes. Beds as we know them were uncommon, though in wealthy households the owners might have one. Everyone else would sleep on the benches at the side of the house.
Bedding was mostly layers of animal hides such as sheepskin and some would have had pillows filled with chicken or duck feathers. Very wealthy families might have been able to afford cotton or silk sheets from overseas traders but this would have been rare.
Most longhouses would have had a loom of some kind for weaving clothing and rugs. Wealthy families might also adorn their walls with tapestries and rugs.
As you might imagine, a house with no windows could be very dim. However, many reconstructions have shown that if you place a couple of smoke holes in the right place, you can let in enough light to work by.
Likewise, some homes had a gap between the walls and the roof that were covered in animal skins that could be rolled up to let in more light. Once the sun went down, the Vikings would normally eat, and tell tales around the fire so the need for light in the evenings was quite low.
Fires would also provide some light and, in the cold Northern climate, these would likely be lit for most of the time throughout the year. Lamps made from pots with simple reed wicks to burn cod liver oil, seal or whale oil, which surprisingly provided decent amounts of light.
Candles were not unheard of, but would have been uncommon in longhouses due to their expense. At the time, most mentions in the sagas were of priests who used them in their services. Affluent households may have opted for candles but, as it was much cheaper, they’d likely just use oil.
Each longhouse would contain a number of families – or a large extended family – living together in close quarters. The agricultural lifestyle meant early nights and early mornings. The younger, fit, working-age Vikings would be up when the cock crowed to start tending the animals and working the land.
The elders who were no longer able to work the land would work inside doing whatever they could. The children would help also and the whole house would have been a hive of activity.
With all the activity required simply to keep the household, it comes at no surprise that longhouses were busy, noisy places, where privacy was almost inexistent. Yet, for the Viking, they would always be home, sweet home.