The Reconstructed Medieval Farm in Ţjórsárdalur

Building materials - turf and turf cutting

Turf is the oldest and most common building material used in Icelandic dwellings for 1100 years. Before discussing the development of architecture, some consideration should be given to this vitally important but impermanent building material and the building methods used.

Only in Iceland has this building technology, once so important in the architecture of Nordic countries, survived to the present day. Archaeological research into buildings from the Age of Settlement in Iceland have found the same types of turf which were used for house walls at the beginning of the 20th century, so it can be assumed that the tools and methods used for cutting turf and laying walls have been preserved in a similar manner through time.

Turf for building is obtained by lifting off the top layer of grass or cutting it out with a small-bladed spade. The turf to be used as "bricks" in laying walls or roofs was peeled off or dug using different techniques, depending upon what sort of turf was needed in each instance. The main types of wall turf were called strengur (long sods of turf) and hnaus (blocks of turf), of which there could even be different types, wedge shaped blocks (klömbruhnaus) and straight blocks (kviahnaus).

Turf-cutting Tools

The tool used to cut a long sod is called a turf scythe (torfljár). They could be single-cut or double-cut. The double-cut scythe was more frequently used. With it, the piece of turf is cut in two stages, first along one side and then along the other, so that its width was double the blade length. A single-cut blade is longer and more difficult to handle. With it, the turf is sliced with a single cut. Because of the way in which the piece of turf was cut with a turf scythe, one side was generally thinner than the other. Sometimes a ring was fastened to the outward end of the scythe blade and a piece of rope attached. Then two men could each draw one end of the blade. […]

Cuts of Turf

In addition to the long sods of turf, various other types of turf "blocks" were used for building: wedge blocks (led. klömbruhnaus), straight blocks (kviahnaus) and slanting blocks (snidda). These were not peeled off with a turf scythe, but rather cut with a small cutter and later with a spade.

Klömbruhnaus. When this type of turf is used for building, the turf is placed on its side, so that one grassy top layer leans against the Klömbruhnaus preceding block. The narrow end lies inward and locks the inside and the outside of the wall together. Kviahnaus is a rectangular block which is equally wide along its entire length. It does not interlock the blocks as well as the Klombruhnaus and is chiefly used for walls which are not of high quality. (Drawing HÁ)

A slanting block, or snidda, is a diamond-shaped block which was most often used for outside walls or roofs. (Drawing HÁ)

Laying Walls

The walls of turf houses were built first, and allowed to settle slightly before the frame of the house was constructed inside them. In the earliest times, the walls were generally laid directly on the ground, without any special foundation arranged. The outlines of the walls were marked off and generally the turf from inside the house was cut for use in these walls. Walls of turf are generally 1-1.2 m thick. […]

Cross-section of a Turf Wall

Here the exterior and a cross-section of a turf wall are shown. At the bottom large stones or boulders have been placed along the inner and outer edges of the wall. On top of this sods of turf and more stones are laid alternately on the inner and outer edges. Earth is used as filler in between the layers. At regular intervals turf blocks are placed at right angles across the wall to tie it together. The top section of the wall is laid with wedge blocks of turf and sods between the layers. The wall is allowed to slope slightly inwards on the outside to bet ter support the weight of the roof. On the inside, the wall narrows slightly until about midway up, then slants inward until the vertical line running from the top and bottom of the inside edge is at the same spot.

Frame and Roof

The two main types of frames in houses were beamed-roof houses and raftered houses, which were comprised of several sub-types. The roof was generally a three-layered turf roof. On the inside was turf with the grassy side down, on top of which earth was packed and then a new turf layer placed on top with the grassy side up. […] It was also common to place thin branches or twigs below the turf to protect the rafters from rotting.[…]

Earliest Buildings – Halls

The dwellings of Icelanders in the medieval sagas are generally referred to as halls skalar or eldaskálai). In the halls people worked, ate and slept under the same roof. The halls are individual buildings and at the time of the settlement there are no outshots connected to them. Buildings of this sort are well known throughout the North Atlantic region during the Viking Age. This was the type of building concept which most people appear to have brought with them when Iceland was originally settled. It is also likely that the settlers brought with them to Iceland wood from their former houses, to be able to raise shelters for themselves more quickly, and that the earliest buildings thus reflect the economic situation of the settlers.

A large number of hall sites are known in Iceland, many of which have been investigated by archaeologists. Halls varied in size, from 10-36 m in length, but regardless of their size the basic form is always similar and easily recognised.

There is a good example of a middle-sized hall at ísleifsstađir in West Iceland. The floor plan of a hall is oblong, slightly narrower at the ends than in the middle. Sometimes the front and back long walls of the building are curved to differing degrees. The entrance is usually on the front wall, closer to one end Sometimes there are other doors, either in the from or back walls, usually similarly located near one end of the building. Inside the door there is an entrance hall, from which the central part of the building is entered. The term eldaskáli refer to this central part. There is a packed earth floor running the entire length of the house, with a long hearth in the middle and wide benches [low platforms] along the walls. The hall probably most often had partitions. The benches were also likely divided into sections with wooden panels separating them up into bed lengths between supporting posts.

The 10th-12th Centuries

Soon after permanent settlement has begun to take root in Iceland, the first changes to buildings begin to occur. In particular, these changes take the form of extensions, which begin to grow like small sprouts from the back of the house. At first they seem rather random in size and style, but later develop a more distinctive form. These additions could be regarded as the first attempts by Icelanders to adapt their houses to their new circumstances and needs. To start with only one building or room is added, but then additional buildings are attached to the hall and the developmental history of the turf farmhouse has begun.

The two ruins Grelutótt and Skallakot dating from this time are shown here as examples of this trend.

Grelutótt, Hrafnseyri in Arnarfjörđur

Grelutótt is the remains of a rather small hall from the 10th century. To the left of the entrance hall is a small storeroom and to the right is the entrance to the central part of the hall.

A small connected building has been added to the back of the hall, probably one of the oldest known examples of such an addition in Iceland. Its purpose is not completely clear, but it was most likely a closed sleeping chamber or storeroom.

Interestingly, there is a small pithouse sunk into the ground in front of the hall. This is one of two such buildings which were found by Grelutótt. Such sunken pithouses appear to have been common near farm houses during the first centuries of settlement in Iceland. They may have been useful for many purposes, but they appear to have been primarily women's workplaces. They may even have been used for steam baths and could be the forerunners of the bađstofa which later became a part of the farmhouse.

Skallakot in Ţjórsárdalur

This is the floor plan of a large farmhouse from the 11th century. The hall was divided up by internal partitions into smaller rooms, as can be seen from the rows of stones visible on the floor plan. The attached buildings at the back of the -house have increased in number. Their function has not yet been fully established.

Stöng in Ţjórsárdalur

In 1104, Mt Hekla erupted for the first time in the recorded history of Iceland. The eruption destroyed, for instance, an entire district of at least 20 farms in the valley Ţjórsárdalur in Árnessýsla. […]

The floor plan of the farmhouse at Stöng shows that the building arrangements have now undergone further changes and taken on a more definite form. The main change is that at one end of the hall is a sitting room (stofa), with an entranceway between them. At the back of the building there are two buildings attached at not quite right angles. One of these rear buildings is across from the entrance. Two trenches running along the walls indicate that this was most likely a sizeable lavatory. At the other end of the hall is another, somewhat larger, attached building, the storeroom/dairy, where there were large, sunken vats or vessels, in which food pickled in whey was stored.

Remains of a cowshed, hay storage and smithy were also found at Stöng. Later investigations also discovered the remains of a small church and graveyard.

I Entrance

The entrance or hallway lies behind the entrance doorway. Here people would have removed their wet, outer clothing and stored various things, such as saddles and bridles, tools and utensils which were not in everyday use outdoors. The storage space is not assumed to have been walled off from the entrance, or the outer walls to have had wooden panelling. The purpose of a stone vessel, which was sunk into the ground by the hall partition, opposite the chamber, is not known.

II Chamber

A panelled chamber in the entrance was conceivably a storeroom. It was probably locked, with the mistress of the house holding the key. It would have housed food stores, including stockfish, smoked meat and even grain when this was available. The story of the Hauntings at Fróöá mentions such a stockfish storeroom.

III Lavatory

Ancient writings assume that several people can use the toilet at a time. This explains the size of the presumed lavatory at Stöng. A long pole to sit on was placed horizontally on a stone at the end of the trench reaching to the wall. In Sweden, lavatories of a similar sort have been known right up until the 20th century. Perhaps the farm got its name Stöng, which means "pole", from its splendid lavatory?

IV Hall

The central hall was the main part of the farmhouse. It is assumed to have been built with care in all details, and panelled on the inside. Here people worked at various daily jobs, ate and sat around the fire; this was above all the sleeping quarters of the entire household. This part of the house was probably referred to as the eldaskáli, meaning fire hall. There is a long hearth running down the middle of the floor. The seats on both sides are very wide. They have not been divided up into bedsteads, as can be considered likely to have been the case here. […]

The panelling in the sitting room (stofa) and hall is of the same type as the medieval panelling from Skagafjörđur, North Iceland and from an ancient stofa in the Western Settlement in Greenland, which is thought to have been deserted around 1350.


V Bed Closet

It was common for the heads of households on better farms to sleep in a sleeping chamber or bed closet. The one here is located to the inner side of the middle of the hall on the right side, with the bench panelled off.

VI Storeroom/Dairy

The storeroom/dairy was used for food storage, for dairy products in particular. Skyr and sour whey were collected in large vats which were sunk into the ground.

Here the roof rests on uprights standing near the outer wall and joined by cross-braces.

VII Sitting room (Stofa)

The stofa served many purposes, it was the women's dwelling place and workroom, sitting room and dining hall on festive occasions. There are sitting benches along the walls and the upright weaving loom stood on the women's platform at the gable end. Weaving was very hard work. The women stood while they wove homespun cloth and walked miles every day around the loom.

There is a small fire in the middle of the sitting room floor.[…]

Source: Guđmundur Ólafsson and Hörđur Ágústsson, "The Reconstructed Medieval Farm in Ţjórsárdalur" (: National Museum of Iceland and Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company, n.d.), 6-13, 16-19.

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