Construction of a L’Anse aux Meadows House in “The Settlement”

The Norse built the houses at L'Anse aux Meadows the only way they knew how, using sod over a frame of wood. This is a distinctly eleventh-century Icelandic building technique. The blueprints for the buildings were in the heads of the builders. In each case they must have taken stock of how much and what kind of space would have been needed. The first step in building a house was to remove the sod for the area that was to become the floor. The sods were cut up to 30 cm deep into the terrace. Some of the sod was cut into thick square or rectangular blocks. Other blocks had one side cut on the diagonal, others were diamond-shaped. Some of the sod was cut as metre-long strips, much the same as the turf strips cut nowadays to produce instant lawns. […]

The walls were built from blocks laid side by side in two lines a little over a metre apart, forming the outer and inner sides or 'skins' of the wall. At certain intervals strips of sod were laid crosswise, connecting the two skins. The empty core was then filled with gravel and loose material.

Sod strips were considered to be the best building material, but they required larger areas to be stripped. Because they were thinner than the blocks, they had a much greater proportion of roots from the living grass penetrating the soil, which in turn made them more solid. At L'Anse aux Meadows, the sod had been cut both from the dry areas and the wet sedge peat bog. When dried, the sedge peat becomes as solid and sturdy as mud bricks and, unlike the latter, they can withstand heavy rain by simply absorbing it. Sedge peat sod cut into strips was the very best building material and was used in the corners of the large Hall F and in great proportion in all of the other halls. This in turn indicates that a great deal of the sedge peat bog had been robbed of its sod during the construction. In the little House B, the walls lacked the gravel core and the walls were almost exclusively of sedge peat, although some of it was laid a bit haphazardly. In one instance the builders had simply taken a long sod strip, rolled it up into a ball and evened out the surface with blocks packed around it.

Once the walls were erected, the wooden frame was put in place. The frame consisted of tall wooden posts in one or two rows through the centres of the halls and House B, or placed along the walls. The posts were part of a post-and-beam construction which supported the massive roofs. Wood identification of what was left of the posts in a couple of the halls indicates that they were made of local wood such as Balsam fir. Their average diameter was 25-30 cm. We cannot determine their height, but the ceilings in large halls were usually very high, so that the smoke from the fireplaces could rise high enough to clear the living area.

The roofs were also of sod as could be seen by the irregular patches of sod collapsed over and outside some of the walls. The roof frame was covered with a network of branches or sealed with birch bark. […]

The small huts were simpler than the halls. In essence they were simply pits with a roof. The fill from the pit was thrown up around the pit to form walls, high enough so that a person could stand upright inside. The roofs rested on the walls and on slender posts set into the corners and along the walls. The walls must have had some form of cover to prevent them from caving in as the material in the terrace is loose sand. Hut C was built in a different way. It is irregularly circular in shape with a corridor-shaped porch. There was no indication of posts. Instead this hut must have been built in the manner of an igloo, the sod laid in layers of decreasing diameters, closing at the centre.

Smoke holes in the roof allowed smoke to leave and brought light during the day. The placement of the smoke holes is impossible to tell from the archaeological material. […] The doors were every bit as essential for the smoke ventilation as the smoke holes. It was particularly important to have doors on both long sides of the building. […]

The interior walls, separating one room from another, were also of sod.

Source: Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, "[Construction of a L’Anse aux Meadows House in] The Settlement" in Westward Vikings: The Saga of L’Anse aux Meadows, (St John's, NL: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2006), 50-51.

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