What’s on : Cafe-scientifique

“How Viking Age Farms Changed Across The Atlantic Migration”

15 May 2023
Start time
7:00 PM
Alex Harvey
"How Viking Age Farms Changed Across The Atlantic Migration"

Event Information

“How Viking Age Farms Changed Across The Atlantic Migration”

Alex Harvey, M.A.

Abstract: “From 750-1050 AD, Norwegians migrated beyond their fjords to new lands and new horizons; Shetland, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, even North America. At each location they faced new environmental and societal challenges, and the adaptations the settlers made to deal with said challenges are reflected in the types of buildings present on their farms. This lecture condenses research conducted between 2021-22 on how exactly Viking Age Norwegians changed their farms from Norway to North America, and every location between. What can these adaptations tell us about the people living so far away from Norway, and how did they live?”

Join us at the Student’s Union Lounge, York St John University on the first floor (lift available) which is next door to the new Creative Centre.  Bus stops on Clarence Street and Car Parking available opposite on Union Terrace.

Free event just buy a drink or coffee from the bar. Doors open from 7pm talk starts at 7.30pm.


Member’s report

This well illustrated and lively talk focussed on Norwegian Vikings who from 750-1050 CE migrated beyond their fjords on the western and northern coasts of Norway to Shetland, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, eventually North America. The lecture condensed research conducted between 2021-22 on the archaeological evidence for the morphology and layout of farms. At each location the settlers faced new environmental and societal challenges, and the adaptations they made are reflected in the types of buildings present on their farms.

The talk began with an introduction to Norwegian longhouses, buildings occupied by both humans and domestic animals. These are often associated with smaller outhouses and deep floored pit houses which are thought to have been used for weaving and cloth manufacture. All were clustered near accessible fields. Sheilings are remote seasonally occupied task specific buildings in outfields and highlands providing shelter for herders. Norwegian farms were normally located on watercourses, allowing good communications with networks of neighbours and access to wider trade networks.

Shetland is thought to be one of the first places colonised by Norwegian Vikings soon after 750 CE using their very fast reliable ships. The soap stone quarries of Shetland were an important draw and archaeological evidence demonstrates that Viking Age farms here contrasted strongly with the existing Pictish structures, Iron Age brochs, and prehistoric wheelhouses.

The Faroe Islands, with their steep volcanic uplands was our next location. Here sheep farming was important and the summer uplands meant that shielings were relatively abundant. Stone sewers for irrigation and washing away filth were built and the husbandry of pigs, cows and goats, brought about changes in diet. Not surprisingly the doors of domestic dwellings in Faroes face east, away from the prevailing winds.

Iceland, land of ice and snow, was settled from about 870-930 CE. Long houses were the norm. We know from the Icelandic Sagas that a large number of people, often from elite Norwegian families arrived, building large farms reflecting their political power base. Smaller farms sprang up between larger ones. Place names in Iceland contain several Irish elements demonstrating political and trade networks across the north Atlantic, notably with Dublin. Here farms were small, there were no shielings but abundant pit houses.

Greenland was a verdant land where three Viking Age settlements were founded on the west and southern coast. Here longhouses, often arranged in a herring bone pattern, were built. The nearby higher pasture was used in the summer months and shielings are a feature. Greeenland has a very short growing season of 3 months with 23 hours of daylight per day. Animals were housed for 9 months of the year. Christianity was adopted and it is thought that the architecture of the church developed from that of pit houses.

The final destination of our Atlantic Viking Age adventure was Newfoundland and the site of L’Anse aux Meadows where a settlement, probably one used as a temporary trading and repair base over 20 years in the later 10thCCE was established.

In sum, this was a splendid introduction of the westward colonisation of Norwegian Vikings, presented in a lively and enthusiastic manner.

Andrew K G Jones