Episode 1: The Curious Case of Icelandic Turfhouses


Icelandic Turfhouse

For Iceland's first settlers, wood was an extremely valuable resource. Thankfully, over a quarter of the island was covered in forests when they first arrived. But the long winters and volcanic surface of the island aren't conducive to forest growth. Trees take a very long time to grow in these conditions, and so settlers quickly learned to use the dwindling wood supply, sparingly.

To solve this problem they developed a resourceful method for building shelter called the turfhouse. 

The turfhouse consists of a wooden frame on the inside and thick wall of dirt on the outside. Wood was also needed as a fuel source to keep the homes warm in the winter months.

Sod is visible from the side of the turfhouse, revealing the building process.

Sod is visible from the side of the turfhouse, revealing the building process.

In the winter, turfhouses were often crowded, housing several families at once. They ranged in size from 30 feet to 100 feet long. The walls are well insulated and can be up to 7 feet thick. This method of building was very effective; Icelanders lived in houses like these for nearly 1000 years, and some still lived in them as recently as the 1950s.

Today, turfhouse ruins can been found all across Iceland, Greenland, and on an island in Canada. In 1960, archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband, the explorer Helge Ingstad, discovered an old viking settlement in L’Anse Meadows, Canada. Over a dozen Icelandic turfhouse ruins were discovered, confirming the arrival of Icelanders to North America, around the year 1000.

The Icelandic flag is always waving in windy Iceland.

The Icelandic Sagas, a series of historical narratives written in the 12th and 13th century, told stories of settlements these settlements. Not everyone was convinced that these stories were accurate, since the Sagas included a variety of information, including tales of trolls and fairies.

“You can’t really say this is history or fiction,” according to Ármann Jakobssen, Professor of Medieval Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland. “They are simply less reliable as history.”

An excerpt from one of the many Sagas, written hundreds of years ago.

Jakobssen explains that Icelandic Sagas include mythology and folklore, but alongside these folklore tales are a lot of historical facts.

When the discovery in L’Anse Meadows revealed several viking structures, any doubt about the Saga's claims had dissipated. Now, archeologists believe that there may be even more settlements, about 400 miles south of L'Anse Meadows.

No one knows when or why the settlements were eventually abandoned, but there are rumors that vikings traveled as far south as the US state of Maine.

If you have an idea, let us know. Find out more about the turfhouses from an Icelander himself, by listening to our latest podcast episode.