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18 September 2014
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Viking Colonists: Joining the Community

People and daily life

Image of a Viking strap-end
Exquisite craftsmanship on a Viking strap-end ©
History tells of events, places and important people. The spread of Scandinavian place names not only helps to chart the extent of Scandinavian settlement but records the names of lesser people and how they reacted to the landscape around them.

For example, in Shetland, Haroldswick in the island of Unst means Harold's bay, while Lerwick or 'mud bay' perpetuates the Vikings' scorn for what was for them a useless harbour. But for the details of everyday life, we depend on archaeological evidence from excavations. Pagan graves are particularly useful because the bodies buried within them were fully dressed and accompanied by personal belongings, some of which indicate important activities of the living.

'Cooking, eating, storytelling and sleeping all took place in this one room ...'

Women often had the iron sickles with which they harvested the flax for making linen, the toothed iron heckles or combs with which they straightened the fibres, and the stone discs or whorls that weighted the wooden spindle for spinning the fibres into thread. Very occasionally they had beautifully carved boards of whalebone, on which they rubbed a high gloss on to the linen. Men were usually buried with their weapons (sword, shield, spear, arrows, axe) and sometimes with blacksmith's tools such as iron tongs and hammers.

Image of an antler bone whorl used for spinning
An antler bone whorl used for spinning ©
Farmhouses in the ninth and tenth centuries were long rectangular buildings with rounded corners, built of stone and turf or stone and timber with thatched roofs. Most consisted of a single room, 15-20 metres long, with a central long hearth and low benches lining the long walls.

Cooking, eating, storytelling and sleeping all took place in this one room, along with weaving and carving bone pins and whatever else was needed. There were separate outhouses for the cattle. Houses in towns tended to be smaller and were usually built of wood and wattle. Wherever people lived, domestic rubbish accumulated and with it invaluable information about diet, hygiene, equipment and everyday activities.

Published: 2004-09-11

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