Stone Age Norse and the Longhouse

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The Norse during the Viking Age were well known for their longhouses and mead halls, but how long have they been building them?

A longhouse is a type of long, proportionately narrow, single-room building built by peoples in various parts of the world including Asia, Europe, and North America.  Longhouses were a commonly developed technology built by many cultures.

In the Northern European region during the period of the Funnelbeaker Culture (Trichterbecherkultur) of around 4300 BC to 2800 BC, people began to live more inland.  They began to build settlements more inland, but were still located near those of the previous Ertebølle Culture that were on the coast.

The Ertebølle Culture is the name of a hunter-gatherer and fisher, pottery-making culture dating to the end of the Mesolithic period at around 5300 BC to 3950 BC. This culture was concentrated in Southern Scandinavia, Northern Germany, and the Northern Netherlands.

The livelihood of Funnelbeaker Culture people relied more on farming and animal husbandry, which became their major sources of food. These people began building more permanent settlements and structures.

These early mesolithic/neolithic Germanic-Norse people lived in single-family waffle and daub houses that were made from weaved lattice strips of wood or sticks and then ‘daubed’ with sticky material generally made from mud, clay, and straw mixtures.

Wattle and Daub example. source: tinyhouseblog.com
Wattle and Daub example. source: tinyhouseblog.com

They raised sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats but also continued to rely on some hunting and fishing for food stuffs. They grew primitive wheat and barley on small patches, but these resources were fast depleted and still had not developed into a major dietary staple yet.

There was some small scale mining and collection of flint stone, which was traded into areas that lacked flint stone, such as the Scandinavian hinterlands.

EARLY1

This culture also traded and imported copper items from Central Europe, especially tools, daggers, and axes. The cultures in Central and Southern Europe were more technically evolved metalworkers.

Stability allowed communal longhouses to start being constructed.

During this time period, communal pile dwellings (also called stilt houses) were built and improved over several years by some communities that were only inhabited during the summer months. These buildings were used as social centers where clans gathered for festivities after the summer’s hunting and harvesting season.

Fyrkat vikingeborg, Fyrkat, Denmark
Fyrkat vikingeborg, Fyrkat, Denmark

This may also have been an early concept of the Norse “Thing,” where free men from different clans met to trade and negotiate disputes and make agreements.

<Read Article: Norse Law – The Vikings had a ‘Thing’ for it>

There were usually about 100 hearths made of limestone that were evenly distributed across the pile dwelling in huts that were supported by the many hazel stilts.

Around these limestone hearths, researchers found an abundance of residue from meals of charred wheat and barley, split and charred crab apples, hazel nut shells, and bone from cattle, sheep and pigs. There were also remains from game such as red deer, moose, wolf, and bear. Additionally, researchers found remains from fowl such as mallard and black grouse and the remains of fish such as northern pike and perch. This shows how expanded their diets were becoming and the variety of meat consumed that they fished and hunted for.

The remains of craftsmanship were relatively few, suggesting that their tools were transported to the communal pile dwellings from the workshops where they lived the majority of the time. Meaning, they only came to the communal sites for short periods of time to trade and exchange ideas. Additionally meeting for religious rites and probably to make sacrifices to their gods.

During the time of these Nordic Stone Age cultures, a prevalence of a gene that allowed adults of Northern European descent to digest lactose originated and spread to other cultures to become virtually universal. This was a genetic variant that was either rare or completely absent in early farmers from Central Europe.

<Read ArticleStone Age Norse gave you the ability to digest Cow’s Milk.>

Among the most remarkable finds in these communal sites were double edged battle axes, which appear to have played an important role in their culture as far as being symbols of status.

Axes from the Funnelbeaker culture. 1. thin-neck ax, 2. double-edged battle ax, 3. polygonal battle ax.
Axes from the Funnelbeaker culture. 1. thin-neck ax, 2. double-edged battle ax, 3. polygonal battle ax. Tunnackigyxa (thin-neck axe), from Skåne. 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.

The culture that evolving from the Funnelbeaker Culture was the Battleaxe Culture, also known as the Boat-Ax Culture or more accurately, the Corded Ware Culture of approximately 2800 BC that continued well into the Nordic Bronze Age that began around 1700 BC. The name ‘boat-ax‘ comes from the fact that the over 3000 battle axes found scattered throughout the Nordic areas of Scandinavia made from ground stone were shaped similar to that of boats.

Battleaxe culture
Boat-shaped battle axes typical of the Battle Axe Culture. Pottery vessels and axes, chisels and arrows made of flint were also common. The National Museum of Denmark. 2013.

This time period has also been nicknamed the Age of Crushed Skulls by Swedish writer Herman Lindqvist. due to evidence of skull damage in grave sites caused by axes. This is also highly suggestive as to why the style of spangenhelm helmets worn by the Norse may have evolved to the distinctive conical shape as a means to protect the head from such blows.

So it appears from these findings that the Germanic and Norse people began building Longhouses just before the start of the Nordic Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, which was also about the same time they embraced a warrior’s Ax Culture.

For kin and kindred, one must be prepared to defend the hearth.

Sources:

 

Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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Njord Kane is an infantry and cavalry veteran who also served in law enforcement just prior to entering into the world of academia where he pursued the disciplines of military science, social psychology, and anthropology. Having left his profession, he now takes care of his adult autistic sons at home while passionately writing about early Norse and Mesoamerican culture and history at spangenhelm.com and readicon.com. Kane is also the author of numerous books including, The Vikings, The Maya, and The Viking Hero Series.

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