The roles of pit houses and gendered spaces on Viking-Age farmsteads in Iceland

Karen Milek

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The small semi-subterranean buildings (jarðhús) that are found on many Viking Age farmsteads in Iceland (late 9th-11th century) have been subject to very wide ranging interpretations, from short-lived, expedient dwellings to saunas, women's workrooms, the houses of Slavic settlers, and in one case a cult building. This paper tests these hypotheses by making a thorough revaluation of pit house dates, architectural forms, internal structural features and artefacts, and presents new geoarchaeological evidence from the pit house at Hofstaðir, northeast Iceland, which lends strong support to the interpretation that they were women's workrooms. Although food was consumed in pit houses and they could have been used as dwellings by a few individuals, their primary function was for the production of woollen textiles by the female members of the household. Far from being short-lived, temporary dwellings, most pit houses were in use for a considerable period of time and must have represented an integral social and economic space on Viking Age farmsteads. Their abandonment in the later 10th and 11th centuries represents a dramatic shift in the organisation of household production and gendered household spaces, a shift that may be interpreted in the light of changing religious beliefs and social structures, the growing importance of homespun cloth as a valuable export commodity, and the rise in status of the women who made it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-130
Number of pages46
JournalMedieval Archaeology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


  • Viking Age
  • houses
  • Iceland
  • geoarchaeology
  • soil micromorphology
  • space
  • floors
  • site formation processes
  • activity areas
  • women's work


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