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Everyday life in Viking times

Market in a Viking townMarket in a Viking town Most Vikings were farmers. They grew crops such as barley, oats and rye and kept cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses. In most parts of Scandinavia, people lived in timber houses, but in places where wood was scarce they built with turf or stone instead. Some Vikings worked as fishermen, catching freshwater and sea fish as well as hunting for whales. Salt was a vital commodity, usually bought from travelling merchants. It was used to preserve fish and meat to eat during the long winters, when fresh food was scarce.


Inside a Viking houseInside a Viking houseNearly all houses and workshops were made of timber. They were long and rectangular. The roofs were made of reeds or straw thatch. Other than at a blacksmith’s forge, there were no chimneys, only openings to allow smoke from the hearth to escape. Some poorer dwellings may have had just a single room with a hearth in the centre. With no windows, interiors were gloomy, lit by simple oil lamps or candles. People busied themselves with work such as cooking, drying, salting, smoking and pickling food, tanning leather, blacksmithing, or scouring and dyeing cloth.

A working man and womanA working man and woman


The clothes of the Vikings were simple and practical, made from woollen or linen cloth, with animal skins to keep warm in the winter. Men wore trousers and a long-sleeved shirt or tunic, while women wore loose-fitting dresses, usually with an apron over the front. In cold weather, both men and women wore cloaks, fastened by a brooch. Shoes were made from leather.


A busy Viking townA busy Viking townMost Vikings were farmers, so towns were not very common. Just a handful of towns were scattered across Scandinavia in the Viking age. The harbour was often the most important place in a Viking town. Here, boats were loaded and unloaded with goods and animals. Markets were held on the quay. Nearby, boat-builders, potters, leatherworkers, carpenters and other craftspeople were busy in their workshops.

A memorial runestone carved by runemaster ÖpirA memorial runestone carved by runemaster Öpir


The Vikings had a system of writing called runes (in Old Norse, "rune" meant "secret knowledge and wisdom"). Runes carved into stone, which lasts longer than wood or bone, were intended to mark boundaries or glorify an ancestor’s bravery in battle. Viking history was generally not written but passed down the generations by word of mouth in verse stories called sagas.

The Scandinavian runic alphabetThe Scandinavian runic alphabetThe 16-letter Scandinavian runic alphabet is known today as the futhark, after its first six letters. There were no letters for the vowels E or O, nor any for D, G or P, even though those sounds were used in the Norse language when it was spoken.

Consultant: Philip Parker

A Viking's life expectancy at birth was 20 years old. If a child lived to adulthood, they might expect to live to their late 30s or early 40s. Few parents lived to see their children marry, and even fewer lived to see their first grandchild.

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