Living Conditions in the Iron Age
The houses which made up the villages of the farmers of the Iron Age had an economic life of 30 to 40 years. When they had reached that age they were often worn out and were torn down. When the house was broken down they pulled up the best of the lumber from the ground in order to use it again. They also burnt off whatever remained of the house. And finally they used an ard (a primitive plough) to plough the site with so it could later be used as a field.
Iron-age house by Lejre. Big picture© Lejre Experimental Centre
The houses were of the three-aisled kind which means that the roof was carried by two rows of poles, placed inside the house and thus dividing the house into three aisles lengthwise. The houses were relatively small during the Early Iron Age. But around the birth of Christ they slowly began to grow larger. The oldest houses were on average 16 to 17 metres long whereas the younger houses were 20 to 22 metres long - a few were even longer.
Building materials for the houses were almost all made of oak. This applies to the poles carrying the roof, the poles supporting the walls and roofing. Coniferous trees, which are better building material than leaf-bearing trees, except for oak, were not used due to the simple fact that coniferous trees were not common in the Danish woods until after the 19th century. In order to construct the bearing construction of a standard house from the early Iron Age it was necessary to use approximately 20 oak trees.
The slope of the roof of the houses of
the Iron Age depended on what the
roof was covered with. Big picture © Lejre Experimental Centre
The slope of the roof of the houses of the Iron Age depended on what the roof was covered with. A roof made of peat was heavy and needed a low slope to prevent the peat from sliding off. If the material was light, for example shaving, straw and common reed it was necessary to have steeper slope to prevent the water from seeping through the roof but instead run off the roof. Most of the three-aisled long houses of the Iron Age had a roof made of light material and therefore also a roof which was relatively steep.
If we had had the opportunity to peep through the door of a typical farmhouse of the Iron Age we would have noticed right away the heavy construction of poles which carried the roof. The houses had two rows of round peeled oak poles with a diameter of 25 to 30 centimetres. The distance between two poles was on average 3 metres. The construction of the walls varied according to where in Denmark the house was located.
The entrance was placed in the
middle of the long side of the house. Big picture © Lejre Experimental Centre
Along the Liim Fiord and along the west coast of Jutland all the way down to the area south of the current border to Germany the walls were made of turf. Earthen walls like that required a lot of moisture, in particular rain, in order to prevent them from drying out and falling apart. That is why we find them along the coast of the North Sea.
In other areas they used mud-and-wattled walls, sometimes combined with flat and broad planks.
The main entrance of the house was placed in the middle of the long side of the house. A similar entrance was placed on the other side of the house. When it comes to the small outhouses the entrance was usually also placed on the long side of the house.
The fireplace was the centre of most of the
indoor activities. Big picture © Lejre Experimental Centre
The floor of the outer entry room was either an earthen floor or made of finely placed stones. The paved floor of the outer entry room sometimes also had a small landing.
The door was often made of a couple of oak planks joined together with transverse lists.
Except for the little daylight, which seeped through the two doors, the only thing that lit up the interior of the house was the fire which was kept alive in the fireplace in the western end of the house. Here the floor was always made of compressed mud.
The residents lived in the western
end of the house. Big picture © Lejre Experimental Centre
The fireplace was the centre of most of the indoor activities. The fireplace was almost always placed in the same part of the house but it could be designed in various ways. However, usually it consisted of a burnt sheet of clay which was often ornamented. The sheet of clay rested on a foundation of smaller stones the size of a hand.
The long houses were divided into rooms with different functions. In the area between the poles by the entrance there was often a special entry room with access to the section where the people lived and the section where the livestock was kept. The sections were separated by partition walls. From the entry room you could either enter the living quarters in the western end of the house or the stable which was placed in the eastern end.
The stable had a simple earthen floor which was sometimes a little lower than the rest of the house. The room was divided into stalls made of cleaved oak logs. We would be able to see how the 5 to 6 metres long stables usually held 14 to 16 livestock. A few of the houses had bigger stables which were 7 to 9 metres long, holding 18 to 22 livestock.
The livestock was kept in the eastern
end of the house. Big picture
The Burnt House
It happened quite often that iron-age houses burnt down. The open fireplace, the thatched roof, hay and straw were a dangerous mix.
A burnt down iron-age house excavated close to Aalborg in the northern part of Jutland revealed in a most gruesome way what life was like in an iron-age house. The fire in the house, which was 18 metres long and only 5 metres wide, ended the lives of both the residents and the livestock.
Five people died in the fire. That was probably all the residents of the house - several of them were found in the eastern end of the house where the stable was located. They probably died while they were desperately trying to save their livestock. There were three young people between the ages of 12 and 18.
Remains of an iron-age house by
the village Voel east of Silkeborg. Big picture
In the end of the house where the stable was located the archaeologists discovered the remains of 19 animals which had died in the fire and which were gathered in small groups. There were five full-grown sheep and two newborn lambs. Among the sheep was one pig. The stable also held two horses, one in each side of the stable, as well as seven other livestock.
The burnt down house was a typical example of how the houses were inhabited with people and animals and other burnt down houses have provided us with similar information.