Viking Dublin. The Wood Quay excavations

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Irish Academic Press
ISBN 9780716533146

Reviewed by: Franc Myles


Despite the enduring popularity of archaeology on television and in the media, few people realise what’s actually involved in the process of archaeological excavation. This is especially true on urban sites, where the stratification of cultural deposits can reach as much as 10m in depth, the material containing thousands of artefacts, ecofacts (environmental samples) and the intricate physical evidence of human occupation in terms of structures, pathways and rubbish pits. On top of that is the obligation to record what is being destroyed. An archive such as that from Wood Quay comprises hundreds of drawings and photographs, and each find has to be individually processed, catalogued and placed in secure storage for eventual display or further analysis. Site work is undertaken in all types of weather, a complication hardly ever seen on Time Team; where the excavation extends over a wide area, such as on Wood Quay, people-management skills are often as useful as an ability to differentiate and interpret brown layers of silty clay.

In the case of Wood Quay the word ‘campaign’ is appropriate: Dr Wallace and his team battled it out between 1974 and 1981, often having to contend with more than the weather. Indeed, the Wood Quay excavations became one of the best-known causes célèbres of the late ’70s, and archaeologists working in the city today are still expected to bemoan what was built as an example of the cultural vandalism wrought on the city by the Corpo and its contractors. It is perhaps more useful to appreciate what we’ve learned about the origins of the early medieval city, and for that we can thank Pat Wallace and his crew. Many of these went on to forge careers in medieval archaeology, a discipline which was neither profitable nor popular in an official Ireland obsessed with a more distant past, whether it be pagan, ‘Celtic’ or Christian.

When the finds have been processed and the plans digitised and phased, the interpretative or post-excavation phase follows. This book successfully, and with some panache, draws together all the material excavated to provide a comprehensive overview of the evidence for the second chapter of the history of Dublin, while touching a little on the third.

Reading Wallace’s account of the excavations, one is immediately struck by the sheer multiplicity of ‘stuff’ recovered from an area less than one-eighth of that of the medieval walled city. In many respects this is not a traditional archaeological publication, and it’s possibly all the better for that. The National Museum caters for the specialist reader in its Medieval Dublin Excavations series and it is to be hoped that this will continue to be published, irrespective of economic austerity.

Despite its bulk and lavish production, Viking Dublin is by no means destined for the coffee-table. It is essentially a comprehensively illustrated and perhaps personal account of what was found, one which skilfully interrogates the evidence over several wide-ranging headings, contributing to a well-written (and occasionally entertaining) narrative that extends beyond the Viking phase and into the Anglo-Norman consolidation of the urban settlement. Reading the first chapter covering the origins of the city, one begins to realise the enormity of the task ahead, the difficulty inherent in contextualising the Wood Quay evidence in the light of what’s known of other sites in the vicinity and, indeed, in the wider Viking world. Chapter 2 brings us to Building Level 10 on Fishamble Street, possibly the best-preserved urban habitation levels of the period excavated in Europe. The complexity of this level is evident in the plans and photographs, and it is striking to walk down Fishamble Street today and realise that about 3.5m under your feet is the Hiberno-Scandinavian street from which these houses and yards were accessed. An all-too-brief sub-chapter looks at historical references to the house plots and yards and asks the crucial question as to their subsequent survival in spatial terms within the truncated Anglo-Norman levels above.

Chapter 3 deals with the structures. Between 1961 and 1981 the National Museum excavated over 200 Viking buildings in the city, 150 of them on Wood Quay. The typology established by Wallace has been used by Irish archaeologists ever since, with the type one house representing perhaps three quarters of all known house remains of the period in the city. Type one houses were excavated on all levels at Fishamble Street, and evidence recorded elsewhere suggests that this type was present at even lower, tenth-century, levels. Wallace posits the principal Dublin type as part of an unchanged conservative building tradition that probably evolved elsewhere. Traditional readings only see vernacular architecture imported where an indigenous tradition is missing; Wallace suggests here that this was not the case in ninth- and tenth-century Ireland, which obviously brings the argument back to what was there before.
Wallace examines the evidence for the port in Chapters 4 and 5, with the latter chapter focusing on what he refers to as the ‘Hiberno-Norman’ port. The well-preserved evidence points to an earlier harbour built for defence, with the later port designed to receive and accommodate ships. How, if at all, does the earlier port fit into the longphort schema? Without avoiding the thorny question that has exercised the minds of many with an interest in the period, Wallace focuses more on the defensive earthen banks thrown up on the site, which have an archaeological presence elsewhere in the city well away from the waterfront. The banks were replaced by a stone wall, which Wallace argues was there before the traditional date of c. 1100.

The later port is known internationally for the survival of the timber revetments, which advanced from the stone wall northwards towards today’s quays, each phase becoming redundant with the construction of the next, until finally a stone quay was constructed in the middle of the thirteenth century. The carpentry detail on the revetments is remarkable and is well illustrated here, along with that of the excavated ships’ timbers. Despite the work undertaken on oak chronologies establishing Dublin as a major centre of shipbuilding, this aspect of the city’s history did not catch the public imagination until the replica Sea Stallion of Glendalough sailed into Dublin in August 2007.

Chapter 6 discusses the environmental evidence, and for the archaeological reader this section is perhaps the most ground-breaking. Eileen Reilly’s work on the insect assemblage and Siobhán Geraghty’s investigations of the archaeobotanical evidence breathe fresh air into an interpretation of daily life in the settlement, building on earlier work undertaken by A.T. Lucas and Frank Mitchell. In particular, it must now be accepted from Reilly’s work that animal dung was used to insulate the post-and-wattle house walls, and it is also intriguing to consider that the house plots would have gone through periods when they were temporarily left unoccupied by humans and used as animal pens. Geraghty’s work suggests that the slow breakdown of organic refuse and the massive accumulation of wood chippings from house construction contributed to the depth of stratified deposits and the excellent levels of preservation encountered on the site. Reilly’s contention that the city’s early inhabitants looked more to the land than to the sea for sustenance is curiously echoed today, as the city continues to lack a daily fish market.

The levels of preservation lead on to a discussion of wood, leather and textiles in Chapter 7. While archaeology can on one level be described as the ‘study of things’, the artefactual evidence for craftworking from Wood Quay is truly phenomenal and, when examined together with dress and personal ornament in Chapter 8, leaves one in no doubt as to Dublin’s significance as a great populated centre in the Viking world. Again, the book engages the general reader, who will come into the text through the copious illustrations. If there is to be a slight criticism, it touches on the difficulty of finding specific references in the narrative to the excellent drawings and photographs.
Metal-working in the city is the focus of Chapter 9, which the author accepts suffers from the absence of a comprehensive metallographic analysis of the assemblage. In this temporal context, the reader can appreciate the importance of considering the other Viking sites in the city, such as the cemeteries at Islandbridge and Kilmainham (generally considered ‘earlier’) and the tenth- and eleventh-century levels at Christchurch Place. Wallace, himself no stranger to the blacksmith’s forge, is particularly appreciative of the significance of small objects, such as the strike-a-lights which in Dublin were distinguished by the quality of their workmanship. Chains and links were as common as one would expect in a port, as were lead weights, of which 180 were identified. Gold and silver were also worked, and it came as some surprise to this reviewer that in workshop contexts the former was much more evident in the assemblage than the latter.

Chapter 10 deals with ‘the wealth of barbarians’, the evidence for commerce and commodities, where Wallace begins to usefully expand the argument for Dublin’s place in the greater Viking world, a theme he elaborates for the final three chapters. A discussion of the archaeology of art, leisure, literacy and belief in Chapter 11 treats inter alia the tentative evidence for the production of music and the manufacture of instruments in the city. Chapter 12 poses the question of how Irish was Viking Dublin, a question that might never be answered, given the range of artefacts common to all cultures and ethnicities during the period.

An engaging final chapter reviews the context and significance of the archaeology of early medieval Dublin and ends with the statement that we now know as much about the physical nature of Sitriuc Silkbeard’s Dublin as we do about the city of Jonathan Swift. This is something this reviewer must take issue with: thanks indeed to Dr Wallace, we in fact know considerably more about Viking and early medieval Dublin than we do about the post-medieval city, the archaeology of which falls somewhere between the inexact strictures of existing National Monuments legislation and the deficiencies of the 2000 Planning Act.

Viking Dublin belongs on the shelves of anyone with an interest in Dublin’s complex origins. For the archaeologist it serves as an excellent general reference from which the morphology of the early city can be conceptualised. For the historian it serves as a reminder that the text isn’t always paramount—that the bigger picture requires a physical engagement with a past common to all of us.

Franc Myles is a Dublin-based historical archaeologist currently directing a survey of 1916 battlefield sites in the contemporary city.


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