Between 1974 and 1981, excavations in Dublin’s historic centre revealed a vast swathe of intact archaeology spanning most of the Viking-founded town’s Scandinavian occupation. Now the full findings have been published for the first time in a landmark new book. Carly Hilts takes a tour through the Viking streets.
As Pat Wallace stood in the shadow of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral in 1974, the view that lay before him was truly spectacular. It was not the soaring religious building that held his attention, though, but something a little closer to the earth. Pre-development clearance of the Irish capital’s historic centre had laid bare an early medieval time capsule: waterlogged layers of well-preserved archaeology some 3m deep, containing unprecedented echoes of the town’s Viking past. With over 100 houses, thousands of objects, and a wealth of environmental evidence, the four-acre site at Wood Quay would shed light on every aspect of life in the early medieval settlement over a period of five centuries. And, at the age of just 25, Wallace had been placed in charge of the entire investigation.
The discoveries came to light because the Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council) had selected Wood Quay as the site of its new headquarters, and it was not a project without controversy. Pioneering work by the late Breandán Ó Ríordáin (1927-2017; Pat’s predecessor both in excavating Viking Dublin, and as Director of the National Museum of Ireland) had previously demonstrated the extent of surviving archaeology from this period in the town, and as the significance of what lay beneath the surface at Wood Quay became clear, calls to halt the development grew in volume. A campaign spearheaded by Prof. F X Martin – chairman of the Friends of Medieval Dublin – culminated in a protest march some 20,000 strong in 1978 and, the following year, a three-week sit-in on the site under the banner ‘Operation Sitric’, named after an 11th-century king of Dublin.
Despite legal challenges and the vociferous demonstrations, the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the work. What it did achieve, though, was buying Wallace and his team vital extra time to carry out a much fuller excavation of the site than would have been possible under the originally agreed time-frame. Thanks to these excavations, which ran for seven years, we now know more about 10th- and 11th-century Dublin than any contemporary town north of the Alps, and only York (CA 58) and Waterford (in south-east Ireland – see CA 304) rival its revelations about urban life in Viking Age Britain and Ireland.
The project’s specialist reports have now been transformed by Wallace into a major new publication, telling the full story of the site and its game-changing finds. The window that it opens on early medieval Dublin is set to transform our understanding of Viking Age towns.
Ploughshares to swords
Dublin’s Viking Age is traditionally defined as stretching from the settlement’s foundation in c.AD 840 until the Norman Conquest of Ireland in 1170 – though with a culturally mixed material record from the 10th century onwards, perhaps indicating a mixed population, the period is more accurately characterised as ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian’ rather than ‘Norse’.
The site would quickly blossom into a wealthy commercial centre, part of a powerful political axis with York (which, until the mid-10th century, was ruled by the same dynasty), but its origins were on a rather humbler scale. Like Waterford, it began not as a town but as a seasonal raiding camp or longphort, and traces of this initial incarnation are thought to have emerged during Georgina Scally and Linzi Simpson’s later work on Essex Street and Parliament Street, where they uncovered the earliest-dated archaeology. This was a wide spread of plough marks, covering almost the entire excavated area. The marks all run in the same direction and never overlap, suggesting that they were only made once. It is thought that they represent a single event – not agricultural ploughing, but the clearing and preparation of land for building.
The result was a small riverside community, made up of just a handful of semi-sunken structures, dating from the 9th century. It would not remain small for long, though; just a generation later, towards the end of the 9th century, the site was completely redeveloped, backfilling the buildings, levelling the ground, building boundary fences, and erecting a multitude of post and wattle structures. This dramatic transformation marks the beginnings of the town proper – the Essex Street area turned into an enduring focus of industrial activity, which continued into the 11th and 12th century, marked by thick spreads of charcoal and ash, while densely populated residential zones sprang up elsewhere, including on what is now Fishamble Street.
This latter area was particularly productive for Wallace’s team, as it was home to diverse features of the medieval town, from sections of the defensive earth banks that encircled it in the 10th and 11th century, to its waterfront marketplace. The most impressive aspect of Fishamble Street, however, was its houses. Numbering over 120 – around a fifth of the structures identified across the site – they make up the best-preserved and most extensive series of 10th- and 11th-century buildings found at any European site west of the Elbe.