05 September 2015

The Vikings in Ireland (1)

Here's a fascinating article from my favorite Archaeology magazine about a dig going on in downtown Dublin, Ireland. It is too long for a single post here, so I have divided it in half and I'll post the two weekly segments consecutively beginning today. Enjoy... (Ed.)

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A surprising discovery in Dublin challenges long-held ideas about when the Scandinavian raiders arrived on the Emerald Isle.
By ROGER ATWOOD
Tuesday, March 10, 2015


An impressive ax head is one of hundreds of Viking artifacts found during excavations under the streets of Dublin

When Irish archaeologists working under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street just over a decade ago excavated the remains of four young men buried with fragments of Viking shields, daggers, and personal ornaments, the discovery appeared to be simply more evidence of the Viking presence in Ireland. At least 77 Viking burials have been discovered across Dublin since the late 1700s, some accidentally by ditch diggers, others by archaeologists working on building sites. All have been dated to the ninth or tenth centuries on the basis of artifacts that accompanied them, and the South Great George’s Street burials seemed to be four more examples.

Yet when excavation leader Linzi Simpson of Dublin’s Trinity College sent the remains for carbon dating to determine their age, the results were “quite surprising,” she says. The tests, performed at Beta Analytic in Miami, Florida, and at Queen’s University in Belfast, showed that the men had been buried in Irish soil years, or even decades, before the accepted date for the establishment of the first year-round Viking settlement in Dublin—and perhaps even before the first known Viking raid on the island took place.


All across Dublin at sites such as South Great George’s Street (above), archaeologists have uncovered dozens of Viking burials. These graves are now contributing to a picture of the city as a successful trading outpost of the Viking world.Simpson’s findings are now adding new weight to an idea gaining growing acceptance—that, instead of a sudden, cataclysmic invasion, the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland and Britain began, rather, with small-scale settlements and trade links that connected Ireland with northern European commerce for the first time. And, further, that those trading contacts may have occurred generations before the violent raids described in contemporary texts, works written by monks in isolated monasteries—often the only places where literate people lived—which were especially targeted by Viking raiders for their food and treasures. Scholars are continuing to examine these texts, but are also considering the limitations of using them to understand the historical record. The monks were devastated by the attacks on their homes and institutions, and other contemporaneous events may not have been recorded because there was no one literate available to do so. “Most researchers accept now that the raids were not the first contact, as the old texts suggest,” says Gareth Williams, curator of medieval coinage and a Viking expert at the British Museum. “How did the Vikings know where all those monasteries were? It’s because there was already contact. They were already trading before those raids happened.”

Unlike the Christian populations they encountered—and sometimes conquered—Vikings often buried their dead with treasured objects such as this late 9th- to early 10th-century zoomorphic iron figurine found in a grave in the Dublin neighborhood of Islandbridge.


The beginning of the Viking era in Britain was long thought to have been June 8, A.D. 793, the day when seaborne Scandinavian raiders appeared on the horizon and attacked a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England. Population pressures at home, a thirst for wealth and adventure, and improvements in boat-building techniques all propelled the Vikings out of their chilly realm in search of conquest. In 795 they reached Ireland with an attack on Rathlin Island, where the monastery was “burned by the heathens,” according to the Annals of Ulster, the longest and most detailed of the medieval texts that historians have relied on to chronicle the period. At the time, Ireland had been Christian for at least three centuries, and its monasteries were its wealthiest and most powerful institutions. Early medieval texts refer to the Vikings as simply “the heathens,” stressing the religious, rather than ethnic, differences between them and the Irish.

The Annals describe hordes of Vikings plundering the landscape and battling the feuding warlords who ruled Ireland. One entry, from 798, says the pagan invaders stole cattle tribute from chieftains, burned their churches, and “made great incursions in Ireland and also Alba [Scotland],” painting a picture of widespread chaos and destruction. Another entry records the arrival of a flotilla of 60 Viking ships in 837 at the mouth of the Boyne River, 30 miles north of Dublin. Within weeks, the Annals say, the Vikings had won a battle “in which an uncounted number [of people] were slaughtered.” Recent excavations in Ireland tend to confirm the account the texts depict. “They came, they saw the lay of the land, and then came the catastrophic invasions described in the Annals,” Simpson says. “Considering the weapons buried with these guys, and all the Viking cemeteries discovered in Dublin, I don’t think the Annals were exaggerating. It must have been a very violent time.”

By 841, Vikings had established a year-round settlement around a timber-and-earthen fort known as a longphort at the confluence of the Liffey and Poddle Rivers, in the heart of modern Dublin. This date has long been taken to be the beginning of the Vikings’ permanent settlement in Ireland. Through alliances, conquest, and intermarriage with local kings, their power waxed and waned over the next two centuries until they were expelled by celebrated Irish warlord Brian Boru in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In recent years the story of that battle has also been revised, with modern scholars seeing it more as a clash for control of Dublin’s port than the shining moment of Irish nationalism of lore. Nonetheless, it meant the end of the Vikings’ presence. Unlike in England and northern France, where they created new cultural orders and royal lineages, the Vikings left little permanent imprint on Ireland, and there are few Viking place names there or Norse words in its language.


A decorated comb made of deer antler was found lying on the shoulder of one of the Vikings in the South Great George’s Street excavation.

Since the 1960s, archaeologists have been gathering information about the mid-ninth-century longphort that lay under the pubs and sidewalks of Fishamble Street in Dublin. “The Vikings started with sporadic summer raids, but after some years they decided, ‘This is lucrative, let’s stay,’ and so they built settlements to stay over the winter,” says Ruth Johnson, Dublin’s city archaeologist. Although the earlier dates for a Viking presence in Dublin that have been identified by Simpson and independent archaeologist Edmond O’Donovan differ from the later, established dates by only a few decades, when combined with other evidence, they are challenging the chronology of Viking settlement in Ireland.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…

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