12 September 2015

The Vikings in Ireland (2)

The second installment of this interesting article that I posted last week from Archaeology Magazine continues below. (Ed.)


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Carbon dating, which measures the age of organic materials based on the amount of radioactive carbon 14 remaining in a specimen, usually gives a range of likely dates at the time of death. The older the material, the wider the range. In the case of the four individuals excavated under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street, Simpson found that two of them had a 95 percent probability of having died between 670 and 880, with a 68 percent probability of between 690 and 790. Thus, the entire most likely range was before the first documented arrival of Vikings in 795. A third individual lived slightly later, with a 95 percent probability of having died between 689 and 882, with a 68 percent probability of between 771 and 851. “I expected a later range of dates, safe to say,” says Simpson. “These dates seem impossibly early and difficult to reconcile with the available historical and archaeological sources.”

The bones of a Viking warrior in a grave in South Great George’s Street were discovered partly covered by the boss of his iron shield.
The fourth Viking excavated at South Great George’s Street was the most intact of the group and revealed the most about their lives and hardships. A powerfully built man in his late teens or early 20s, he stood five foot seven—tall by the day’s standards—with the muscular torso and arms that would come from hard, oceangoing rowing. His bones showed stresses associated with heavy lifting beginning in childhood. Unlike the three other men, he was not buried with weapons. He and one of the other men shared a congenital deformity in the lower spine, perhaps indicating they were relatives. Carbon dating gave a wider range for his lifetime, showing a 95 percent probability that he died between 786 and 955.

Archaeologists Edmond O’Donovan (left) and Linzi Simpson (right) excavate human remains and artifacts at a Dublin site called Golden Lane. 
In 2005, O’Donovan found two Viking burials under Dublin’s Golden Lane of similar ages to Simpson’s, with a 94 percent probability of death between 678 and 870 for both individuals. One of the burials was an elderly woman, suggesting that Viking family groups, a telltale sign of permanent settlement, were likely established in Dublin earlier than medieval texts had indicated, and perhaps even before the establishment of the longphort. In a separate excavation under Ship Street Great, a few blocks away, Simpson found a Viking corpse with a 68 percent chance of dating from 680 to 775—again, before historical sources say Vikings had even set foot in Ireland. “We know that Vikings started staying over the winter in 841. But now these findings are showing dates before that, and people are starting to wonder what’s going on,” explains Johnson. “They weren’t supposed to be here yet.”

Tests done at the University of Bradford in England on the four South Great George’s Street men’s isotopic oxygen levels, which indicate where an individual spent childhood based on a chemical signature left by groundwater in developing teeth, told yet another story. The results showed that the two men with the spinal deformity had spent their childhood in Scandinavia, though the tests were not precise enough to show where exactly. However, the other two had spent their childhoods far from the Viking homeland, in Ireland or Scotland, another sign of permanent settlement by families, and not just summertime raids by Viking warriors. “You’ve got these four guys, with a mixed geographic origin, and closely associated with fixed settlements, with fires and postholes,” says Simpson. “They didn’t just come here and die and get buried. They were amongst the living.”

This decorated belt ornament was unearthed at Golden Lane.
The evidence of an earlier-than-expected Viking presence in Ireland, based as it is on forensic tests conducted on a handful of burials, may seem slight. But seemingly small pieces of evidence can overturn well-established conventions in archaeology. Both Simpson and Johnson stress that more excavations and tests will be needed before anyone can rewrite the history of Viking settlement, and that is years away. Archaeological work in Ireland has been starved of funds and nearly stopped completely after the country’s economic crash of 2008, and it is only now reviving. Williams adds, “There are two possibilities raised by [Simpson’s] work. Either there was Viking activity earlier than we’ve realized in Ireland, or there is something in the water or soil in Dublin skewing the data, and both possibilities need further research.”

Nevertheless Williams agrees with Simpson and others that the chronology of the Viking presence in Britain and Ireland is in flux, and that they were likely trading or raiding in Britain, and perhaps Ireland as well, before 793. “Most archaeologists would accept that there was extended contact in Britain with the Vikings from the late eighth century or earlier, and there is no reason to think that contact would not extend around Scotland and down into Ireland, especially in a natural landing place like Dublin,” says Williams. Other finds support this: For example, the discovery at the port of Ribe, Denmark, of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dated to the eighth century and recent carbon dating of Viking remains in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland from the same period all suggest fluid trade before raids began, he explains. “It’s a poorly documented part of history,” he says. “But before there was Viking settlement, there was this big trading zone in the North Sea. Did it extend to the Irish Sea? We don’t have any evidence to say that, but it could be just a question of time.”
Roger Atwood is contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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