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The Vikings in Ireland

A surprising discovery in Dublin challenges long-held ideas about when the Scandinavian raiders arrived on the Emerald Isle

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Irish-Vikings-Ax-HeadAn 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.

 

Ireland-Viking-ExcavationAll 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.”

 

 

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