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Ireland's Vikings still haven't unveiled all of their secrets

We’ve found graveyards, houses, and bodies – but there’s still much to be discovered.

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“HIS DISCOVERY HAS shifted our understanding of the Vikings and their relationship with Dublin.” Sheila Dooley, curator at Dublinia, is showing TheJournal.ie a skeleton as she says this – the skeleton of a Norwegian man (nicknamed Gunnar) who travelled to Ireland hundreds of years ago.

In 2003, Dunnes Stores was expanding its headquarters on Dublin’s South Great George’s St, when something significant was discovered during excavations: the bodies of four men, aged between their late teens and late twenties.

They were Vikings, buried between 670 – 882 AD in three cases and 789 – 955 in the fourth, according to radiocarbon dating. Their discovery suggested that Viking burials were perhaps taking place earlier than it was commonly believed there was a Viking presence in Ireland (the first raids are thought to have taken place in AD 795, while a Viking base, or longphort, in Dublin dates to AD 841).

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It’s unexpected discoveries like this – it was the last day of the excavation at the site – that can change the course of decades of research. They also show that the research into Irish history is never finished: there’s always something more to discover.

Life after Wood Quay

Today, there’s also the need for developers and archaeologists to work together to uncover Ireland’s heritage. ”There’s a much better relationship now between developers and archaeologists who work together and help each other out,” says Dooley.

We’re visiting Dublinia, which is an interactive Viking and Medieval experience, as it launches the second phase of its Dublin Walls app, which enables people to look around the old city as it was centuries ago. It’s a way of helping people get in touch with the Ireland of old.

It’s hard to believe that while walking through the capital, under your feet may be a Viking house made of wattle, or the bones of a warrior. But new developments and excavations in the city centre always carry with them the chance of finding something new, and for startling information to be revealed.

(And as this video shows, sometimes we can find out information in the most unusual of places.)

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“The entire theory of Viking Dublin has changed with one building, in one historically significant location, that being within the zone of archaeological potential which is Dublin city centre,” explains Dooley of Gunnar’s discovery.

The zone of archaeological potential was created by Professor Howard Clarke after the Wood Quay campaign. Within a particular zone – marked by a red dotted line - any digging that goes on has to have an archaeologist on site.

One of the most significant finds of Viking history in Ireland was at Wood Quay, now the site of the Dublin City Council offices. Thanks to the conditions of the land there, at the side of the river, Viking houses and items were almost perfectly preserved.

From 1978 – 1979 there was a fierce battle over the site, when it became clear that the council (then the Dublin Corporation) intended on building its new high-rise offices where Vikings had previously made their home.

00015989_15989 The dig at Wood Quay Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Large-scale marches against the move were held, at one point protesters held up work at the site, and the story was in the news constantly. The case went to court, but the Corporation eventually was able to build on the site.

It was a pivotal moment for Irish heritage, and one which shows that many people feel a deep connection with Ireland’s past. Some of the items from Wood Quay are on display at Dublinia. Some are also on show at the National Museum.

00015990_15990 Excavation at Wood Quay. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Exciting time

Dooley says that by working together, archaeologists and developers can forge a new positive relationship around Irish heritage. “That’s why we really have to help out our own interests in our own past by allowing archaeologists and developers to have that relationship that’s already being mutually beneficial,” she says.

“And it’s a really exciting time as well because I think the attitude is changing now, because archaeologists have been trained to work with developers and vice versa. In other words, if you’re on a site and archaeologists are digging to the right, the developers are working on the left, and then they swap over.”

A find doesn’t mean that a building or development must be stopped.

“The thing about archaeology is if it doesn’t have to be taken out, it isn’t, now [we can have] a situation where things are preserved in situ,” explains Dooley. “For example, underneath the entrance to Dublinia there’s human remains. Those human remains didn’t need to be excavated because they didn’t affect the building being put in. So it’s preserving in situ.”

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“You can go treasure hunting like they did centuries ago and destroy everything, but archaeology is already a destructive process, as is development, so by not destroying it and keeping it preserved under the ground at least you’re keeping it there and have recorded where it is.”

Allowances have to be made and compromises have to be made. But having it on the written record is fantastic.

Journey to Valhalla

When discoveries are made, modern technology means that we can discover a lot more than in previous decades. Gunnar’s own story makes for a fascinating one.

“All of the [four men discovered on South Great George's St] had grave goods, which is very symptomatic of Viking warriors because at that time in Ireland we were all Christianised so we all believed we would go to heaven, whereas the Viking warriors believed they went to Valhalla, which was their heaven,” says Dooley, “where you’d feast and fight – which is an idea of heaven for some people – for all eternity and you need your goods with you.”

Found with Gunnar were a knife, dagger, comb, and cloak pin. They all provide clues as to what his life was like.

“I can tell you he had a bad back, I can tell you he was stocky, he was about 5’7,” says Dooley.

He had at one point hurt his rib or fractured his rib, he was right-handed, he had lice, he was 17 – 25 years old when he died, which to us is starting off but was practically middle aged.

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When the archaeologists were excavating, they found tiny finger bones of an infant in his chest cavity, indicating he was buried with a child on his chest.

Isotope analysis of his teeth showed that he came from Norway. Osteoarchaeologists were also able to determine that he had a genetic deformity to his back, though it didn’t stop the stocky man from becoming an elite raider.

Tiny pieces of metal found around his body indicated that he practiced metalsmithing.

There were some strange aspects to his discovery – his head is missing (except his jawbone), and the upper part of his legs are at a different angle to his lower legs. Coupled with the fact that his shield and sword are missing, archaeologists believe this is because his legs were moved while the items were stolen.

“Grave robbing was quite common,” says Dooley.

The fact that his kneecap stayed intact on his upper leg despite this indicates that the robbery took place within less than 15 years after he was buried.

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The early Viking raids – during a time of Christianity – paved the way for 200 years of Viking raids, plunder, and settlement here.

“Gunnar is part of this possibly early invading force, this elite set of Viking warriors that really hadn’t stabilised themselves as much,” says Dooley.

“There was a huge amount of raiding going on at the time, but this 841 date is the time historians had previously given to them setting up shop as it were. Parking their longships around the Chester Beatty Gardens near the library and saying ‘we’re here for good’. And the whole 10 years before that there was tons of raiding going on.”

The remains of around 200 Viking houses have been found during excavations in Dublin, while a small community lived in Annagassan in Co Louth. The ‘Viking triangle’ in the South East marks where the Vikings had a further impact.

Monks, understandably, did not love Vikings, as the Norsemen frequently targeted them for raids. Dooley says that in 841AD a monk wrote on a manuscript: “Heathens still at Dubh Linn” (where Dublin Castle is today).

Another significant find was a massive burial site at Islandbridge containing the bodies of tens of Viking warriors – next time you’re near Heuston, imagine that at one point it contained a Viking graveyard.

Leaving a legacy

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The Vikings “made us all a lot taller”, laughs Dooley, but they also left us much of their language – words like outlaw and husband.

“The word honeymoon is a Viking word, it’s when the Vikings would drink mead over many moons as a celebration after a marriage,” she says. “Cotter, Doyle, Dooley – some of these names do have potential to be of a Viking genealogy.”

“That’s the other side of Viking life, as barbaric as they were and how treacherous and how much they terrorised our society, they also helped establish our towns,” she adds.

“There were small settlements in Ireland already but they established the Dublin that we know today. We can still walk through Dublin, go down Fishamble St or Cook Street and all of those have a history from the Viking settlement. So they are still with us in many ways as is their language.”

dubliniasy-1237 Pottery found at Wood Quay.

Dooley also says that Vikings were more open than we might have thought:

“At the time of the equality referendum I was interested to see how Viking society dealt with or tolerated or embraced equality in their society. And in Iceland, which was a well-established Viking society, they welcomed and didn’t abhor any kind of gay or homosexuality at all.

“As long as that person was able to provide for the community and have relationships that didn’t affect in a negative way the community, then it was fine. It was an equal society.”

dubliniasy-1218 Gunnar's remains.

As we leave Dublinia, it’s clear that there’s still much out there to discover how the Vikings impacted on Irish history.

“I’m hoping that we can continue to research the vast collection that is in the National Museum,” says Dooley of the significant Wood Quay finds, adding later: “There’s plenty more to find and plenty more decisions to be made and history to be [discovered].”

Dublinia, in partnership Dublin City Council and grant support from the Irish Walled Town Network, has launched the second stage of the Viking & Medieval Dublin Online Learning Platform, alongside the free Dublin City Walls app.

The updated Dublin City Walls app allows you to view the medieval walls of the city using GPS to map your route. Along the route there are animated videos recreating sections of Dublin’s city walls, photographs and text by archaeologist Linzi Simpson. Dublinia also hosts a range of events to bring people closer to Viking and Medieval Dublin.

Read: Mummies and 1,000 statues found in search of 3,500-year-old tomb>

Read: This man has your childhood dream job: Neil the archaeologist>

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