The everyday homes and utensils of our Viking ancestors have been brought to life as archaeological artefacts from Cork’s early medieval city go on public display.
While many of the artefacts taken from the ground below Cork’s former Beamish & Crawford brewery site in the inner city look like the possessions of dignitaries, the rich decorations instead reflect the craftwork of those who lived there nearly 1,000 years ago.
They can be seen up close in the free Below Our Feet exhibition that opens to general viewing at Cork Public Museum tomorrow.
Following specialist conservation work, the perfectly-preserved objects and fragments which can be seen publicly for the first time include what looks like a dagger owned by an important person.
However, the 30cm ‘sword’ with two back-to-back heads carved in minute detail above an interlace decoration on its handle was used in weaving to hammer threads into place on a loom.
“In the early development of towns, lots of skills would have been put to use in each household,” said archaeologist Maurice Hurley, who led the excavation project for the Beamish & Crawford site’s developers Bam.
As well as turning up artefacts, nearly 18 months of excavations up to last March to facilitate building of the long-delayed events centre have added significantly to our understanding of Cork’s and Ireland’s Hiberno-Norse and early medieval history.
As explained in the Irish Examiner earlier this year, scientific analysis has shown that the earliest houses whose floors were unearthed can be dated to around 1070. This is 25 years earlier than the previously-proven existence of an urban streetscape layout in Cork, meaning the city and Waterford probably underwent formalised urban settlement in the same decades.
However, it is stressed by Mr Hurley, who has excavated Hiberno-Norse sites in both cities and elsewhere, that there is still evidence of much earlier viking presence in Waterford even if living arrangements were not organised in an urban fashion.
Some of the most fascinating of a dozen artefacts on display from the South Main Street dig are everyday items, one of which looks like a simple wooden pot lid.
On closer examination, as Mr Hurley said, it can be seen that the underside is threaded to ensure the yew-wood lid could be firmly secured on the vessel.
It shows signs of repair, as a split in the wood is kept together by tiny threads of wire, a sign that there was significant value placed on the vessel or its contents.
The archaeologists also found what is probably the wooden back of an early mirror, whose frame would once have held in place a thin sheet of reflective metal in the centuries long before glass was used. An oval loop at one end suggests it once hung on a wall or a post inside one of Cork’s early medieval homes.
The artefacts were taken from the lowest layers of the excavations funded by Bam, which has also supported the exhibition and associated conservation work.
Overseen by the National Museum of Ireland, it has ensured the items survived their removal from the ground whose marshy nature ensured they were so well preserved after centuries below the feet of brewery workers and other Cork citizens.
Cork Public Museum acting curator Dan Breen said adapting to this marshy surface inspired the use of clay blocks for the floors of the earliest homes discovered by Mr Hurley and his colleagues.
One such floor is replicated in a lifesize house entrance constructed in the museum.
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