A new book offer unrivalled insight into life in the 9th century. Clodagh Finn turns the clock back.
TAKE away the fearsome weapons (and perhaps the showy mantle) and the Viking warrior found at one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites at Woodstown, Co Waterford, would look like any hipster strolling down a modern street today.
James Eogan, senior archaeologist at the National Roads Authority, makes the comparison to show that our comic-book perception of Vikings – as savage, hairy and uncouth invaders – is wide of the mark.
This man in his 30s was found in one of the most richly furnished warrior burials – complete with sword, axe, spearhead and shield – ever found in Ireland or Britain.
He was not a marauding thug with a horned helmet (in fact, Viking helmets never had horns), but a respected chief, a canny trader, a clever diplomat and, it seems, rather dapper.
Who would have thought that the discovery in 2003 of two tiny lead weights no wider than your thumb would lead to the unearthing of a lost Viking world more vivid and more exciting than anything in the popular TV series about the invaders from the north?
A new book, Woodstown: A Viking Age Settlement in County Waterford, tells the remarkable story of an excavation that gives us an unrivalled insight into how Vikings lived, worked and traded here 12 long centuries ago.
The book was launched with a fascinating free audiobook and both will challenge many lingering misconceptions, not least our views of personal grooming.
The remains of several antler combs were among the 6,000 finds at Woodstown, showing that personal hygiene and grooming were features of daily life in this vast fortified enclosure (it could have housed Croke Park twice over).
“We tend to think of these grisly warriors tearing hunks out of meat with pieces of fat falling into their beards, but it appears Vikings did trim their beards and cared for their personal appearance,” says Eogan, the book’s executive editor.
Though, not everyone appreciated their efforts. John of Wallingford of England would later bemoan the fact that debonair Danes were a big hit with local women and were persuading “even the daughters of nobles to be their concubines”.
They caused much trouble to the native men, he complained, because they combed their hair every day, bathed every Saturday and had many “frivolous devices” about their person.
And yet, hygiene 9th-century style, would have been a far cry from the pristine conditions of the 21st century. Life behind the high wooden fences at Woodstown would have been dirty, smelly and smoky.
It would have been very noisy too. There would have been a constant din from the ironworking and craft-working workshops, the ongoing ship repairs and the hustle and bustle that comes with supporting a community of some hundred people, or more.
It was clear from the number of nails found on the site – over 550 – that boats were being dismantled and repaired here and the annals would have us believe that “hundreds” of Viking vessels were sailing on Irish rivers.
The early chroniclers were almost certainly exaggerating for effect, yet the rivers Suir, Barrow and Nore would have been the motorways of the 9th century, opening the way for lucrative forays inland.
It is ironic to think that a modern road, the N25 Waterford city bypass, might have been built on the site if archaeological testing in 2003 had not uncovered an early Viking settlement of international importance.
The road was rerouted and Woodstown was declared a national monument in 2005. What emerged in the excavations was a vast longphort, or ship camp that acted as a strategic trading hub and naval base.
In 820, an entry in the Annals of Ulster reads: “The sea belched forth a flood of foreigners over Ireland. No harbour, no beach, no town, fort or castle could be found that survived the waves of Vikings and pirates.”
Yet, by the second half of the ninth century, those same foreign pirates have settled in Waterford and are, most likely, enmeshed in the local community, trading, feuding and negotiating.
It is entirely possible that Woodstown was established at the point of a sword. The Vikings often exploited the disputed boundaries between territories and it is no coincidence they set up camp on the border of two political entities – the principality of the Deise (which roughly corresponds to modern Waterford) and the Kingdom of Ossory (modern Kilkenny).
On the other hand, James Eogan speculates that they may have been invited to set up camp. A local king may well have spotted the revenue-generating potential of doing business with a community whose network extended to Scandinavia, Poland and the Black Sea, across Armenia and into Syria and Iraq.
The discovery of amber from the Baltic and part of a silver coin that was minted in Wasit, in modern Iraq, shows how far-flung their network was.
It’s clear, too, that trading was central to life on the banks of the river Suir. Silver ingots and fragments of cut-up silver (or hack silver) coupled with a large selection of weights reveal a people with a keen business sense.
To do business in the 9th-century, a good scales was a vital piece of equipment. If you were going to exchange, say, 10 fleeces for one ounce of silver, you needed to make sure that you would get one ounce of silver.
Some 200 of the weights found were personalised, some with decorations taken from other objects and one impressive example with a human head cast in glass.
They would have been used to measure out quantities of fur, timber, iron, precious stones – and slaves.
“Slavery was a big aspect of the Viking economy,” explains archaeologist James Eogan. “It was also a big aspect of the Irish economy.”
It is not unreasonable to suggest that Irish slaves were held captive here and sold but also that Scandinavian slaves were sold by Irish people.
Archaeologists have only scratched the surface (only 5% of the site has been excavated) yet Woodstown is still considered “a milestone in European Viking archaeology”, according to archaeologist Dr David Griffiths of Oxford University.
The acidity of the soil meant that bone, wood and leather did not survive and the foundations of just one house were uncovered.
The building was probably not a family house. There was no hearth and the presence of whetstones, crucibles and lead weights suggests it was a metal workshop.
However, it is likely that several houses will come to light if future generations of archaeologists return to the site which, for now, has been returned to pasture land to conserve it.
In the meantime, you can step back 12 centuries by downloading the free audiobook or reading the detailed excavation report in the new book, though the latter is more suitable for specialist readers.
Some of the artefacts themselves are on permanent display at a wonderfully evocative exhibition in Reginald’s Tower in the centre of Waterford city.Happy time travelling.
Woodstown: A Viking Age Settlement in County Waterford, published by the Four Courts Press, is edited by Ian Russell and Maurice F Hurley. The executive editor is James Eogan. €36. To download the audiobook, see http://abartaaudioguides.com
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