Book review: Viking Dublin — The Wood Quay Excavations

From finding Viking bedding to discovering the remains of a red-haired man, the Wood Quay dig was one of the highlights of Dr Patrick Wallace’s life. His account of the project is a great read, says Noel Baker.

Patrick F Wallace

Irish Academic Press, €60

DR PATRICK WALLACE has a neat description of himself as he recalls the “high point” of his life as an archaeologist — the excavation of Wood Quay in Dublin.

“Indiana Jones,” he chuckles, tongue firmly in cheek.

“Indiana Jones getting off the 16B bus.”

The self-deprecation and humour comes easily, as do the memories of the epic dig in the heart of Dublin, which itself became a cause celebre back in the 1970s and into the 1980s. 

Many of those memories are captured in forensic detail in Wallace’s suitably comprehensive book on the dig, Viking Dublin — The Wood Quay Excavations. 

It is an immense undertaking, delivered with the polish of a man used to dusting off precious artefacts, and by its end, a veritable encyclopaedia of early Dublin.

The first excavations in the area took place in 1961/2, and 1972 marked the start of the important Christchurch Place excavations, with work at Wood Quay and Fishamble St beginning in 1974 at a 1.8 hectare site to be developed by the then-Dublin Corporation for its civic office complex.

As Wallace writes: “Although undertaken on an ad hoc basis to rescue information from sites threatened by modern development, the archaeological excavations in Dublin give a more complex picture of the Viking age town than might at first have seemed possible.”

The author’s firsthand memories — he was in charge of the dig — are pinpoint accurate and his grá for the period under investigation is obvious, while the excavation itself has entered folklore in its own way. 

Legal challenges held back the bulldozers as the Save Wood Quay campaign and associated protest marches, led by Augustinian priest Fr FX Martin, swung into action.

Even today there are articles online decrying the “outrage” at what happened to the site and fervent claims that it should have been preserved. Wallace has a similar view.

“First of all, our city fathers, not just the elected guys, but the administrative guys, seemed to have utter contempt for what we were finding,” he says. 

“They had no great meas in what we were finding, they couldn’t translate that into their own future regarding economic wealth.

“The story [of archaeological preservation] hasn’t been good since Wood Quay,” he continues. 

“You would have thought it was the low point, in actual fact it was the high point — citizens were aware, it was on TV and radio programmes, but the actual archaeological evidence, which is very finite, was nibbled away with the big developments of the ’80s and ’90s.

“We should have gone slower, we should have built our Wood Quay; instead government learned ‘if you wanted to avoid archaeology, you take the following steps’.”

As Director of the National Museum’s excavations at Wood Quay and Fishamble St, Wallace was acutely aware of the importance of the find; many of the photographs of the actual work on site were taken by him. 

As for the book, a 568 page love letter to archaeology, it tries to do nothing less than “to arrive at a general overview of what Dublin was physically like over the first four centuries of its life as a town”.

Laid out in chronological order and charting the dig right up to the end of works in 1981, it is incredibly detailed and keenly intelligent. 

So dense is it with the minutiae of the finds and what they mean, it could easily scare off the casual reader, but for archaeologists, historians, and anyone with an interest in this vital time in Irish history, it is an essential text, combining technical data, such as a table of buildings and levels on Fishamble St, with passages that give a sense of the sheer wonder of discovery, like this on the actual archaeological layers and their thickness:

“These layers formed a deep compact de

posit which initial bulldozing bit away, leaving a cliff in which it was possible to see a succession of organic levels, layer upon layer, literally like carpets of time one on top of the other.”

The significance of Wood Quay as a site cannot be underestimated. As Wallace writes, the complete or fragmentary evidence for about 600 buildings dating from the 9th to the 12th century “is the most extensive record of its kind from early Medieval Europe.”

Accompanied by crystal clear photographs, maps and diagrams, the book is a site-by-site summary of the layout evidence — the jumble of buildings in the first Dublin town, its post-and-wattle structures with its lack of daub, the walls and defences, the role of the port, and the weapons — swords, axes, spears, bows and arrows, and more, what was found, where, what it looked like, and what it tells us of life back then, as well as Dublin’s place in the context of the overall Viking period.

For those who worked on the excavation it was a stirring experience. A standout memory for Wallace is when they found grass heaped up on an embankment that was still green, so good was preservation. 

“It was a bedding material that people would have used in their beds, it was still green after all those years.”

As the discoveries mounted up, he says “it was like being [TV detective] Colombo”.

“It brings you very near the actual people, people put to death on spikes — we even found one fella with red hair.”

He contends that now, “There is very little of Viking Dublin left.” 

Nevertheless, he has many positive memories of the excavation, citing the IR£2m that came from the state coffers to pay for the dig, and the sheer extent of the work carried out, handily illustrated by aerial photographs that show how Christchurch Cathedral is made to seem like a small church compared to the scale of the dig area.

“You wouldn’t get away with it now,” he laughs, revealing that life for those on site actually became easier once Charlie Haughey — someone often seen as a friend of the big builders, but who seems to have taken an interest in the dig — became Taoiseach.

He believes that the present day school curriculums do not place sufficient emphasis on the Viking era of early Irish history, and that teachers “shy away from it.”

This, as Viking Splash Tours race around the city, seems ever more at odds with our notion of ourselves as saints and scholars, particularly as we focus on the more recent past this coming Easter.

“It was the most dominant thing in my whole life,” he says of Wood Quay.

“I am now 67 years old, I went on to become director of the National Museum, but that was nothing compared to Wood Quay. I knew I would never touch that again.”

Maybe not, but in piecing together this definitive account, he — to borrow an old phrase once uttered by a certain CJH — has done the state some service.


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