No weapons, no battlefield, no bodies

The challenging archaeological legacy of the Battle of Clontarf

 Viking weapons: iron arrowheads from Dublin excavations. Photograph:  Anne Keenan, National Museum of Ireland

Viking weapons: iron arrowheads from Dublin excavations. Photograph: Anne Keenan, National Museum of Ireland

 

The Battle of Clontarf was fought, we are told, on Good Friday – April 23rd – 1014. The National Museum of Ireland is marking its 1,000th anniversary with ‘Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin’, an exhibition that opens today.

In preparing for it we were faced with the fact that we have no direct archaeological evidence for the battle – not a single weapon or any other item of militaria that is definitely associated with it.

This is not to doubt that it happened. There are many legitimate explanations for the lack of evidence. Medieval battlefields were typically picked clean shortly after the fighting ended. Weapons and armour were far too valuable to be left lying around and would have been gathered up by the winning side or by locals.

The bodies of the slain were usually buried in mass graves, often some distance from the site of the battle. So it may be unreasonable to expect direct evidence of the battle to survive at Clontarf.

In any event, the site of the battle has never been definitively established. Clontarf itself – and the whole Dublin Bay area – has changed dramatically in the past 1,000 years, because of reclamation of the bay and the growth of the city. This makes locating where the battle took place very difficult. We may never know its precise location.

Archaeology, however, tells us a lot about the weapons and armour that both sides would have used in 1014. Excavation in Viking Dublin over the past 50 years has shown the city’s warriors used swords, axes, spears and bows and arrows at the time.

Evidence from elsewhere in Ireland, especially finds from lakes and rivers, shows the Irish were using Viking-type swords, axes and spears. Both Irish and Viking warriors would have used large round wooden shields.

With the exception of the bow and arrow, which the Irish appear not to have used, there was probably little difference between the weapons used by Irish and Viking warriors.

Another significant difference was that many Viking warriors probably had mail armour, whereas the Irish rarely did. Archaeological evidence from Dublin suggests that it had the most advanced military technology available in 1014.

The fact that Brian Boru managed to defeat such formidable opponents (albeit at huge cost) says a lot about how far Irish kings had gone by 1014 to make up any military shortcomings that may have existed in the early Viking period.

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