A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Silver cone, mid 10th  century

The slave chain we featured last week is at the brutal end of the spectrum of Viking Ireland. This gorgeous cone of woven silver thread is, physically and symbolically, at the other extreme. It sits in the palm of the hand as lightly as a confection of spun sugar. It speaks of delicacy and delight, of complex conception and marvellous execution. It is hard to think of anything further removed from the idea of brute force.

“When I look at this,” says Andy Halpin of the National Museum of Ireland, “the first question that comes to my mind is, How do you make it? From a technological point of view, it’s an extraordinary thing.”

There are three separate strands of silver, each composed of between 15 and 18 wires. Yet, Halpin says, it is very hard to find where all these wires end. The visual effect is that of a single thread turning endlessly around itself. There are traces of some kind of organic material inside the cone, probably a wax shape around which the wires were woven. The visual imagination and the physical deftness required to do so are of the highest order.

This cone is one of the largest of a group of 18 found in 1999 in the limestone cave at Dunmore, just north of Kilkenny city. The cave was well known in early medieval Ireland, and the annals refer to a great slaughter perpetrated there around 930. The cones, though, were found with coins that indicate a later date for their deposition – about 970.

The larger cones like this one are unique objects, but the smaller ones in the hoard have parallels in Viking burials on the Isle of Man. What we seem to have, then, is a development in Ireland of a general Norse form.

The strong likelihood is that the cones were made in Dublin, pointing to a very high level of distinctive workmanship in the new city by the mid 10th century.

What were the cones for? Found with them was a border of silver wire to which they seem originally to have been attached. More exciting was a small, unpromising-looking remnant of textile that turned out to be, of all things, very fine silk. It seems that this was a fabulous dress with a silver wire border and cones that functioned either as tassels or as buttons.

The silk itself was more valuable than all the silver ornaments put together. It had come, almost certainly, from either the Byzantine empire or the Arab world. The dye used to colour it was either red or purple.

If it was the latter, the dress was truly amazing: purple dye was breathtakingly expensive. Either way, the woman who wore this dress must have made a dazzling spectacle. For the display of female wealth and status in 10th-century western Europe, glamour doesn’t get much more fabulous than this.

Who this woman was is as mysterious as the presence of this extraordinary example of Viking power-dressing in Co Kilkenny. All we know is that someone had a dress worth a king’s ransom, shoved it in a crack in a cave in a moment of panic and never got to come back for it.

Thanks to Andy Halpin

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie