Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations by Patrick Wallace review

This expensive, glossy tome on the Wood Quay excavations is a marvel of design and colour but compromised by poor writing and editing

Sat, Jan 30, 2016, 00:39


Book Title:
Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations


Patrick F Wallace

Irish Academic Press

Guideline Price:

For many, Wood Quay will recall memories of a remarkable demonstration of public protest against governmental, municipal and even institutional vandalism. Indeed, the final illustration in this book is a view from the roof of Christ Church of the Save Wood Quay march of 1978, which proceeded along Dame Street and Lord Edward Street and down past the Viking-age archaeological levels on Fishamble Street. These levels feature throughout this book.

Viking Dublin is a weighty tome in every sense. Produced on high-quality paper, it contains a treasure house of 468 images, mostly in full colour. Great care has been taken to ensure accurate colours by the (Spanish) printers. There is a helpful glossary of technical terms in English and a shorter one for other languages.

One has to be careful when attempting to interpret archaeological matters: a “vamp”, for example, is here defined as the upper front part of a boot or shoe. The bibliography serving the endnotes is impressive and includes nearly 40 items written by the same author.

The book is introduced to its readers as a thematically arranged overview of the archaeological results of the Wood Quay excavations in particular. In practice, material uncovered by Breandán Ó Ríordáin, Dr Patrick F Wallace’s predecessor as director of the National Museum of Ireland, and subsequently by boom-time contract archaeologists is also brought into play. We are provided with valuable summaries of many of the artefactual surveys already published in the museum’s series, as well as three others that await publication: on amber (Paula Harvey), combs (Ian Riddler and Natasha Trazaska-Nartowski) and weights and balances (Wallace). The author is generous in his attributions to the labours of others in and on the ground.

All of this is admirably professional, but at the same time there are sins of commission and omission. Among the former, one relates to content and the other to form.

Villages or town

Wallace is concerned to place Viking Dublin in an urban context at the earliest possible moment, and we are told that the existence of plots of land – here called yards – separated from each other by fences, is proof of town life. This ignores the fact that tens of thousands of medieval European villages had houses ranged side by side along streets and separated from one another by fences and other forms of property division. Farms, after all, usually have a yard.

What distinguished a town from a village was economic functionality. A genuine town inhabited by craftworkers and traders existed primarily to produce and to distribute artefacts made locally and imported from elsewhere, with a support system derived from the rural economy.

In the case of Viking Dublin it remains to be demonstrated archaeologically that its ninth-century longphort (or ship harbour) phase included regular and broadly based craftworking, in addition to slave raiding and slave trading. The latter activities were clearly capable of generating considerable wealth in the form of silver, but they were essentially piratical and not innately urban.

In other words, was ninth-century Dublin anything more than a longer-lived pirates’ lair akin to Annagassan, in Co Louth, and Woodstown, in Co Waterford?

If that was so, it raises the question of when did Viking Dublin become a settlement characterised by regular town life. Because Wallace presumes this to have been the case from the 840s onwards, there is no discussion of this point, but there are a few archaeological clues.

One of these relates to amberworking on Fishamble Street, which after a hesitant start became extensive in the mid to late 10th century. This pinpoints the reign of King Amlaíb Cúarán (effectively 952 to 980) as the start of more regular economic activity of an urban sort. For this there are good historical grounds, including the annalists’ use of a different epithet, dún (stronghold), from 944.

With regard to the form of this book, Wallace appears to favour what might be described as a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Archaeological facts are embedded in a welter of speculative and semi-speculative ruminations about possible parallels elsewhere. Hundreds of verbatim quotations from the works of other authors, sandwiched between unnecessary ellipses, result in awkward and disjointed prose. Long and cumbersome sentences, not always grammatically correct, make for heavy going.

Consider the following, taken more or less at random: “Coopers used a kind of pre-shouldered iron clip which, when driven, tightened around and bound the end of the hooping withies used to secure kegs, buckets and barrels, although sometimes the ends of the binding withies were simply engaged in one another by having a pre-notched end lock into the other pre-slit end”.

In the end, as it were, one has to make of this what one can; “Viking” coopers were evidently very adept at whatever it was they did.

Equally irritating are the hundreds of asides placed inside round brackets, as asides within asides.

Clearer writing

What Dr Wallace should have offered is a succinct account of his findings as director, expressed in his own words and for the most part bereft of angst-ridden speculation. This he could have achieved in half the number of words, leaving space for more of the otherwise excellent illustrations to be reproduced in a bigger format, the better to see their often intricate details. Viking Dublin would have benefited enormously from much tighter editorial control.

This point leads to sins of omission, the most obvious of which is the fact that none of the illustrations is referred to directly in the main text. Sometimes it is possible to understand how they relate to the textual discussion, but just as often they appear to sit as mere decorations. Many of the artefactual images lack both a scale bar and any indication of their date. The ostensible wealth of illustration starts to look seriously impoverished.

The dating of archaeological building levels, features and artefacts is crucial, yet on this topic the author is both inconsistent and vague. The first chapter contains an exquisitely drawn, two-page depiction of 10 successive building levels along the western side of Fishamble Street, yet the text at various points and in figures 2.29 and 2.30 refers to 13 such levels, and in figures 2.38 and 2.39 to 14.

None of these levels is assigned a dating range, limiting their historical utility. Even major features, such as the defensive embankments and stone town wall, seem to float in a sea of chronological uncertainty.

Out of time

Chapter 12 debates the relationship between archaeological and documentary evidence, which the author rightly sees as problematic. But part of the problem is of his own (and others’) making: using the year 1170 as the end of the Viking age in Ireland. No mainstream historian regards the 12th century as part of such a period, howsoever defined. The whole of chapter 5 and parts of others relate to the 12th and 13th centuries, and therefore have nothing to do with Vikings.

What historians wish to know is how the archaeological record corresponds to the historical record. If archaeological dating based not only on the Fishamble Street building levels but also on those identified at all the other Dublin sites could be agreed, defined and published as a stratigraphical baseline, we would be truly grateful. Otherwise, the danger is that those beautiful illustrations will remain quaintly decorative rather than historically instructive.

One might conclude, however regretfully, that a definitive history of Viking Dublin has still to be written. Howard Clarke is a historian and a founder member of the Friends of Medieval Dublin. The Vikings in Ireland and Beyond, a collection of essays that he edited with Ruth Johnson, appeared last summer