From the Archives: May 23rd, 1980

Elgy Gillespie visited the archaeological dig at Wood Quay, next to the Liffey in Dublin, as time was running out for the Viking site below the city’s controversial new civic offices

 

8.30am in Fishamble Street. Just above where the long, narrow hulls of Viking ships once tied up, the morning sun is striking off the concrete cladding as it swings into place under the towering steel crane’s arm.

Through the grille in the hoarding the last section of the National Museum’s six-year-old excavations is still dark, with only the little lines of dwarfish posts to be seen.

The 50 full-time and some of the 45 part-time site diggers stream in, wearing a sporting assortment of T-shirts and dungarees and toting little packets of sandwiches. For clocking in late, their names get marked on a sheet and they’re ticked off. Time is almost up; even working 11-hour shifts and weekends at twice the normal pace may not be fast enough.

So there is a faint tension, a palpable anxiety in the huts where director Pat Wallace has his office and the diggers keep their gear and have their strict 20-minute breaks. But it is offset by the sunshine, now pouring off the cladding of the new civic office and over the section wall into the dig, and touching the thousand-year-old wattle walls.

The diggers carry buckets, tiny little trowels like a small version of a plasterer’s one for dashing, and small shovels. The farmers may have hated two months of drought but the Fishamble Street diggers, with their two month stay of execution at the eleventh hour, just love the hot weather. Rain forces them indoors for days at times; the mood in the huts is heavy then, and nobody talks.

Some of the diggers are men, like Tommy Murphy from Lower Mount Street, who have worked on the site for eight years or longer and whose mates have come and gone and come back. Turnover is high.

The other workers belong to a wandering international species, picking up casual work on sites round not just Ireland but England, Scotland and even Norway. Many are from the universities of Galway and Cork.

Fanning out across the Dubhlinn of 950 AD, they find their patches of wattle wall and begin scraping on their knees, far below the sprouting outline of Dublin 1980. Outside the grille the morning city takes to its wheels and the first face appears, to stare down at them from the street-level.

“It’s your knees that get you worst of all,” said John, a bearded blond Australian with a chest to match, who looks as if he’d just stepped that minute out of a longboat or an Asterix cartoon. “And your bum.” The long-term workmen have made themselves canny little kneelers out of foam but John has only been back in Dublin a week and a half and is still on a sack, working out ways and means to save his knees.

After half-an-hour or so brushing away at a Viking pathway which resembles a wattle-filled ladder running flat at around the 950 AD level, I know what he means. Sometimes you are driven to lying prone – where it’s possible; generally it isn’t. Large numbers of cherry stones, hazelnuts, cockle and mussel shells, chicken bones and a cow’s tooth are what my fingers turn up.

I can now exclusively reveal that Dublin Man in the 10th century ate cockles and mussels alive, alive-oh, in huge mountains.

John has turned up a bronze weight in the meantime. As fingers latch excitedly on to something that turns out to be another chicken bone or hazelnut, I ponder on the high-protein diet of the first Dubliners and their complete absence of table manners. Evidently they liked spitting out cherry stones and chucking their cockle and mussel shells as they slouched down to the waterfront. Over in the earlier (920 AD) sections, mounds of shells are being shovelled out. Cesspits have been dug out and Viking toilet paper – handfuls of moss – has come to light with more diet data for the painstaking.

It is far from luxurious, as workplaces go; in the rain it is hell, all the siteworkers admit. But last week in Fishamble Street it was possible to catch sunstroke on the site, and the mood was happy because the weather had made the pace very fast; bedrock was in sight. And staring at a trowel-full of earth for treasure has a tranquillising effect, as the low hum of chatter and memories rise in the heat.

Read the original here

Selected by Joe Joyce; email fromthearchives@irishtimes.com

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