Forty years of archaeological excavation in Dublin, much of it under the aegis of the National Museum of Ireland, has shed considerable light on the character of this the largest of the Scandinavian-founded urban settlements in the west. Although unconcerted as elements of an overall program and begun in response to building development, in their sum these excavations add up to the most extensive of their time and type undertaken in Europe north of the Alps and west of the Oder. The scale of the total excavated areas together with the waterlogged airless conditions in which as much as 3 meters deep of organic cultural deposits survive means that there is excellent evidence for buildings, town layout, defenses, environment, diet, trade, commerce, and everyday life especially for the three centuries a.d. 850–1150. There are also well-preserved wooden dockside revetments and building and carpentry evidence from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
Ireland is blessed with rich historical sources including references to the establishment of Dublin in about 840, but it was not until the 1960s at sites like High Street, Winetavern Street, and especially Christchurch Place, all of which were excavated by A. B. ó Ríordáin, that the quality of Dublin's uniquely rich archaeological deposits became apparent. More extensive work by Patrick Wallace on the large Fishamble Street–Wood Quay site from 1962 to 1976 expanded on ó Ríordáin's work, particularly in regard to layout, the succession of town plots and their boundaries, building evidence, and the town's Viking Age port. Work by Clare Walsh at Ross Road in 1993 gave additional information on the circuit of the earthen defenses that enclosed the early town; the Castle Street and Werburgh Street sites showed that while it was possible to generalize about buildings and town layout, there are variations within the town; and Parliament Street and especially Linzi Simpson's work at Essex Street showed that the earliest settlement in the ninth century must have been at the confluence of the tidal Liffey and its southern tributary, the Poddle. It also showed that the settlement probably expanded southward up the hill from the waterfront and, later, that the early medieval town expanded from east to west. Most significantly, work done from 1996 to 1998 indicates that the main building type, with its tripartite floor space arranged longitudinally between doors in the end walls, was established almost from the beginning and persisted throughout the period up to the twelfth century and possibly beyond (going by the evidence from the parallel Hiberno-Norse town of Wexford) and that the settlement was divided into plots or yards well before 900.
Although Ireland's great monastic "towns" flourished from before the arrival of the Vikings and, with other native settlements of this culturally extraordinary phase of Ireland's history, had some urban traits, it is likely that the concept of mainstream urbanism was introduced to Ireland possibly from ninth-century England, with the Scandinavians acting as the catalysts who transferred the idea. Excavations at the other Hiberno-Norse towns—Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford—show that they share many physical traits with Dublin and that it is now possible to speak of the Hiberno-Norse town as a phenomenon in archaeology as well as in history. Revisits to the historical sources as well as excavations at Cork in 2002 and the great monastery at Clonmacnoise in the 1990s show that by the late eleventh–early twelfth century the concept of true urbanism was fully a part of the overall Irish experience.
In its developed form in the later tenth century, Dublin consisted of a number of streets from which radiated several lanes including an intramural variant. The settlement was located around high ground overlooking the tidal and estuarine Liffey near its confluence with the Poddle. In the early tenth century it was defended by a palisaded earthen embankment that encircled the settlement and accommodated ships along its main riverine side. The extent of the defenses on the West is at present unclear. Inside, the settlement was divided into plots of roughly rectangular shape by low lines of post- and-wattle fencing; each plot had its own pathway leading from a street or lane to the entrance of a main building that was located with an end toward the street. At the backs of these main buildings were lesser smaller buildings. It is presumed that plot owners controlled access to the plots, with access to the lesser buildings being difficult: in most cases visitors would have had to walk through the main buildings, which usually straddled the widths of their plots. Cattle were not kept in the plots; it appears that they were not kept in town at all but rather were driven to town in great numbers when it was time for slaughter, judging from the number of bones that have been recovered from the excavations.
Specialized crafts including those of nonferrous metalworking, antler (especially comb) working, woodcarving, and possibly merchandising appear to have been concentrated in different parts of the town. Commerce was regulated, to judge from the hundreds of lead weights (for weighing silver in a bullion economy) that have been recovered; these conform to multiples and fractions of what has been termed a Dublin ounce of 26.6 grams. Ships' timbers, unworked amber, lignite, soapstone, and even walrus ivory testify to the import of bulk commodities; silks (including head scarves), braids, worsteds, English brooches, and coins are among finished products that were imported. Discoveries of runic inscriptions on discarded red-deer antlers and cattle bones show a persistence of close Scandinavian influence two centuries after the initial establishment of the town as a slaving emporium.
In its settled eleventh-century development, Dublin became very rich due to its location on the east of the Irish Sea, then a "Viking lake": it profited from provisioning ships, from the hire of its large mercenary fleet (most notably to the Saxons of the Godwinson dynasty), and from the export of woolens and of manufactured goods like kite brooches, ringed pins, strap ends, combs, and possibly ornaments carved in the local variety of the international Ringerike style, which was so distinctive and prolific that it is now called the "Dublin style."
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Patrick F. Wallace