“Dublin and York are by the far the most important Viking towns in Western Europe,” says Glasgow University archaeology lecturer Stephen Harrison.
In the 1970s and 1980s, archaeologists unearthed Viking towns in both York and Dublin.
The weapons, crafts and remnants of buildings that archaeologists found gave insight into how people lived over 1,000 years ago. But there’s much more to be learnt about them.
Now, academics, field archaeologists, heritage managers and museum workers are coming together to look closer at the links between the two settlements and to try to answer some unanswered questions.
A Congress of Vikings
The idea for the project started in 2016 at the Viking Congress in Denmark.
“The Viking Congress is like the world cup of Viking studies,” says Dublin City Council City archeologist Ruth Johnson, last Friday.
Johnson, along with NUI Galway historian Emer Purcell, met Harrison and Steven Ashby, a York University archaeology lecturer there.
They talked about the shared history, says Johnson. “In the 9th century and the 10th century, both towns were ruled by the same dynasty descended from Ivar [the Boneless].”
This dynasty ruled Dublin, the west coast of Scotland and some parts of Northern England.
By the mid-10th century, the Ivar dynasty lost control of York. By 1052, they had lost Dublin too.
The academics hope to further investigate this connection “not just through history but through archaeological sciences”, says Johnson.
“There is big differences between Dublin and York that we don’t quite understand,” says Ashby, the York University lecturer.
The Dublin Viking settlement was full of weapons, says Ashby. “But York hardly has a single sword.”
Burials differed too. Dublin had enormous cemeteries while the York settlement only had small burial plots, says Ashby. “Why did that happen?”
Then, there are the similarities. Both were towns for a start. “In the Viking age there is not that many towns,” Ashby says.
Settlers imported food into the towns from the surrounding rural areas rather than growing their own, he says.
The people of York and Dublin also shipped in silk from the Middle East.
“Even the way they had the streets laid out. Buildings would line the streets a bit like shopping streets,” says Ashby.
Ashby is focusing on the craft in the two cities. “Craft can tell you about the communication between two areas,” he says.
“If somebody is making a bronze brooch the same way in Dublin to how they are making it in York, that might tell you about their level of contact,” he says.
“By zooming in really close you can answer a lot about the big questions ” says Ashby.
Small details can reveal a lot about trade systems and communication networks, he says.
Following the Threads
The project will involve workshops sharing what those studying both cities have learnt so far – and how they’ve told the wider public about what they’ve learnt so far, too.
Viking studies is not in a strong position at the moment in Ireland, says Johnson, the city archaeologist here in Dublin.
It’s not at the forefront of most Irish universities teaching except for University College Cork, she says.
Says Ashby: “It’s a very alien world in some ways but in other ways it leads to where we are today.”
This is a time when chiefdoms turned into kingdoms and varying religious beliefs came into contact with each other, he says.
Power structures became more centralised in the Viking Age. Power went from a lot of chiefs to a select few powerful kings, he says.
At the start of the Viking era people lived in small towns under chieftains and traded with goods, Ashby says.
“By the end of the Viking age people are living in towns and cities. They’re buying and selling with coins. We’ve got kings and states,” he says.
“There is a coming together of different religions and it is interesting how people coped with that,” says Ashby.
“There’s no suggestion that Vikings were particularly intolerant,” he says.
As pagans, they had many gods. It’s very likely that the Vikings saw Christians’ god as another one of their own, he says.
Vikings saw the wealth of Christian kings in what is now France and the United Kingdom.
“They thought, ‘We want a bit of that.’ So they realised that it was prudent to buy into it,” he says.
“There’s really no other time where you see so much change in such little time,” he says.
[Correction: This article was updated on 4 November at 2.45 pm to say that Emer Purcell is a historian in NUI Galway. A previous version said she was a lecturer. We apologise for the error.]