Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations by Patrick F. Wallace (review)
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Reviewed by
Patrick F. Wallace. Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations. Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2016. Pp. xxvi + 568.

Patrick F. Wallace, former Director of the National Museum of Ireland, and Chief Archaeologist for the Dublin Wood Quay excavations—the largest excavations ever conducted in Ireland, and the largest urban excavations ever undertaken in the whole of Europe—has produced a remarkably lucid and comprehensive account of his career-crowning work in Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations. Weighing in at 568 pages, with nearly as many photographs and extensive maps and tables, this volume is the definitive treatment of an incredibly important archaeological excavation, one that reshaped understandings of the Scandinavian presence in Britain and Ireland during the Viking Age and Anglo-Norman era, not only among medieval archaeologists, but also among scholars of Viking Age culture and history more generally. Wallace's work is of significance both as a careful presentation of the findings of the project and as a chronicle of the culture and politics surrounding it, particularly the stormy protests of the 1970s and 1980s that helped propel the excavations.

Beneath the pavement and buildings of Dublin's quaintly named Fishamble Street and along the nearby banks of the River Liffey, archaeologists unearthed a remarkable series of evidence concerning daily life in a Viking Age town: the foundations of houses and outbuildings, remains of fences and yards, pathways, furnishings, and other artifacts numbering in the thousands. The speedy decay of timber, wattle, and thatch in Dublin's damp environment meant that medieval inhabitants had been obliged to pull down and rebuild their dwellings continually over centuries, amassing a thick layering of organic deposits, laced with artifacts and evidence of past life. Never before had archaeologists been able to observe so closely the intricacies of daily life in a Viking settlement in the British Isles over the course of centuries. On the basis of careful excavations, teams of archaeologists were able to "arrive at a general overview of what Dublin was physically like over the first four centuries of its existence as a town" (p. x)—from the mid-ninth century until the Anglo-Norman invasion of the mid-twelfth century. The excavations paid particular attention to town layout, building form, and construction, indications of daily commerce, [End Page 294] and diet, the latter findings gained from an analysis of several thousand sacks of recovered animal bones, the largest sample of its kind in any excavation to date anywhere in the world. Wallace surveys the findings of the National Museum of Ireland's Fishamble Street excavations, along with related excavations by a range of different researchers and organizations at sites including High Street, Parliament Street, George's Street, Essex Street West, Werburgh Street, Castle Street, Four Courts, Winetavern Street, Wood Quay, John's Lane, Ross Road, Dublin Castle, and Back Lane from the 1960s through the 1990s, excavations that furnish abundant materials for research that continues to the present.

Annals and archaeological evidence agree that the Viking settlement at Dublin was set up in the 840s on virgin soil near the Irish settlements of Duibh Linn ("black pool") and Áth Cliath ("ford of wattles"). Its location near the confluence of the rivers Liffey and Poddle made it easily accessible by ship. Originally apparently a small defensive structure, the fort soon developed into a trading center and settled community. Into the early 1100s, the residents of the town grew progressively more Hibernized, but continued to describe themselves—and continued to be viewed by their Irish neighbors—as "Ostmen." Annals relate that the Dublin Norse were exiled to northwestern England for some 15 years in 902, returning to Dublin in 917. Once they returned, having witnessed the ongoing evolution of cities in England (p. 13), their town of "timber, wattle and clinker-built ships … gradually changed to stone, had a wall, cathedral, other stone buildings, and a dockside with large decked merchant ships" (p. xiv). Dublin eventually became a beachhead for the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, and has remained the capital of Ireland through all subsequent centuries down to the present.

Wallace's research interests lie in the areas of urban evolution, defenses...