Fierce and wild is the wind to-night, It tosses the tresses of the sea to white; On such a night as this I take my ease; Fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas [Source]. So wrote an Irish monk in the margin of an Irish copy of a Latin and Greek grammar book that he was studying in an unknown Irish monastery in the mid-ninth century. This image of rapacious Vikings plundering church sites and other Irish settlements persists in popular culture. However, discoveries at Woodstown, on the banks of the River Suir 9 km upstream from Waterford City’s Viking Triangle, allow us develop our understanding of the earliest phases of Viking raiding in Ireland and the establishment by Vikings of permanent trading settlements on the island. The new Four Courts Press book Woodstown: A Viking-age Settlement in County Waterford by Ian Russell and Maurice Hurley presents the evidence of the excavations that took place on the site between 2003 and 2007. A series of chapters by leading Irish and international experts describe and discuss the significance of different categories of finds from the site, including silver, amber, ships nails, weights and weaponry.
The Woodstown Viking settlement was enclosed by a substantial ditch up to 4 m wide and 2 m deep that enclosed a D-shaped area facing onto the river bank. The soil excavated from the ditch was piled up to form a bank or rampart on its inner edge. Postholes (the negative impression of wooden posts left after they rotted) in the remains of the bank suggest that the bank was augmented with a timber palisade. The area enclosed by the rampart was up to 450 m long and approximately 4.5 hectares in extent.
Their mastery of seafaring gave the Vikings a strategic advantage commercially and militarily. The site at Woodstown was ideally suited for a settlement that relied on waterborne activity as it had direct access to the river. The River Suir, through the network of rivers now known as the Three Sisters, provided ready access to areas inland in Tipperary, Laois, Carlow and Kilkenny. While from Waterford Harbour Viking vessels could sail easily to western Britain or adjacent parts of the continent.
Pieces of silver and a large number of lead weights are direct evidence of the presence of Viking traders at the site. The discovery of ships nails indicate that Viking-type boats were being repaired at the site. Trade involved the exchange of silver for goods and commodities which might have included hides, cloth, foodstuffs and even slaves. Some of the silver from the site are pieces cut off brooches which would originally have been worn by high status Irish individuals; were these brooches willingly traded by their owners or do they represent booty from a Viking raid?
There is one piece of inscribed metalwork which might have come from a cut-up religious artefact; this is unlikely to have been willingly traded so it most likely to have come from the spoils of a successful raid on a monastery.
The finds from Woodstown reflect the extent of the Viking trading networks in the ninth century and include pieces of Irish-made jewellery, amber from the Baltic, silver coins from the Near East and weapons from Scandinavia. Antler combs, a possible loom weight, and quern stones used for grinding grain indicate the range of domestic-type activities that might were carried out at the site.
The single most important find at Woodstown was the discovery of a grave which contained a panoply of Viking weapons which we believe were buried with a Viking chieftain, maybe even the founder of the Woodstown settlement. Dr Stephen Harrison who is a leading expert on Viking burials in Ireland has identified this grave as one of the richest Viking graves in Ireland and northwest Britain. The grave contained the warrior’s sword, shield, spear, axe as well as range of more personal items such as his knife, a piece flint from the Baltic, which had been used as a strike-a-light, a sharpening stone, probably manufactured from Norwegian schist, and a ring-pin which he would have used to fasten his cloak. Woodstown has been declared a national monument and the land has been returned to agricultural use and is not presently accessible to the public. However, a selection of the most significant objects, including the weapons and other gravegoods are on permanent display in Reginald’s Tower in the heart of Waterford City’s Viking Triangle (www.waterfordtreasures.com). by James Eogan, Senior Archaeologist for the National Roads Authority
Competition The good folks at Four Courts Press have very kindly offered three copies of their new publication, ‘Woodstown, A Viking settlement in Co. Waterford‘, as prizes in Irish Archaeology.ie’s latest competition. To enter just leave a comment below (all comments have to be moderated so it might take and hour or two for them to appear). I’ll then pick three winners out of a hat (closing date from entries is 6 pm on Sunday 12th of April, winners will be notified on Monday the 13th of April).
Delighted to announce the three winners of our Woodstown Book competition are
1. Sharon Greene
2. Matt Seaver
3. Donie Fell