The excavations taught us much about old Dublin, writes Patrick F Wallace, but they also resulted in a culture where the authorities deemed archaeological digs a waste of time
My life changed forever on an April day in 1974, 41 years ago. Dr Joe Raftery moved his folded umbrella from right to left as we stood overlooking the four-acre Wood Quay site and declared: “This is all yours, Pat.”
A wide, L-shaped ledge of made ground which lay along the south east end in the direction of Fishamble Street and John’s Lane was what survived of an extensive build-up of early medieval detritus which had been mechanically lowered to the height of the stone wall.
The high area fell away at a manually produced cliff, towering over a flat area where the earthen defences of Viking Dublin were subsequently excavated.
The flattened area to the north of the stone wall would later contain the wooden docksides which we went on to expose.
The Wood Quay excavations and the information they revealed have become more important than they ever should have been. This is because, instead of pointing a way forward and establishing a code of conduct for the subsequent treatment of Dublin’s remarkably well-preserved Viking and Anglo-Norman layers, building developers and the facilitating authorities decided that they would never again tolerate what they considered such a time-wasting exercise.
Rather, ways would be found by which archaeologically rich layers would be compromised. Layers would be ‘preserved’ under concrete floors, which would be supported on stilts. This ignored the fact that the insertion of stilts would introduce oxygen to waterlogged deposits, which would then quickly dry out, destroying pristine organic urban deposits which had survived a thousand years and more.
Worse still, arguments would be made to locate lift shafts at places that would cause great harm to the layers.
Even at Wood Quay, arguments were made whereby unexcavated layers were mechanically lopped off to ensure the safety of archaeologists, no less. What hypocrisy!
The result is that in spite of the often heroic efforts of many of the post-Wood Quay archaeologists, very little now remains of the rich layers which earned Dublin such international fame.
In less than half a century, we managed to destroy in one way or another the best-preserved urban archaeological remains of any town in western Europe.
This is a great pity because, in terms of its contribution to understanding the European archaeology of its time, Wood Quay and the other big sites mainly excavated by the National Museum of Ireland make the archaeology of Dublin as important to the heritage of Europe for its time as Newgrange and Tara are for their respective periods.
Hurried and in some ways compromised though the Wood Quay excavations were, they at least gave a good idea of what that area of the early town once looked like.
We know more about Dublin around the year 1000 than we do of almost any other European town of the time, London and Paris included. Building foundations of the era of Brian Boru were unearthed in their dozens. The earthen defensive embankments behind which Brian’s rival, Sitric, the King of Dublin, and his men allegedly crouched during the Battle of Clontarf were revealed.
So was the later 11th century town wall and the wooden docksides of the Anglo-Normans. Nine waterfronts altogether.
However, it wasn’t any one of these features nor indeed the thousands of artefacts which cast such light on the period that matters most. Nor was it the thousands of environmental samples, which tell so much of the diet, sanitation, health and economy of the town and its hinterland.
No. The single greatest contribution of the Wood Quay and Fishamble Street excavations to the archaeology of Ireland, Scandinavia and beyond, is the information they reveal about town layout, including property use and control, the very essence of mainstream European urbanism, a concept which was brought to Dublin and Ireland by the Vikings.
Dr Pat Wallace is the Director Emeritus of the National Museum of Ireland. He led the Wood Quay excavations, the results of which he has now summarised in a book published by Irish Academic Press, ‘Viking Dublin: The Wood Quay Excavations’.
Published in the Sunday Independent