The Viking Cities of Dublin and York: Examining Scandinavian Cultural Change and Viking Urbanism


The Viking Cities of Dublin and York: Examining Scandinavian Cultural Change and Viking Urbanism

By Danielle Trynoski

Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Individualized Major Program: Medieval Archaeology, Indiana University (2008)

Abstract: After presenting an overview of archaeological research in Viking colonies, this project investigates and compares the results of extensive archaeological research in two urban environments. Dubh Linn and Jorvik, as Dublin and York were known in the Viking Age, both experienced enormous change during their time as Viking colonial centers. The archaeological record is remarkably well preserved in these two locations due to similar anaerobic waterlogged conditions. The intense investigation and publication of these excavations provides plenty of material for an in-depth comparison. This study reviews excavations of the Viking Age material in these two locations, and evaluates the development of Viking urbanism. Dubh Linn and Jorvik were very different at the beginning of the Viking Age, developed similar institutions under Scandinavian control, and diverged again after the departure of Viking leaders. The implications of this study carry great importance as the map of known Viking colonization continues to expand, and will set a model for future excavations which may be less fruitful than those in Ireland and England.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Development of a Scandinavian Market Culture

III. The Excavations

IV. Expansion to Ireland and the British Isles

V. Dubh Linn and Jorvik: History and Development under the Viking

VI. Viking Impact: Examining Lifestyle and Population

VII. Historical and Cultural Development: Two Thriving Cities

VIII. Conclusion


I. Introduction

In the environment cultured by the modern university, students and faculty must carefully choose an academic discipline. In some cases a minor or a second concentration is acceptable, but at a university academic disciplines are divided by clearly drawn lines. This narrow approach is not always the best, and crossing disciplinary lines can often have highly rewarding results. Combining research from several disciplines leads to stronger conclusions, especially when those disciplines complement each other. History and archaeology are two such disciplines. Historical documentation can provide a range of information about individuals, locations, or events, but archaeology provides a different kind of conclusion. Archaeological material gives information about daily life, housing, diet, and much more. Dr. Patrick Wallace, director of the Wood Quay excavations in Dublin, says that archaeology is “not about verifying history…it’s about discovering humanity” (quoted in Eaton and McCaffrey 2002: 224).


When one takes an interdisciplinary approach through history and archaeology, the historical facts about a specific group of people are enriched by the artifacts left in their archaeological record. Using history and archaeology together can help distinguish separate cultures. Culture refers to a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior of a certain group of a people at a certain place in a certain time. Using history and archaeology to understand a culture’s symbols, values, beliefs, and attitudes gives the modern researcher a clearer view into the minds of those individuals. Due to the lack of information in one or more disciplines, this may not always be the best approach when studying some cultures, but in the case of the Vikings, eighth century warriors from the Scandinavian peninsula, the historical and archaeological records coincide nicely to give a well-rounded picture of Viking culture. In the early Middle Ages, annals from religious communities provide a brief and occasionally incomplete historical timeline, and archaeology helps daily routines from the past spring up and illustrates a picture of how a culture functioned and the nature of interactions between people.

Two sites particularly important for studying the archaeological record of Viking activity in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries are the cities of Dublin and York. These two sites are of special interest because their pre-Viking history is extremely different, and when they became Viking territories they started sharing numerous characteristics. Before the large multi-faceted Viking settlements at York and Dublin, the only settlements administered by Vikings were large trading ports known as emporia. These settlements were large, but did not reach the range of Dublin and York at their Viking Age peak size. Scholars debate over whether emporia should be labeled as cities, but counter-arguments cite the lack of any activity unrelated to economic exchange in the archaeological record at these sites (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983).

This raises the dilemma of how to define a city. People cluster in a confined area, tightly packed in order to pursue a certain purpose or respond to a special function. It is important to note if a city is defined by the size of the population or the purpose for the city’s existence. A city can exist for any number of reasons, but several defining characteristics make a city, other than a large population living in a relatively small space. A city is defined as a center for population, commerce, and culture of significant size and importance ( It is the function of a city which defines its reason to exist. The expanding Roman Empire built fortresses, around which grew towns and cities in support of the stationary military community. In ancient Greece and Persia, cities were built on easily defensible sites, with walls and fortifications. These civilizations built cities for the purpose of defending their populations and territory. Other cities, such as Hedeby in southeastern Denmark or Ipswich in southern England were constructed primarily for the purpose of trade. Populations here were in great flux, with a high volume of traders, marine traffic, finished goods, and raw materials constantly going in and out. A third major reason for the creation of a city is to establish a political center. Historical examples include Constantine’s move of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to his newly-founded Constantinople or Charlemagne’s construction of Aachen to house his palace and oversee the Frankish Empire.


Clearly, there are a number of roles for a city to play. A city can provide one or more of these functions. No matter what the purpose of a city, it must be founded by a group of people who have a reason. This reason usually comes from a cultural change within the group. In the case of the Vikings, two main changes transformed the daily lifestyle first from farming small plots of land to trading, and secondly from mobile traders to urban dwellers (Randborg 1989).

Over the course of the early Middle Ages, the Vikings changed their daily activity and entire focus of their culture. There was a change which emphasized trade. This change led to the spread of Viking traders all over the known world (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:116). In Ireland, the Vikings gradually became a permanent fixture on the east coast on the banks of the Liffey with the city of Dublin becoming a wealthy trading fixture on Viking trade routes (Simms 1990). As they expanded another culture change occurred, this time encouraging Vikings to desire their own kingdom. This change was manifested in England, where in 866 A.D. the Vikings captured the city of York and made it the capital of their kingdom (Booth 1990). Therefore, one city was the product of a culture change emphasizing economic expansion and trade, and the other was a product of the second change, emphasizing land ownership and kingship modeling the development path of other European proto-nations. Under Viking direction, the nature of both cities became strikingly similar despite the disparity in their pre-Viking history. In this paper, I will examine these changes in Scandinavian culture and correlate them to the development of Dublin and York in the Viking Age based on the archaeological record.

II. The Development of a Scandinavian Market Culture

Historical and cultural development into traders

The culture of the Vikings was defined by two main societal rules: produce many children, especially sons, and divide the family property evenly among them (Randborg 1989). Arable land was only found in mountain valleys and the few plains on the Scandinavian Peninsula (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). Over time, the finite resource of land and continual population growth conflicted, requiring the revision of these rules. This stress upon resources led to a fundamental change in the focus of Scandinavian lifestyle (Anthony 2008). Instead of surviving as farming land owners, men began crossing the North Sea in recently developed long boats, acquiring goods and slaves, and bringing their wares to European markets (Randborg 1989).


As Viking traders became more familiar with the European trade routes, they continued to expand their business (Randborg 1989). Eventually, Viking traders were thriving businessmen in ports all over Europe, northern Africa, China, India, and the Middle East. Excavations in Scandinavia have uncovered Buddha statues, Islamic coins, and Chinese pottery (Thurborg 2008, Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:116-119). Written documentation from the Frankish Empire dating from the seventh and eighth centuries mentions Viking traders bringing gold, silver, and slaves from the north into numerous northern European markets (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983).

Other Relevant Factors

Population growth and land shortages were not the only factors that encouraged Viking trade to expand over Europe and Asia. There were several external political and economic movements which affected Viking trade patterns. Two main historical developments were the decrease in Arab power and the increase of stability in the Frankish Empire. These forces, and their impression upon Viking trade, had an effect on the change in Viking culture which led to the settlements at York and Dublin.

In 750 A.D., the collapse of the Ummayid Caliphate led to the growth of the strength of the Abbasid leadership in Baghdad. Eventually, this leadership declined in the 830’s A.D.. These political changes lowered Arab involvement in contemporary world trade, which affected Viking trade lines. Arab traders were a major source of Eastern goods for European demands. Byzantine and Chinese silk, pottery, spices, and slaves were all exchanged across the Mediterranean Sea by Arab traders coming from the Middle East (Gerberding and Moran Cruz 2004). When political control became less stable, the flow of goods from the Mediterranean slowed. With the demand for goods and slaves remaining constant, the Vikings responded to the demand abandoned by Arab traders and turned to the northwest islands of Europe and their trade routes along the Volga River to meet the need for more trade resources (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983).


While Ireland and England did not have the same rich materials of the East, they could offer gold, silver, antler, wood, and other raw materials. The Vikings attacked and plundered wealthy monasteries in unprotected areas and the communities around them to supply their slave trade markets (Richter 1995). When the Arab traders slowed the import of their goods from the Mediterranean in the south, the Vikings responded to the lack of supply by bringing trade goods from the north (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983).

A major force driving the increase in northern Viking trade was the establishment of the Frankish Empire. Charles Martel, the leader of the Frankish military forces, stopped the Arab advance into the European continent at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 A.D. His son Pepin the Short claimed the throne and grandson Charles the Great, known to history as Charlemagne, ruled over the Frankish Empire from 771-814 A.D. The Frankish Empire was the largest area controlled by a central government in Europe since the Roman Empire. Its borders reached north to southern Denmark, south to Rome, west to the Pyrenees and the Atlantic, and east past the Rhine River (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:81). Charlemagne was a master of political organization. He methodically expanded the borders of the empire, subduing and converting northern tribes to Christianity. In 768 A.D. he focused on his new capital city of Aachen further north in order to be able to keep a better watch on his new territories. He reorganized the provinces of his empire, built up regional cities and regulated government ambassadors to each region. Charlemagne emphasized knowledge and education, and this value was seen in a number of education reforms (Gerbergding and Moran Cruz 2004).

These changes led to widespread stability in a large portion of the European continent. Stability and peace allow for prosperity to flourish in the empire, and the market economy responded favorably. As the Empire moved towards becoming an organized state, inter-regional marketplaces developed. Stability from the Frankish Empire helped to stabilize trade routes and markets, resulting in larger markets and more business. (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:109). The Vikings were serious businessmen; they dealt in most major port cities on the coast or major coastal rivers, and this change in volume would have been noticed and accounted for (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002).

In the archaeological record, coins are extremely prevalent and provide a great deal of information. Coinage from Charlemagne’s rule in the eighth and ninth centuries exhibits a greater amount of silver than earlier Frankish coins. Anthropologists and historians have debated the source of this additional silver, and conclusive evidence points to Viking traders. (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:115, Thurborg 2008). Sailing south from Scandinavia down the Volga River in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, the Vikings had encountered Slavic tribes, Middle Eastern markets, and Eastern materials. Products from these interactions made their way back to Scandinavian trading ports and settlements. The majority of the Vikings’ primary markets were in the Frankish Empire, where they supplied the emerging elite class with expensive goods from the east. Archaeological excavations in Scandinavia have unearthed Chinese silk in Birka, Sweden, silver dirhems in Gotland, and a Kashmiri Buddha figure in Helgo, Sweden (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:116-119). Of particular importance are the silver hoards which have been uncovered at various points around Scandinavia, containing silver coins from the Middle East, Russia, and Byzantium in eastern Europe (Thurborg 2008).


The amount of and age of Islamic silver dirhems arriving in the north correlates to the date when Charlemagne added more silver to his empire’s coinage. Many anthropologists and historians think that Charlemagne’s additional silver was imported directly from the Middle East via Viking traders who had melted down the coins for the purpose of using the wealth contained in the coins, and that this correlation is no mere coincidence. (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:118).

As their trade routes became more established, Viking traders used existing cities as their primary centers of exchange. They were keen to bring their goods and slaves to a city, complete their business, and return along a trade route. Large, multifunctional settlements were not a habitual part of Scandinavian practice as seen in the archaeological record of Scandinavia (Randborg 1989). Before becoming established traders, Vikings preferred to use established cities rather than construct their own metropolitan centers. However, as their business grew, traders began to recognize the value of having a trading post and market within their own territory.

At home Scandinavians formed larger trading posts on the coast, separated from their small inland farming communities (Randborg 1989). One example of a Scandinavian trading port is Haithabu (modern Hedeby) on the southeastern coast of modern Denmark. In the archaeological record, this site first shows activity in the eighth century. It would eventually build up into a settlement which allowed for the convergence of Danish, Slavic, Swedish, and Finnish traders, the exchange of goods, and the development of local craftsmen such as amber, bone, and metal working. Evidence of boat builders, shipwrights, house builders, smiths, and carpenters is also present in the archaeological record. Neighboring communities provided the trading port with meat and grains (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:112).

It must be examined if this economic activity qualifies this site as a city. It serves a clear function for a population as a center of commerce and culture. By this definition, Haithabu is indeed a large Scandinavian city, founded by the Danish tribes with a clear purpose. Clearly, the previous pattern of existence in Scandinavia had evolved into something different with a new focus. Trade was now the focal point of Scandinavian culture, and the new pattern of constructing large trading ports reflected this change in culture.


III. The Excavations

Before discussing the history of the Vikings’ interaction with Dublin and York, it is important to examine the evidence in the archaeological record. Much of the information about these cities in the eighth through the eleventh centuries comes from archaeological research. The excavations in Dublin and York yielded an extremely valuable amount of information and material culture from past inhabitants. The research conducted in the 1970’s in both cities has been a motivating force in the study of the Viking Age. Previous to these excavations, historians and anthropologists had little to no information about Viking culture outside of Scandinavia. There were several key research projects that stand out from which most of the data presented here was gathered. In Dublin, the Wood Quay excavation was conducted from 1969 to March 1981. This was a highly controversial project carried out under stressful political conditions. The Dublin Corporation wished to construct new civic office buildings on Wood Quay, which had been historically known as the heart of the old city. A brief archaeological survey was conducted at the proposed site, which confirmed the theory that the site would be a fruitful archaeological project. The area was declared a National Monument and archaeological work on High Street was begun by the National Museum of Ireland in 1969. The Museum, under heavy political pressure, severed its connection with the excavations in 1973, publishing reports of amazing finds and the conclusion that more evidence remained, but firmly standing behind the decision to end investigation of the site. The Dublin Corporation found a loophole in the law protecting National Monuments and began bulldozing areas of the site for construction. Immediately the citizens of Ireland raised an outcry, which the media broadcasted around the world. The case went to the High Court of Ireland, but unfortunately archaeologists were only allowed to work in selected areas of the site from August 1977 to March 1981. The rest was bulldozed for construction (Bradley 1984).

Despite limited access to the historically relevant area, a team led by Dr. Patrick Wallace from the Museum uncovered an enormous amount of information. As part of this excavation project, ten plots along Fishamble Street were fully excavated. This area had been in the bustling hub of the Viking city. The information gathered included manufactured and trade items, residences, botanical information, and material items. Much of the material gathered was in excellent condition due to the immediacy of the Liffey, which meant that the wet conditions helped with preservation of organic material. The high water table saturated the site, keeping the composition of organic materials relatively intact (Bradley 1984). The material excavated by the Museum in 1969 and Dr. Patrick Wallace’s team is housed in two facilities: the National Museum of Ireland and Dublinia, which allows visitors to experience Viking and Medieval Dublin (Bradley 1984).

The second significant source of Viking material in Dublin is upriver from the Wood Quay excavation. The Kilmainham/Islandbridge site consists of two separate cemeteries, containing Viking Age burials and Viking grave goods associated with male and female gender roles. This site was excavated a number of times, mostly as recovery archaeology during construction projects. The major excavations were in 1846, 1888, and 1933. The human remains and artifacts recovered here are now the property of the National Museum of Ireland (O’Brien 1998).

In York, many areas of the city have been excavated, but the most relevant to the Viking Age are the plots located at 16-22 Coppergate. This site did not face the political pressure that the Wood Quay project of Dublin experienced; actually, quite the opposite. At Coppergate, the land was owned by the city and hosted derelict buildings which were due for demolition. The York Archaeological Trust requested that the demolition date be moved up to allow for an archaeological investigation, which the city approved. The buildings were demolished and with no immediate plans for the plot, a full-scale archaeological excavation was allowed to occur without a time constraint (Hall and Hunter-Mann 2002).

The Coppergate site has proven to be extremely important when looking at the Viking settlement of Jorvik. Richard Hall, who was one of the team leaders in the Coppergate excavation overseen by the York Archaeological Trust, believes that the materials uncovered there “form what is probably the most comprehensive selection of personal possessions and domestic paraphernalia of this period ever found in Britain, and they throw light on a wide variety of aspects of everyday life in the heart of a flourishing urban community” (1984). Foundations and wall remains from four tenements were completely uncovered, as well as central hearths, pottery sherds, glass, metal, and evidence of manufacturing cloth, leather, and wood. The proximity of the two rivers kept the archaeological layers and materials waterlogged and well preserved as in Dublin. Materials found at Coppergate and other York Archaeological Trust projects are housed at Jorvik, the Viking Age museum which provides visitors information about Viking York and allows them to experience a taste of excavation.


IV. Expansion to Ireland and the British Isles

First attacks: When, Where, and Why

The first recorded encounter between Scandinavian peoples and the British Isles occurred in 793 A.D. when Viking warriors from modern day Norway attacked the monastery of Lindisfarne on the northeast coast of Britain (Hall 1984). Monastic communities were peaceful centers of worship, not military centers, and were not built for the purposes of defense. Several social classes lived in a monastic community, including but not limited to monks, nuns, farmers, their families, students, and religious leaders. These communities were centered on a monastery or center of religious importance such as the seat of a bishop. The financial support of local nobility and subsistence lifestyle of the local population made these communities easy targets for the Viking warriors, looking for valuable objects and slaves for their trade markets (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002).

There were several movements which converged and pushed Viking traders to begin exploring the territory east of their homeland. Prior to 793 A.D., Viking traders had traveled west down the Volga River to the Slavic territories and acted as traders between the eastern markets and northern Europe (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983). Now, they continued to bring items up the Volga to the Frankish Empire, but they charted new routes towards Ireland and the British Isles. As the Carolingian economy and elite royal class continued to grow, so did Viking trade in response to the additional demand. This required more goods, especially more precious metals and slaves (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983:91, Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). The hoards of precious metals in the thinly defended monasteries were easy prey for Viking warriors. Another reason for branching out in a new direction may have been overpopulation, one of the same reasons that may have contributed to the shift from farming to trade. More people meant more business, and the required resources were available in British and Irish coastal communities. Ireland and the British Isles were able to provide some of the same materials that Viking traders had been acquiring from Russia and eastern Europe such as slaves, silver coins, gold artifacts, cut gems, and raw materials like wood, bone, and antler (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002).

From Lindisfarne, the Vikings attacked the Orkney Islands and coastal English and Irish monasteries. As the Vikings moved along the coasts, they began to build camps and spend winters on the islands. The Annals of Ulster first record a Viking settlement on 841 A.D. on the banks of the Liffey, where they would found the trading port city of Dublin (O’Brien 1998). In England, the transition to Viking control was not as gradual. The Vikings invaded Kent in 865 A.D. with an army traveling by a fleet of long boats and marched their way north to York, which they captured in 866 A.D. (Booth 1990).

Settlement: The Vikings Move In

Once the Vikings began exploiting the resources of Ireland and the British Isles, they became a very influential presence in the region. The attack of Lindisfarne was only the beginning of a long relationship between the Vikings and the previous inhabitants of the islands. This relationship has left a significant amount of archaeological material at Dublin and York, which can be used to give depth to the explanation of the Viking presence at these two cities.

In Ireland, the Poddle River formed a wide shallow pool near its convergence with the River Liffey. This pool formed an easily defended place to camp and repair long boats after raiding wealthy Irish monasteries for goods and slaves. This site was named Dubh Linn-the Black Pool-in 845 A.D. after moving down river in 842 A.D. from the original 841 A.D. camp in the Kilmainham and Islandbridge area further from the ocean. Dubh Linn became the center of the settlement, which previously had only had small fishing huts near the Liffey (Doherty 1988). No major religious community existed at the site, but there were several large monastic communities in the area (Bradley 1984). This is the area that would later be excavated during the Wood Quay project.

York was located in a very different terrain than Dublin. The Rivers Ouse and Foss crossed here, providing flat plains to build upon. The Ouse, running roughly northwest-southeast, leads directly to the North Sea and is a wide deep river which could accommodate Viking long boats. The site had been heavily occupied since 71 A.D. when the Romans arrived and built a fortress, with the Roman walls and buildings in use through the Anglo-Saxon period when the Vikings arrived. The Viking army which attacked and captured York focused on this city since it was an important center of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, and with the city came the territory surrounding it. Capturing York in 866 A.D. provided the Viking army the last slice of Anglo-Saxon territory needed to complete their newly conquered kingdom (Booth 1990). It did not need a period of gradual development as in Dublin because the foundations required for the function of the city, such as defensive walls, buildings, and a concentrated community, were already in place. York was also the seat of the church in the Northumbrian kingdom, hosting an Anglo-Saxon cathedral and large monastic community (Hall 1984).

The key aspect of both sites in the context of the Viking Age was their location on a river bank. Viking long boats could navigate shallow rivers and harbors, which gave the Vikings an advantage in a water craft that was suitable for both oceans and rivers (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). Viking settlers favored river sites close to ocean harbors to facilitate trade. There was a negative side to both of the sites chosen, however favorable their terrain might have been. In both locations, the native population was hostile to the Viking presence, and in both cases the Viking had to fight to claim territory.


V. Dubh Linn and Jorvik: History and Development under the Vikings


Before the Viking settlement at Dubh Linn, towns did not exist in Ireland. Societies were organized around nomadic kings, who did not use urban capitals to oversee their kingdoms. Specific locations were only important for certain rituals such as the crowning of the Irish High King at the Hill of Tara complex in northeastern Ireland. Small farms existed, but the Irish Celts did not develop organized towns or markets. Instead of towns, monastic communities served as organized social groupings which gave loyalty to the local regional dynasty (Simms 1990). This resulted in the majority of the population being in clusters around the majority of the island’s wealth within the monasteries, making them highly susceptible to Viking raids for slaves and expensive trade goods. Monasteries frequently traded hands and inhabitants were accustomed to being handed off to a new king after an influential battle, but the attacks of the Vikings were new and of a completely different nature (Richter 1995).

The Vikings first reached Ireland in 795 A.D. when they attacked the small monasteries on tiny islands east of Ireland in the Irish Sea. One of the first sites attacked in the Irish Sea was the monastery of Saint Columba on the island of Iona in modern Scotland, from which the Vikings quickly moved south to attack the islands of Rathlin and Inishmurray off the coast of Ireland. These island attacks were quick and painful for the Celtic communities. The monasteries were surrounded by small farms, and the islands were left alone by the kings who desired land on the main island, which left the monasteries unprotected. The Vikings came without warning and departed after killing or capturing enough of the population to instill a lingering fear. The others ran and hid, surprised and frightened by these strange hostile invaders. On Inishmurray, modern fishermen report there is a cave on the end of the island where supposedly monks hid during Viking attacks (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). Monastic annals record Viking raids and list the persons carried away by the attacks. One entry from Iona records the loss of sixty-eight individuals to slavery or death in a single attack (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). Other documentation includes small pieces from poetry and songs which hint at fear of attacks and hope for safety. Anngret Simms relates these lines from an Irish monk fearing attack: “The wind is rough tonight/tossing the white-combed ocean;/I need not dread fierce Vikings/crossing the Irish Sea” (quoted from De Paor, L. ‘The age of the Viking Wars’ 1976, 1990).

Despite the prayers for safety, the attacks continued. Saint Columba’s monastery on Iona was first attacked in 795 A.D., and then burned in 802 and subsequently in 806. Eventually the attacks forced the community to relocate to Kells, further inland on the main island and the site of a previous hill fort in order to protect the relics of the monastery (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). As coastal raids followed, more and more communities moved further inland and developed better defense systems. The circumstances of the nature of the land shortage of their native land and their quarry moving inland caused the Vikings to change their plan of attack. Instead of hit-and-run raiding during the summer months, the Vikings began to spend the winter at camps on the main island and raid the inland monasteries during the summer (Clarke 1998).

The Viking camps in Ireland were known as longphorts, designed to beach, repair, and protect ships. Dublin was not the only longphort on the island, but it was the largest from what current archaeological research indicates. At Dublin, the Vikings also had to worry about protecting themselves from hostile Irish kings in the nearby Irish kingdoms of Leinster and Meath.

The longphorts in Ireland gradually developed into fortresses accompanied by non-military settlements. Dublin became the central longphort on the island. Before the Viking settlement, there was no permanent settlement along the Liffey; the only archaeological evidence from pre-Viking inhabitants points to occasional fishing and a small monastic community near Kilmainham (Clarke 1998).

From this small settlement, the Vikings began to make a more permanent impact upon the site. Fortifications and river revetments were constructed to prevent overflow from the Liffey, major ship repairs were undertaken, and residential dwellings were built (Murray 1983, Edwards 1990). Gradually, the Vikings began to adjust to life in Ireland. They stopped attacking monastic communities and began forming agreements with them. The Vikings worked out a system of protection taxes in return for stopping the attacks (Eaton and McCaffrey 2002). They continued to use the Irish coast as a stopping point on their trading routes, exporting Irish gold, silver, and slaves (Clarke 1998). It truly was the Vikings who created a city at the site and built up its prominence on world trade routes and industry.


York’s pre-Viking history differs greatly from Dublin. It first rose to prominence in 71 A.D. when the Roman Empire utilized its advantageous position for a northern post in Britannia to keep a watchful legion near the Picts just over Hadrian’s Wall. Its location on the two rivers made the site known as Eboracum ideally located to be both military and non-military in nature. First the fortress, known as a castra, then a non-military settlement, a colonia, was built around the Ninth and then the Sixth Legions of the Empire. The Romans used their proven and effective construction plan of four walls, four gates, and a grid street plan which continues to influence the shape of the city (Addyman 1989).

After the Romans withdrew their legions from Britannia about 400 A.D., the island was invaded by the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons from northern Europe. During the Anglo-Saxon period from approximately 400-866 A.D., the city was known as Eoforwic and functioned as the capital city for the Northumbrian kingdom. Due to the lack of documentation from this period, one must rely on the scarce archaeological evidence in order to draw conclusions about the lifestyle that was formed by this mixing of Roman and Germanic culture. Some of the best archaeological finds from this period have been uncovered in York, making the site significant from the sheer volume of finds alone (Hall 1984, Addyman 1989).

It was in the Anglo-Saxon period that Christianity first arrived in York. Edwin, the king of Northumbria, was baptized at York in 627 A.D. (Gerberding and Moran Cruz 2004). In the seventh and eighth centuries, Northumbrian power was at its strongest point, and the Northumbrian kings in the seventh century held the honor of being Bretwalda, meaning that the Northumbrian throne held the highest position among the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. With the establishment of a bishopric at York in the same year of Edwin’s baptism, a cathedral first of wood then later stone was erected (Hall 1984). The foundations of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral have been unearthed beneath the current York Minster, which also stands within the original Roman fortress walls.

The meeting of York and Christianity would prove to be a fruitful one, as the city would eventually host the only other archbishopric on the island. It was during the Anglo-Saxon period of Northumbrian power that the relationship between the Church and the city truly flourished. York continued to grow as a religious center throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods. Its school produced highly respected minds, such as Alcuin who was invited to the well-read court of Charlemagne (Hall 1984).

However, the growth of the religious community was not mirrored by growth in other parts of the city. The Roman buildings stood mostly empty, and the population shrunk during the Anglo-Saxon period. Archaeological excavation around the York Minster shows that the Roman headquarters building may have been in use during this period, and religious documentation provides extremely brief reference to traders (Derek 1985). The use of select Roman buildings is an adaptation seen in other Anglo-Saxon towns. These buildings tended to be prominent, centrally located structures which were adopted for major royal and ecclesiastical functions (Cherry and Longworth, 1986). Other archaeological research indicates strongly that outside the cathedral and monastic complexes, the city was largely abandoned and unpopulated. These small bits of information are highly inconclusive, and documentation from the period focuses on the religious developments in the city (Hall 1984). The archaeological evidence of a lack of human activity at the site is consistent with excavations in other English cities such as Canterbury, Winchester, Gloucester, and Lincoln, where “urban decay was emphatic enough to give rise to the accumulation of a dark, sterile, humic deposit over much of the town, clear evidence that active urban life had ceased” (Cherry and Longworth 1986:143). When the Vikings arrived with trade and the desire for a market, they did not face prolonged resistance when forming their settlement of Jorvik.

Beginning in 793 A.D., the Vikings began bombarding the British Isles with hit-and-run attacks on wealthy unprotected coastal sites. In 865 A.D., the Vikings changed their strategy and began a widespread campaign for land across Britain and resulted in victory over three of the four major kingdoms. The Viking army marched north from Kent and reached York in 866 A.D., easily capturing the city due to the contemporary Northumbrian civil war. The Northumbrians united in 867 A.D. and attempted to oust the Vikings, but the Northumbrians were soundly beaten, leaving the city to the Viking army (Booth 1990).

After conquering York, the Vikings stopped their march northwards and began to concentrate on their new kingdom. A great majority of the army settled in the city they called Jorvik, making it their capital city. Its ideal location brought in Viking traders and encouraged the development of local manufacturing (Edwards 1990). The focus of this newly urbanized group turned from warfare to agriculture and industry (Hall 1984). Archaeological evidence provides a great deal of information about this transition. When excavating at Coppergate between 1976 and 1981, the Roman and Anglo-Saxon layers were extremely thin on finds whereas the Viking layers provided an extremely rich assortment of archaeological material. These finds may indicate that the city expanded into the Coppergate area and it became residential only during the Viking Age (Hall 1984).

The Viking layer of the Coppergate excavation is one of the most important sources of information about life in a Scandinavian town, providing evidence about manufacturing, trade, industry, housing, and the Anglo-Scandinavian culture mix. Many English cities and large towns began to experience an economic turn in the ninth and tenth centuries, prompted by the Viking kingdom in the north and the trade and manufacturing their presence encouraged. Archaeology in York and Lincoln shows that many streets were carefully laid out and the housing structures situated in pre-planned locations. Ian Longworth and John Cherry point out that “Such a radical reorganization suggests some kind of centralized, municipal decision, which is supported by the issue of an anonymous York coinage which first appears at this time” (1986:145). They also list the variety and value of items uncovered at York, including but not limited to iron coin dies, jewelry, leather shoes, scabbards, knives, needles, combs, wooden cups, plates, amber, jet, ceramic wine containers from the Rhineland, Byzantine silk, Chinese pottery, gaming pieces, whistles, and pan pipes.

These items and many more were excavated at the Coppergate site alone, and clearly indicate a population with specialized manufacturing which enjoyed the benefits of a stable society, surplus cash, and a rich market in which to spend it (Cherry and Longworth 1986).


VI. Viking Impact: Examining Lifestyle and Population

Housing and Daily Life

The housing in Dubh Linn and Jorvik was clearly of a similar type of construction. Good archaeological material has been recovered in both sites, showing a remarkable level of similarity. Houses and workspaces were constructed by setting posts in a rectangular shape in the ground, and placing woven mats of grass, reeds, or thin sticks around the posts. These wattle mats were then covered with mud, dung, or clay (daub) and allowed to dry. Roofing is difficult to determine since roofs have since fallen onto the ground. There was a central hearth in each house, and there would have been either a single smoke hole in the ceiling, or the smoke would have found its way out through the wattle and daub. The long sides of the interior had raised benches that were used for sitting or sleeping. Wattle mats acted as flooring, and sleeping areas were piled with furs or blankets (Wilson 1976). Underneath wooden planks in the floor and behind the houses wattle lined pits acted as wells, storage spaces, or latrines (Addyman 1989).

The homes of craftsmen were constructed the same way, but arranged differently. The workshop area would have been in the back of the building, perhaps sharing a small yard if the occupation required. In the front half of the building a shop would have been set up for the craftsman to sell his products. Evidence points to metal working and leather products as the main industries in Duhb Linn and Jorvik. Remains of crucibles and metal working tools have been uncovered in both cities, containing traces of lead, copper alloy, silver, and gold. Silver was highly prevalent, possibly a connection to trade encounters with the Middle Eastern dirhem. Leather products were also being manufactured at a high rate in both cities. Not as much material remains from this industry but clues such as the amount of bones, chemicals left from tanning hides, and small tools indicate that this was a viable industry in Viking cities. (Hall 1984, Wallace 1984)

The market would have been a busy place. So far, archaeological evidence has not exposed any kind of large-scale food storage system, so household supplies would need to be traded for and acquired on a daily basis. Archaeological layers contain high amounts of food refuse, such as decaying organic material and animal bones. The streets and areas around houses were lined with refuse and human offal, and the proximity of the two rivers kept the water level fairly high and the streets fairly muddy. Viking sagas refer to York as dank dark place, quite different from Alcuin’s description of a wonderful light-filled place when he relates it to Charlemagne’s court. (Addyman 1989).

The Vikings as People

Nearly all information about the population of the two cities from the Viking Age comes from archaeological material. Historical documentation provides little to no detail about the majority of the people living in these settlements. Archaeology is a key resource to combine with historical evidence because of the quality of information each discipline has to contribute. Historical documents may provide lists of goods manufactured or residences along a particular street, but archaeology can provide the tools used to create the object on the list or the brooch worn by a past resident of a city. Both disciplines are extremely important in their own way, but strongest if they work together. A good example of how to combine historical documentation with archaeological remains is to examine the artifacts and remains that directly concern the human population residing at Viking Dublin and York.

An important area in Dublin apart from the Wood Quay excavation is the Kilmainham/Island bridge cemeteries. This site has been excavated a number of times since 1836, mostly as cultural resource management projects completed under the pressure of construction projects. The Kilmainham cemetery was a Christian cemetery before the Vikings began to lay their dead to rest. It was associated with Cell Maignenn, an early monastic community. It contained seventeen Viking skeletons, perhaps two of which were female. Eight hundred meters west of this cemetery is the Islandbridge site, an apparently secular burial ground which contains remains from the Viking Age and from the native pre-Viking population. This site contained thirteen Viking males and again perhaps two females. It was difficult to accurately sex the remains due to the incomplete remains and incomplete documentation. (O’Brien 1998). This area is further from the mouth of the Liffey than the Wood Quay site, and fits the description of the Viking camp in Irish documentation. The Annals of Ulster refer to the establishment of the longphort on the Liffey in 841-842 A.D. Later references indicate that the settlement down the river to Dubh Linn closer to the Poddle River. Grave goods indicated that both men and women from Scandinavia were living at the site. The items recovered from the various excavations and inconsistent documentation accompanying the finds includes tools for farming, smithing, and trading among the male remains, and spindle whorls, needle cases, and jewelry with the female remains. The grave goods excavated with the skeletons is a strong support of the individual’s sex, since gender roles were well-defined and men would be buried with weapons and manufacturing tools and women with jewelry, spindle-whorls, and needles. The nature of the items found with the skeletons indicates that the community at the site was fairly well settled. Elizabeth O’Brien suggests that “it is likely that the burials at Kilmainham and Islandbridge represent a group of Vikings who were living in a defendable longphort settlement located near the ford in that area in the ninth century” (1998). Clear archaeological evidence of fortifications at the Kilmainham/Islandbridge site has not been discovered, but the Vikings did face resistance from the Irish kingdoms and defensive walls have been discovered at the Wood Quay site (Edwards 1990). Clearly, the function of the settlement, to protect the long boats and continue trading, was succeeding in 842 A.D. After 845 A.D., the Vikings carried out their business from Duhb Linn, where they had constructed a more permanent defensible settlement with a true wall surrounding the settlement.

In York, only one complete skeleton was found at the Coppergate site, with the scattered remains of several others nearby. The complete skeleton is that of a male aged twenty-five to thirty-five year old at the time of death. Four hundred meters away the cemetery of St. Helen-on-the-Walls Church has a high number of remains from this period, and shows a broad spectrum of the population at this time (Hall 1984). Most of the skeletons are relatively robust and appear to be built to perform heavy work. The skeletons found at St. Helen-on-the-Walls were laid to rest in a previously established Christian cemetery, a pattern seen in other Anglo-Scandinavian towns (O’Brien 1998, Addyman 1990). Overall, human remains uncovered at St. Helen-on-the-Walls and Coppergate do not indicate a long-lived population. Estimates predict only one in ten reaching sixty years old, with a quarter of the population dying in childhood and half of the women dying before reaching thirty-five years old (Addyman 1990). The skeletons in the Coppergate site are not so easily explained. The individuals buried there are either victims of the battles between the Viking and the Anglo-Saxons for control of the city or overflow from the nearby cemetery of the All Saints’ Church (Hall 1984). There were three decisive battles fought in the city between 866 and 872 A.D. and these individuals could easily be victims of or participants in the battle. The other possible explanation is that the All Saints’ Church cemetery was spread out, but the awkward positioning of the Coppergate skeleton makes this theory questionable. (Hall 1984).


VII. Historical and Cultural Development: Two Thriving Cities

Economic and political function of the two cities

It is clear from the archaeological record that both Viking cities existed as central trading posts, harbors, ports, centers of government, and manufacturing centers. They were the Vikings’ capital cities of the territory in Ireland and the kingdom in the British Isles. Since their kings oversaw huge trading networks, this meant that they in turn were major centers for trade. The high volume of trade experienced by the cities encouraged a high degree of specialization. Archaeological evidence suggests that occupations were specialized to a point where the economic community supported builders, roofers, jewellery makers, shoe makers, metal workers, etc. Viking cities provided a point of convergence for traders and opportunities for manufacturing to grow. Grave goods from Kilmainham and Islandbridge include manufacturing tools, leading archaeologists to believe that Vikings were crafting items from the beginning of their settlement in the area (O’Brien 1998). The economic differences between the materials found at York and Dublin were few. Excavations in both cities revealed imported materials including amber, ivory, and jet. The booming economic scene of each city allowed art to flourish, and numerous carvings have been uncovered (Hall 1984, Bradley 1984).

Other important archaeological evidence related to the economic and political standing of the cities is the presence of coin minting and standardized weights and measures (Hall 1984, Dolley 1990, Edwards 1990). The standardized system is another good indication of a high volume of trade. The coin minting proves that the economy was strong enough to be able to afford coinage, and that there was a government to manage the currency system. Crucibles with residue from silver, coin dies for imprinting, and leather ‘testers’ have been found, giving a clear indication that silver coins were being minted at both York and Dublin (Hall 1984, Murray 1983). Hoards of these Viking pennies have been excavated in Sweden and Russia, and show evidence not only of trade, but that Dublin and York were connected with this widespread market economy (Dolley 1990). A major function of a trading port of high significance with government control was to provide such standardization (Edwards 1990).

Under Viking rule, sometimes the two cities were part of one cohesive kingdom, and sometimes they acted as two separate capitals (Smyth 1979). York was the site of greater political importance, since it was the capital city of a territory. Dublin was not the population center for a large Scandinavian territory, but it did require a great deal of political coordination. The evidence at Dublin suggests that its political direction was similar in nature to the system of government in Scandinavia. Archaeological excavations reveal the past presence of a Thingmote, a mound constructed as a burial monument and as an assembly ground to discuss the governance of the city. In Scandinavia, Thingmotes would not be in an urban environment, so this appears to be an adaptation by the Viking citizens of Dubh Linn (O Floinn 1998). The archaeological evidence for government organization in Dublin presents an interesting conflict. The coins can be linked to specific rulers, an interesting figure to have in a community with a semi-democratic Thingmote. It is possible that the Thingmote assembly was used as an advisory council for the king, or that it slowly lost power as the city grew and the position of a single central leader developed (O’Brien 1998).

In York, the king’s position is not clearly defined in the archaeological record. Beginning in the tenth century, coins minted in York mimic those of the other cities in England, taking designs from Anglo-Saxon coins such as the Subsidiary Long Cross penny of English kings (Cherry and Longworth 1986, Dolley 1990). Many of the York coins are anonymous, not taking the image of or naming the king who administered their creation (Cherry and Longworth 1986). York is an example of a rich archaeological site that also benefits from documentation to help fill in holes in the historical fabric. The large religious community which existed at York has left us a great deal of information about the Viking kings and government (Hall 1984). Without this complementary information, it would be difficult to determine the system of government in York during the Viking Age.


VIII. Conclusion

Dublin and York began with different histories, but eventually came to be very similar in nature. These differences can be listed in the historical documentation of each city, but the archaeological record makes the pre-Viking disparities sharply stand out. The variation in their history and the changes in Scandinavian culture account for the differences in their path of development into a Viking city, but they came to both be major trading posts and centers of heavy manufacturing with organized governments and urban systems such as coinage. The functions of Dublin and York reflect a change in Scandinavian culture, moving from small farming communities to large urban centers of trade and industry. It reflects a larger picture of progress in humanity, moving from an insulated environment to a greater level of connectivity with the world.

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