The Point of Ayre lighthouse, 1776

After lunch today, and between rain showers, I explored the beach around the Point of Ayre lighthouse (built 1776) and the fabulous dunes at Talacre, Flintshire with three of my progeny.

Gronant Dunes and Talacre Warren is a beautiful SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because the historic dunes have been eroded elsewhere along the coast. The flowers and birdlife are superb and of course it is a habitat of the rare natterjack toad. 

Tobias on Talacre beach with the 1776 Point of Ayre lighthouse in the distance

A Viking Burial?

But what of the archaeology? As an early medieval archaeologist, I am aware that behind the dunes, during the construction of a house outbuilding, was the find spot in the 1930s of a cist-grave containing a supine extended skeleton buried with a knife and a spearhead, thought by experts to be a likely Viking-age furnished burial – either the isolated grave of a marauding sea-rover or else a grave associated with a larger cemetery destroyed by the sea linked to a settlement or settlements. Professor Nancy Edwards is working this up for publication. Viking burial expert Dr Stephen Harrison in an article in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History volume 14 regards Talacre as a ‘definite’ FISB (Furnished Insular Scandinavian Burial) site, despite the lack of a precise find-spot and the absence of adequate archaeological context for the find.

A Viking Mart?

I would follow Harrison in noting that it is improbable that this was really an isolated grave, and perhaps Talacre had a cemetery associated with yet another long-running site for a permanent or semi-permanent beach-market visited by maritime traders and local people to exchange goods and for other social gatherings before and during the Viking Age. Dr David Griffiths has recently summarised the evidence for these sites from around the Irish Sea and, of course, the nineteenth-century archaeological discoveries from the tip of the Wirral peninsula on the other side of the Dee Estuary – Meols – has recently been published by David, Robert Philpott and the late Geoff Egan.

Adah, Tobias and Jemimah exploring the dunes at Talacre

A Viking Landscape?

Griffiths has also argued that the northern tip of Flintshire (early medieval Tegeingl) was a border zone, subject Mercian and West Saxon influence as well as the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Gwynedd. The circle-headed tenth-century sculptures from Meliden, Dyserth and Maen Achwyfan form part of an ‘Irish Sea’ zone of influence but specifically show links with Chester and the west side of the Wirral peninsula (Neston, West Kirby and Hilbre Island). Therefore, the possible Viking burial at Talacre is one of a number of material indicators that the area fell into the geo-political orbit of Scandinavian communities on the Wirral and possibly was a Hiberno-Norse ‘enclave’ for a time.

Signboard showing the panorama from Talacre dunes – from here one can observe all seaborne movements in and out of the Dee estuary

A Phenomenology of a Maritime Landscape

Being at Talacre hammers this point home. From the beach, you can see across to the Mersey estuary, the tip of the Wirral and Hilbre Island as well as down the Dee estuary. Standing there, one can readily imagine it as a natural site of gathering for maritime and coastal communities over the long term through later prehistory and into the early historic periods. For instance, as recognised elsewhere at the mouths of estuaries around the British Isles from the combination of place-names and archaeology, Talacre might have been a natural observation point, from which approaching seaborne raiders and traders could be spotted, intercepted and diverted to. Who knows what the dunes will reveal in the future?