Slavery was endemic in the Viking world but, strip away the later sources, and the slender contemporary historical references, and it is very difficult to see at all. And while it is tackled through multiple archaeological strands of data, including mortuary practice, including the potential identification of human sacrifice and the differential diet and conditions of some individuals found in the burial record, it is rarely presented to the public in museums. This is because it is difficult to pin down what slavery ‘looks like’ in material terms. There are exceptions, however, such as the Balladoole boat-grave from the Isle of Man, where the Manx Museum does represent and discuss as a possible incidence of a slave woman sacrificed as part of an elite funeral.

This issue came to the fore on a recent visit I made to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. For at the very opening of their Viking period exhibition one encounters a long chain and shackle. Suspended over the shackle is a human skull excavated from outside a funerary context from Viking Dublin. Now it is likely a sizable chunk of Dublin’s wealth derived from an early medieval slave trade. Yet identifying this is challenging, and this is a bold effort. This was part of a Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin temporary display opened in 2014 to mark the anniversary of the battle.

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On the museum’s website, it is listed as one of 10 ‘unmissable’ things to see:

4. Slave Chain

This iron slave chain and collar was found in a dugout canoe near a crannóg in Ardakillen Lake, Co. Roscommon in the mid-19th century. Slavery existed in most early medieval societies, including Ireland. In Dublin, however, it was a very profitable commercial venture.

The display itself concedes that this needn’t be a slave collar, but might equally have been for a ‘hostage’. Meanwhile, the display describes the skull as from John’s Lane, Dublin, as:

the skull of a young man, from 10th-century levels in Dublin, has a large wound to the left side of the cranium, which would have been fatal.

In other words, the skull is set up to be that of a slave or hostage, but there is no evidence regarding whose skull this was, whether the man died in battle, personal conflict, or some act of punishment meted out to a slave or captive.

Why would they display the shackle and chain with a skull despite their contrasting provenances?

The aim of the temporary exhibition is to bring Viking and Irish artefacts together and seeking to explore the history and debunk the myths surrounding Clontarf. The website states:

This ground-breaking exhibition explodes myths and presents the evidence we have for what actually happened at Clontarf, what led up to the battle and what resulted from it.

Viking and Irish weapons, typical of those used in the battle, feature alongside hoards of precious silver objects and religious treasures. Much more recent artefacts bring the story of Brian Boru and Clontarf right into modern times.

Usually, I’m very critical of contrived mock-ups of human remains with artefacts they were not found with, especially when the grave context is not being reconstructed. Worse still, when artefacts and bones from different localities are placed together. This is a curatorial conceit that should be avoided at all costs.

And yet, one cannot deny the emotive and pedagogic power of juxtaposing a collar and chain (despite ambiguities over how it actually functioned) which may have been used for captives, hostages or slaves with a human skull displaying evidence of violent death. For this serves the aim of bringing together a theme linking ‘native’ and ‘Viking’ societies in the 9th-11th centuries AD.

I’ve thought long and hard as to whether to comment on this display. I visited in September 2019 and I’ve been mulling over the ethics and ramifications of this bold and disturbing display ever since. Indeed, it took me much of a year before I composed this tweet inspired by a comment by Dr Thomas Småberg.

Displaying human remains in the modern museum requires clear justification and contextualisation. Moreover, dealing with slavery is a sensitive subject, in the context of Black Lives Matter protests, intensified and extended in 2020, especially so. One doesn’t wish to project a sense that the scales and characters of prehistoric, ancient and medieval slavery were comparable to the Transatlantic slave trade of the modern era. This kind of lazy ahistorical argumentation claiming slavery was a ‘universal’ in the past is often deployed by those keen to absolve themselves of the need to reflect on the atrocities of European nations in the era of global expansion and colonialism and the specific legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade today. Equally though, we cannot create an historic exceptionalism that regards one manifestation of slavery as without parallel or precedent.

If we wish to confront the Viking slave trade, it cannot be to deny or dilute the suffering of more recent centuries, but has the potential to allow critical reflection on the inequalities and injustices of past times in careful comparative terms. Therefore, despite my reservations regarding this display’s juxtaposition of objects and human remains found from different parts of the island of Ireland, and despite simplifying inferences about the collar-and-chain’s, and the demise of the person to whom the skull belonged, perhaps in this instance the ends do to some extent justify the means.

In conclusion, whilst an interpretative conceit, the contrivance does reveal and foreground a largely hidden history (at least in museological terms) of early medieval slavery. Moreover, it is a prominent display in a temporary exhibition available for free to a broad audience of contemporary museum visitors. It succeeds in making us learn and reflect.