Before the pandemic, I had the opportunity in September 2019 (which seems aeons ago now, and simultaneously only yesterday since 2020 didn’t happen in some ways) to visit the truly fabulous National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
One cannot emphasise enough the quality and character of the traditional yet informative displays of the Viking Ireland gallery. For while those with a passion for archaeology may spend hours exploring the array of wonders from Prehistoric Ireland, stare in horror and sadness at the dimly-lit bog bodies in the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition, gasp in awe at the detail and artisanal splendour of the early medieval ecclesiastical metalwork in The Treasury, for me it is the Viking gallery that truly blows my mind. This is is not simply for the amazing silver finds of the Dunmore Cave Hoard or the rich organic preservation from Fishamble Street of Viking Dublin (and see also an earlier post I address the representation of Viking slavery).
Yet one must say that, from an Archaeodeath perspective, the Viking Ireland gallery is both amazing and frustrating in regards to how death, burial and commemoration are displayed, and thus the social identities of those interred are communicated. I say this because, while the artefacts are expertly labelled, placed and lit, it is inevitably sad that so many of the weapons, dress accessories, tools and other artefacts are from furnished inhumation graves without details known of their original archaeological contexts: many are 19th-century finds without even grave-plans recorded from the famous yet somehow difficult-to-apprehend Kilmainham and Islandbridge cemetery of c. 50+ graves uncovered in the 1840s-1860s. Found by workmen during gravel-digging and the construction of the railway line, the items exist today merely as a single assemblage known only for its broad provenience.
Yet circumstances of discovery are only part of the problem. Additionally, I must say that the accurate but dry descriptive captions exacerbate the difficulties the visitor faces in getting any sense of their funerary context. Moreover, to say the interpretation is stiflingly traditional would be an under-statement. The display of finds from Kilmainham and Islandbridge are equated with ‘pagan’ ‘beliefs without any idication of what this actually might mean for the early Viking period. The ‘ritual killing’ of spears and swords is described, including the association with cremation in Scandinavia, and the inference that they indicate cremation practices had also taken place at Kilmainham and Islandbridge, but the opportunity to explain the technology and spectacle of such finds is missing. Equally, the significance of the shields not being like Scandinavian ones is left hanging: no non-expert is going to be able to discern why this might be significant. Likewise the reuse of shrine mounts is dryly explained as ‘not practised by the Irish’ but ‘common among the Vikings’. Yeah, right? Copper-alloy oval brooches are found form ‘central Russia in the East to Greenland in the west’ having been ‘mass-produced in the Viking homelands’. And so, this tells us what about the Viking world, do tell!? There is a single sickle only and apparently tells us ‘… that agriculture was not a major activity among the earliest Viking settlers of Dublin.’ The captions are almost riddles.
Adding to this difficulty, even recent finds, while their funerary context is described they are not represented in any fashion. The display of the Finglas adult female furnished grave is accurate and smart, with a clear caption and the objects perfectly presented. However, no indication as to their relationship in the grave is apparent. This is a real shame, especially as this was an opportunity to strikingly visualise the mode in which dress accessories were worn and placed in the grave, and afford a female-gendered identity to complement that of the weapon burial (below). Many other pairs of oval brooches and festoons of beads are displayed, but their wider significance is left somewhat obscure but for the mannequin at the end of the gallery.
The description of the Finglas grave: I cannot help feel an artist’s reconstruction of the grave, or at the very least a grave-plan, might have rendered this fabulous find more comprehensible to the visitor
This makes the human remains on display a ‘life-saver’. Discovered in 1934 from Memorial Park, it is starkly and simply described as ‘one of the few associated burial groups from the Dublin cemeteries. It is the burial of a warrior accompanied by his sword and dagger’.
This one weapon burial is laid out to explain to the visitor of the character of the burial assemblages from whence many of the other Kilmainham and Islandbridge artefacts derived. The partial fragments of the skeleton have been arranged and the entire body reconstructed around them. Elsewhere, I’ve criticised the danger of presenting a single grave as somehow ‘typical’ of a period or region, and this is one of the most powerful dimensions of the entire story and controversy surrounding the identity of the ‘princely’ occupant of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo or the ‘warrior’ from Bj581 Birka: taken out of context it, single wealthy burial assemblages become icons. Specifically, the basic equation of weapon burials with warriors is reified by this approach to displaying the dead, and thus the entire Viking Age with it, no matter how many antler combs, scales and weights, metalworking and textile-working tools, buckles, pins and wooden bowls are also on display. And no matter how much I have disputed Neil Price et al. for claiming archaeologists have assumed weapon burials were male warriors, the Dublin display surely makes their point loud and clear about our traditional gendered vision of the Viking Age for popular consumption and why further critique and reflection is required!
Movinng the perspective out from the individual graves character and variability, what is equally frustrating (albeit partially forgivable given the poor character of the finds), is the nature of what this cemetery might have looked like and how the different burial sites might have related to the Viking settlement itself.
The only other human remains on display is a single human skull with sharp-force trauma to the side of the skull, which lacked an apparent context beyond showing evidence that violence took place at some point and in some regard in the Viking Age.
I want to emphasise that I appreciate the wonderful job the National Museum of Ireland does with its fabulous collections. It is difficult not to love the Viking Ireland exhibition, in regards how the mortuary archaeology is presented, and (for the record) I do believe it shows the responsible and strategic display of humann remains can enhance and help do an invaluable job to contextualise the artefacts derived from mortuary contexts on display. Still, I left craving at least one artistic representation of a cemetery scene, one grave-plan (even if contrived and impressionistic) and at least one or two sentences explaining the inferences about identity made from burial data, the sequence and spectacle as well as the variability of Viking furnished inhumation and cremation practices as well as the varied necrogeogaphy of Viking-period burial aroundn Dublin and, indeed, across Ireland. As it stands, it is difficult to imagine anyone who isn’t an advanced-level archaeology or history student will fully appreciate these internationally important finds and their contexts to the full.