Skip to content Skip to navigation

Live-Blogging Kalamazoo: Thursday 3:30 Living and Dying in Viking-Age Ireland

Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 13:46

There weren’t any sessions that called strongly to me in the after lunch session, so I went to the book-room and browsed through a bit over half the publishers’ displays. I have another un-planned period Saturday morning when I can finish the shopping. I chose this session in part because I’ve been poking at my 10th century Viking/Welsh romance idea, and in part because of the textiles/clothing-themed paper.

Living and Dying in Viking-Age Ireland

Sponsor: American Society of Irish Medieval Studies (ASIMS)

Organizer: Rachel E. Scott, DePaul Univ.

Presider: Vicky McAlister, Southeast Missouri State Univ.

“Gold and Fine Raiment”: Women’s Work and the Economy of Viking Dublin -Mary Valante, Appalachian State Univ.

Starts with a tongue-in-cheek slide about the “not like other girls” motif in historical fiction. “Without my needle, you would all be naked and dead. Excuse me, I have to go throw a party and negotiate a land deal.” Importance of high-quality textiles as part of Dublin’s trade network. Paper looks at circumstantial archaeological evidence for the importance of textile production in the Viking Dublin economy. We start with a brief survey of the scholarly literature on the topic, then looking at textual references to textile work. The focus will be on everyday textiles, especially wool and linen, though silk was also important. Discussion of various available dyestuffs. Note that actual textile survivals tend to be fragmentary and small: impressions on the back of metal accessories, etc. Other fragmentary scraps have been found in the excavations along Fishamble Street. A survey of the various head-coverings found in Dublin, which demonstrate a wide variety of styles and shapes, many in silk and dyed in colors. Despite the absence of larger clothing remains, some idea of clothing styles can be found in stone carvings. Agricultural evidence for the types of plant fibers used for textiles. Other than clothing, (woolen) sails were an important part of textile production. We are shown a survey of textile tools found in archaeological sites. A discussion of how Viking-era urban centers offer a wider variety of spindle whorls for spinning different types and weights of threads, while rural finds tend to be less varied. Universally: spinning, weaving, and sewing were considered “women’s work” and may have been differentiated with enslaved women doing the majority of the spinning and higher status women doing the weaving. Textile production might be done in specialized buildings with a sunken floor that included not only the loom, but facilities for washing, dying, and fulling. The sunken floor was in order to allow more height for the warp-weighted loom, where a greater working height was an advantage. (She seems to imply that through the 10th century, cloth on a warp-weighted loom couldn’t be longer than the height of the loom. Is this true?) The paper title comes from a description of three great markets in Dublin including “the market of the Greek foreigners where gold and fine raiment” could be bought. But presumably that wouldn’t refer to domestic textile production.

The paper is a bit of a “beginners introduction” survey rather than an in-depth focus on new analysis or data. The data is drawn from the larger Norse sphere in the British Isles, not just Dublin, and there is an emphasis on objects and reconstructions that can be displayed as illustrations.

Searching for an Archaeology of Care in Viking-Age Ireland - John Soderberg, Denison Univ.

Looking at the roles of the church in (medical) care, esp. in the period after the turn of the millennium when the concept of the hospital was being invented. Social shifts created the need for new models of care, as well as creating new means of supporting and endowing those models. As an example, the development of leper hospitals in the 12th century in Winchester, England. The early leprosariums are difficult to distinguish from ordinary secular settlements, rather than being clearly clerical in nature. But certain aspects of care were not reflected in these sites, including a lack of cemeteries. The emerging field of bioarchaeology looks at the evidences for how communities provided and accommodated the care of impaired community members. Looking at the processes of care and how they are organized and integrated within the community. We’re getting a lot of theoretical background on the field and techniques of bioarchaeology of care (with “care” being taken in a very broad sense, not narrowly in the sense of medical care).

We now turn to examples of what archaeological evidence of care looks like in Viking-era Ireland. We have examples of sheep metacarpals with traces of infection, horse foot-bones with evidence of degenerative changes, bit-wear on horse dentition. Examples of implements that cover tending to human bodies from the cosmetic to the medical. We now move on to the archaeology of two monastic settlements. Raystown, started as 5th century burial site, by ca. the 9th century burial is no longer a central element. Interior enclosure with some additional exterior enclosures, lots of evidence of craft working and a multiplicity of mills. All this leads to a narrative of centralization, commercialization and exchange, but the narrative tends to erase the question of non-productive activities and human interactions. Clonfad: the archaeological emphasis is on metalworking activities and crafts, but again the focus distracts from questions of how people gathered and interacted there. We end with a plea to pay more attention to this concept of “archaeologies of care” and what the evidence is for human interactions around the artifacts and sites.

On Vikings and Violence: The Human Skeletal Evidence from Early Medieval Ireland - Rachel E. Scott

Looking at statistical data for skeletons in early medieval Ireland and struck by the low prevalence of signs of trauma. Wanted to do a comparison with Viking era data to see if there is an association of greater traumatic death associated with Vikings. Following the Viking settlement in the 9th and 10th centuries, they became fully integrated into Irish culture and royal politics. Historic Irish chronicles point fingers at the Vikings as being notoriously violent and aggressive, but this image does not hold up. Irish forces, in fact, won more battles against the Vikings than they lost. Skeletal evidence offers a neutral measure of the prevalence of violent trauma. This would include weapon wounds (whether on the skull or elsewhere) or facial injuries (including healed breaks). The data analysis can look at frequency among the population and distribution among different demographics, as well as distinctions in the type and extent of trauma or evidence of post-death mutilation.

We get a large data table from a dozen or so sites from early medieval Ireland. Some conclusions: Insufficient adolescents to draw age-based conclusions. Men are more commonly victims of violent death than women are, with a 3.9% overall level of violent trauma. When compared to a broad survey of skeletal trauma rates across time and space, “pervasive violence” correlates with trauma rates of 20-30%. Early medieval Irish warfare characteristically involved things like cattle raids and did not typically involve direct human conflict. So how does this compare with Viking-era trauma rates? Looking at the Viking burials in Ireland: gender is identified by grave goods and the skeletal remains are rarely preserved, with only 20 skeletons (out of maybe 180 total graves), all adult males. None of these 20 show any evidence of trauma leading to death. Now we look at skeletal remains from Viking towns in Ireland (which may involve individuals of various cultural origins). These skeletons are not necessarily found in cemeteries and may involve unusual circumstances, such as a collection of adult male skulls that all show violent trauma and evidence of having been mounted on spikes. Another collection of 13 remains has 2 individuals with evidence of violent death, but the numbers are too small for useful analysis. So can we compare Irish cemeteries from the Viking era for useful comparison? The problem is that we can’t clearly date the individual burials to pre- and post-Viking groups. Looking back at the (pre-Viking) early medieval Irish burials, two specific sites did have high trauma rates of ca. 22%, though one is based on only 9 individuals. The other site, Owenbristy, had a larger data set and the cumulative analysis of trauma shows “severe trauma” (including one individual with over a hundred individual cuts). Relative position of the bones in the grave indicates he was decapitated and quartered. However this site is very well dated, and the majority of the severe trauma victims pre-dated the Viking era (including the heavily mutilated one). Overall conclusions: there isn’t really enough clear skeletal trauma evidence to say anything about relative violence during the Viking incursions compared to pre-Viking Ireland.

Major category: 
historical