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“Viking Graves and Grave-Goods in Ireland” by Stephen H Harrison and Raghnall Ó Floinn

Harrison, Stephen H and Ó Floinn, Raghnall. 2014, ‘Viking Graves and Grave-Goods in Ireland’, Medieval Dublin Excavations 1962-81 Ser. B, vol. 11, Dublin: National Museum of Ireland, xxiii + 783 pages (hb) with 426 illustrations (including figures, plates and maps), 22 tables, 4 charts, and bibliography. ISBN 978-0-901777-99-1. Reviewed by Robert JC Mowat. This is a book like few others. Weighing in …

Harrison, Stephen H and Ó Floinn, Raghnall. 2014, ‘Viking Graves and Grave-Goods in Ireland’, Medieval Dublin Excavations 1962-81 Ser. B, vol. 11, Dublin: National Museum of Ireland, xxiii + 783 pages (hb) with 426 illustrations (including figures, plates and maps), 22 tables, 4 charts, and bibliography. ISBN 978-0-901777-99-1. Reviewed by Robert JC Mowat.

This is a book like few others. Weighing in at 3.3kg for a single volume, it must have presented a challenge to the bookbinder: the term ‘monumental’ comes to mind. It offers a remarkable work of synthesis, which displays exemplary scholarship in integrating the evidence from ‘small find81ujjxkha9ls’ in museums for a classic period within Irish archaeology in a manner which is authoritative, reflects prodigious effort and unremitting attention to detail, is significant far beyond its titular scope, and upholds the tradition of Irish archaeological scholarship.

The preface (xxi) cites the aim of the work as offering a ‘full catalogue and discussion of the Viking graves and accompanying grave-goods from Ireland [which] has long been recognised as a desideratum.’ Exceptionally for this series, it is not confined to the publication of the results of excavations (1962-81) in the Dublin area, but publishes the results of the Irish Viking Graves Project (1999-2014) integrating the available evidence from all 32 counties to a common standard, and incorporating the preliminary results from several unpublished excavations. Metallurgical analysis and radiocarbon dating are almost entirely left to future years.

The approach taken is heavily typological and the body of the evidence distorted towards ‘prestige’ weaponry and metalwork. It remains a moot point whether this is a valid picture or one which reflects the ready recognition of such types in the ground and the accession policies of past museum curators. The historian of archaeology will note the frequency of discoveries during railway construction in southern Dublin, and wonder whether their deposition represents a commendably public-spirited policy on the part of the Great Southern and Western Railway.

Chapter 1 (1-28) summarises the confused state of the pre-existing record, with its indeterminate locations and ambiguous descriptions. The authors stress the inherent limitations of the available evidence and the need to return to the primary documentation to compile accounts which record the minutiae of specific discoveries. The difficulties inherent in identifying ‘Viking’ graves or ‘furnished Insular Scandinavian burials’ (however defined) are considered to good effect in a section (8-11) which has resonances far across archaeological research.

Chapter 2 (29-71) takes a more restricted view in describing the organisation of the work against the background of specific detailed records of the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland. It thus implicitly stresses the significance of strong central institutions as fundamental to the integration of archaeological evidence, written, documentary and material.

Chapter 3 (73-221) attempts to clarify the general picture of the discoveries, in such a manner that it might more usefully have been placed after the Catalogue, to serve as a summary of the results. The nature, distribution and general characteristics of each type of artefact are discussed typologically, rather than by generalised reference to their contexts, associations or chronology. To cite a short but significant topic, Section 3.5.4 (199-200) discusses Rivets and clench bolts in a manner which offers a succinct summary of artefact-types which are fundamental to maritime archaeology against comparative evidence from Scandinavia, Scotland and Yorkshire. Although most of the listed artefact-types will be familiar, others will be less so: a ‘latch-lifter’, a ‘tomb-shaped shrine’ and a ‘roasting spit’ are notable while the description (208-9) of a tinned copper-alloy spoon of a form which would not be out of place in a Roman Christian context is intriguing. The chapter ends with a general discussion (209-21) which considers the chronological range of the deposits in some detail.

Chapter 4 (223-300) provides what are essentially the conclusions to the work, analysing the Viking graves of Ireland (numbering 107 as here defined). Broad patterns of distribution and chronology are considered, both across Ireland and within specific areas of concentrated discovery, while due comparison is made with discoveries in Scandinavia and across the Irish Sea. The restrictions imposed by ‘rescue’ discovery (with their implications for misleading distributions) are not stressed, as might have been appropriate, but the discussion of the various aspects of funerary deposition (266-97) is significant far beyond the present work. The possible influence of ‘Christianity’ is scarcely considered.

Chapter 5 (301-678) presents the evidence. Although it remains unclear why this, the core of the work, is placed after the analysis, the significance of the work as one of reference renders this illogicality of little account. It describes ‘some 401 artefacts, all of which are either definitely or probably from Viking graves in Ireland.’ The organisation of the material under [museum] acquisition groups must be considered the best response to the consistent absence of demonstrable associations, locations or relationships. Throughout, the work represents the reduction of seriously imperfect evidence to something approaching coherence, although without the establishment of anything approaching accurate locations. This, to the extent that the punch-drunk reader may begin to wonder whether there is such a phenomenon as excessive recording.

The presentation of the work is exemplary, although the typeface might usefully have been larger and italics might have been better used to reinforce the hierarchical ordering of individual artefact-entries. The authors write clearly throughout, while the selection and reproduction of the remarkable number of illustrations are commendable. The bibliography is comprehensive and authoritative but the absence of an index seriously limits the value of the work, as does the non-citation of administrative areas and even approximate grid references for specific discoveries. To cite a personal preoccupation, the user seeking to extract information for ship-burials (demonstrable, probable, possible or illusory) and ‘maritime’ artefacts can only do so by ploughing through the entire corpus.

At this stage, the perennial question of the value (or otherwise) of the comprehensive and detailed publication of syntheses of primary material evidence in print (rather than in an electronic database) comes to mind: there are advantages to each. In this case, the print run will presumably be (very) small and the distribution possibly limited to institutions and a few specialists. The cited price presumably reflects a considerable element of well-justified sponsorship, while any purchaser may expect to acquire a work which impresses as much by its quality as its quantity. The worst that can be said of this book is that it is difficult to read in bed.

Robert JC Mowat graduated with an MA in Prehistoric Archaeology from Edinburgh University, and worked for most of his career as a recording officer in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (within RCAHMS), largely on industrial, maritime and air photographic subjects. He wrote the summary account of the logboats of Scotland (Oxbow, 1996) and has contributed numerous reviews to both International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Mariner’s Mirror.