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The Viking Age Buildings of Dublin: part 1, Text; part 2, Illustrations.

This publication marks a major step forward in the study of Viking Age Dublin, Irish building forms, and indeed urbanization in northwestern Europe. Dr Wallace, director of the technically and politically challenging Wood Quay excavations of 1975-81, has set out to catalogue and analyse over 120 buildings, complete or partial, of 10th- to early 12th-century date, which he and his team investigated. At the time of writing (1988) environmental analysis, dendrochronological dating and artefact studies were largely unavailable to him, and interpretation of the broader framework of tenement layout was still in progress. Nonetheless, he is able to illustrate in diagrammatic form a remarkable stratigraphic sequence of up to 13 successive `levels' extending over 14 adjacent tenemental plots. Such a large-scale, well-preserved series of buildings is unequalled in contemporary British and Irish towns.

Wallace makes an important advance on previous syntheses of the Dublin buildings by basing his classification on ground-plan or house form rather than any single structural feature. He embraces in his classification the other Viking Age buildings excavated in Dublin up to 1988, and he makes available for the first time an outline of discoveries such as the Office of Public Works Dublin Castle excavation of 1972.

Wallace identifies five types of buildings. Among them is the most common Viking Age house type in Ireland's towns, known not just from Dublin, but also Wexford and Waterford. Characteristically this Type 1 building is a rectangular structure with rounded corners, with a door in each end wall, post and wattle walls, paired internal roof supports which divide the interior into three main spaces, and a roof of barley thatch over a sod underlay supported on wattlework. The central areas of the side aisles were often infilled with wattle mats, and more commonly bottomed with loose wattles, brushwood or layers of vegetation raised above the central floor level and contained by a revetment. These areas are interpreted as beds or benches; they leave a much reduced central space for a hearth and for other domestic or industrial activities. Neither the size nor the usage of these central spaces is analysed in detail.

Wallace states that these buildings have both domestic and industrial objects in their floor levels; the eventual publication of artefact distribution plots may indicate patterns of use, and may also discriminate functions within the considerable size range of this building type. The incidence of artefact types may also clarify the functions of his smaller Type 2 and 3 buildings. The classification here seems questionable; if Type 1's form is based on the presence of roof supports, how can Type 3, which has none, be related to it? Attempting to judge the validity of these groupings would have been much easier if suites of plans, albeit at a smaller scale, had been published together on facing pages or on a fold-out. While nearly all buildings are shown in plan form, usually one per page, comparison is difficult.

Useful summaries of construction details and carpentry are followed by a discussion of the roof form of the Type 1 buildings (their remains survive to an average height of 0.2 m). Two alternatives, the `truss' and `trestle' options, are discussed and illustrated -- Wallace plumps for the `truss' option with extended tie-beam, which he sees as giving greater transverse rigidity. This complicated discussion is confused by the captions of figures 27 and 29, by mis-referring to figure 29C when 29A is meant (p. 53), and by the Glossary maintaining (p. 111) that the trestle is the skeleton for Dublin's Viking Age houses.

The question of the inspiration for the long-lived Type 1 building tradition is crucial. Wallace devotes considerable space to attempting an answer, and introduces a range of comparative material from Britain, Scandinavia, northwest Europe and the Baltic. He demonstrates a wide and eclectic knowledge of the literature (e.g. Keating 1978 ?!). This chapter forms a useful introduction to urban development and building forms across that area. However, the direct relevance of much of this material is surely questionable. It is when he rightly remarks on the need for new Irish evidence -- from the earlier Dublin longphort, the hinterland of Dublin and the rest of the island -- that he highlights the weakness inherent in this discussion.

The descriptive catalogue of the buildings, which concludes the text, is a workmanlike presentation on the basic data at an appropriate level of detail. It re-emphasizes the importance of this material, which will form the framework for the further vital studies which we are promised.

A work of this importance deserves detailed criticism, and it cannot emerge unscathed. The text is too discursive and frequently repetitive -- compare e.g. pp. 9 and 12 re corner compartments; or p. 14, lines 5/6 and 13/14. In places it appears contradictory -- e.g. the comments on lofts on pp. 14 and 27, or those on Pictish influence on pp. 81 and 82. There are a number of geographical errors -- Waltham Abbey is in Essex, and both Goltho (Lincs) and Wharram Percy (Yorks) are in the Danelaw (p. 79); typographical errors include Cronk ny Merriu (p. 82) and Grettir's Saga (p. 83).

On the presentational side, in the absence of an index, more sub-headings could usefully have been put in the extravagantly wide page margins; the frequent absence of appropriate figure references is notable; and more use should have been made of histograms and other diagrams to represent some of the dense information on measurements. The drawings are generally of good quality, although I would advocate a more eye-catching, solid convention for upright posts, which are often difficult to distinguish on the plans. The total absence of any cross-section drawings does not assist comprehension of some points. The reproduction of the plates ranges from good to rather poor.

The employment of an editor would have removed many of these deficiencies, which detract unnecessarily from a book which is, nonetheless, a milestone and a signal achievement by Dr Wallace.

R.A. HALL York Archaeological Trust


KEATING, T. 1978. The Great Viking Invasion, The Star 20 July 1978.
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Author:Hall, R.A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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