Discoveries During and After the 1930s

Image accompanying news report in the Irish Independent, 13 February, 1933.

On the 13th of February 1933, the Irish Independent reported that two furnished burials ‘of Norwegian Dublin’ had been discovered. In these graves, one of which had been previously disturbed, were two swords, a spear-head, and an axe. T.J. Byrne and Capt. Campbell (previously described in full above as OPW Architect and Resident Engineer respectively) were overseeing the construction of a new road as part of the park section of the works. They were on alert for any archaeology in the area, due to what had been found there in the 1860s. The museum was thus swiftly contacted, and appropriate treatment given to the finds. It was hoped that these finds would give the earlier discoveries some of the context which had been missing in their nineteenth-century excavation.

In September of the following year, several months after the construction of the central lawn itself had begun, another Viking discovery came to light. This time it was a single grave, unfurnished except for the jawbone of a cow, which it was thought had been placed there as a food offering. Mere weeks passed before the next discovery, again a single grave, but in remarkably good condition. The male skeleton was accompanied by a sword which had been broken into  three pieces, a ritual which had been observed in other graves in the same area in the past. Once more, T.J. Byrne and Capt. Campbell reported to the museum. This was extremely important find, since it gave the museum staff their only chance so far (and since) to properly excavate a full burial in the area, despite all the archaeology that the location had yielded. In saving the finds, another sword was found, this time of a completely different nature, which caused some excitement in the Irish Times the following day. This sword was an Irish type, a ‘crannog sword’, which led to speculation that Islandbridge had been the burial ground of a battlefield. Headlines in the Irish Press led simply with ‘Crannog Sword’. It was considered the most important find of the 1934 season, and even occasioned a memorandum issued by the government.

A grave being excavated at Islandbridge on 20th October 1934. The male skeleton is accompanied by a sword on one side and a shield on the other. National Museum of Ireland.

In 1955, the Memorial Committee received a letter from the Board of Works, who had been approached by Dublin Corporation. The Corporation wished to lease a small portion of the lands to the west of the park, for the purposes of a refuse dump. The Committee agreed to this, as long as grass was laid down over the dump, and no refuse was left uncovered. Little more thought was given to this small decision, which would have ramifications twenty years later.

In 1974, the Corporation began the process of building new offices on Wood Quay. Great archaeological efforts were taken at the site, which proved to be an exceptionally important Viking settlement, filled with extraordinary complete discoveries of buildings, walls, interiors, and individual items. Under time pressure, however, not all of the earth removed by the building of the new offices was sifted through.

As a last resort, the museum agreed to them taking the earth away to the Board of Works site where it could be set aside for examination later. At least it was preferable to having it all dumped in Dublin Bay.

- Irish Times, Saturday 21st April, 1979.

The unexcavated earth was moved to Islandbridge, where in 1979 it remained unexamined by archaeologists. Thus it was at Islandbridge that a Viking sword was discovered by three local schoolboys in 1979, although the provenance of the sword was not of the immediate area. They turned it in to the museum, where it can still be seen today.

2004 was the next time that the underlying Viking character of the site revealed itself. During the laying of electrical cables in the garden of the small lodge (built in the 1930s) at the eastern entrance to the park, an iron sword and spearhead was found by a contractor. He reported the find to various relevant people, and in 2008, a rescue excavation was mounted by the National Museum. The location of the finds is at the edge of the historic gravel pit where the 1866 excavations took place. The burial associated with the finds, that of a young adult male, had been disturbed by the building of a new path and wall in the vicinity in the 1990s. Scattered and damaged bones belonging to the body were found in the immediate area by the 2008 excavation team.

Iron sword and spearhead found in 2004. National Museum of Ireland.

The sword, classed as a Peterson Type C, is large, heavy, single-edged, and made of iron. Only eight examples of this type of sword had been found in Ireland previously, six of them in Islandbridge/Kilmainham. The ninth century was to see the last of these single-edged swords – they soon became obsolete and were replaced by double-edged. The spearhead is also iron, with copper-alloy rivets, and is of the ‘Dublin type’. It is much longer than other spearheads of the same type, however. It bears great resemblance to the spearheads found in Wilde’s 1866 report. All of these finds have a date of the ninth century, which seems to have been the period during which this site was so central to Scandinavian incomers.

The 2008 rescue excavation also found a copper-alloy ringed pin, and a copper-alloy dish, along with a piece of copper. Staining on a rib bone meant that these objects had probably been placed on the young man’s chest. Tooth analysis confirmed that the young man himself had recently arrived in Ireland from Scandanavia. Interestingly, the dish and the spear had both been deliberately damaged and misshaped before being interred with the body, perhaps during some sort of ritual. The museum drew parallels between this and the broken sword which had been found in 1934.