Carbon dating, which measures the age of organic materials based on the amount of radioactive carbon 14 remaining in a specimen, usually gives a range of likely dates at the time of death. In the case of the four individuals excavated under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street, Simpson found that two of them had a 95 percent probability of having died between 670 and 880, with a 68 percent probability of between 690 and 790.Thus, the entire most likely range was before the first documented arrival of Vikings in 795.The tests, performed at Beta Analytic in Miami, Florida, and at Queen’s University in Belfast, showed that the men had been buried in Irish soil years, or even decades, before the accepted date for the establishment of the first year-round Viking settlement in Dublin—and perhaps even before the first known Viking raid on the island took place.
And, further, that those trading contacts may have occurred generations before the violent raids described in contemporary texts, works written by monks in isolated monasteries—often the only places where literate people lived—which were especially targeted by Viking raiders for their food and treasures.
Scholars are continuing to examine these texts, but are also considering the limitations of using them to understand the historical record.
When Irish archaeologists working under Dublin’s South Great George’s Street just over a decade ago excavated the remains of four young men buried with fragments of Viking shields, daggers, and personal ornaments, the discovery appeared to be simply more evidence of the Viking presence in Ireland.
At least 77 Viking burials have been discovered across Dublin since the late 1700s, some accidentally by ditch diggers, others by archaeologists working on building sites.
“How did the Vikings know where all those monasteries were? They were already trading before those raids happened.” The beginning of the Viking era in Britain was long thought to have been June 8, A. 793, the day when seaborne Scandinavian raiders appeared on the horizon and attacked a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England.
Population pressures at home, a thirst for wealth and adventure, and improvements in boat-building techniques all propelled the Vikings out of their chilly realm in search of conquest.Within weeks, the Annals say, the Vikings had won a battle “in which an uncounted number [of people] were slaughtered.” Recent excavations in Ireland tend to confirm the account the texts depict.“They came, they saw the lay of the land, and then came the catastrophic invasions described in the Annals,” Simpson says.“The Vikings started with sporadic summer raids, but after some years they decided, ‘This is lucrative, let’s stay,’ and so they built settlements to stay over the winter,” says Ruth Johnson, Dublin’s city archaeologist.Although the earlier dates for a Viking presence in Dublin that have been identified by Simpson and independent archaeologist Edmond O’Donovan differ from the later, established dates by only a few decades, when combined with other evidence, they are challenging the chronology of Viking settlement in Ireland.One entry, from 798, says the pagan invaders stole cattle tribute from chieftains, burned their churches, and “made great incursions in Ireland and also Alba [Scotland],” painting a picture of widespread chaos and destruction.