Preliminary report on the archaeological excavation and finds retrieval strategy of the Hiberno-Scandinavian site of Woodstown 6, County Waterford

Richard O'Brien, Patrick Randolph-Quinney, Ian Russell

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During advance archaeological testing works for the proposed N25 Waterford City Bypass excavations were conducted along the route of the bypass, from 2002- 2005. In 2003 testing concluded in Woodstown townland, and the largest settlement site, discovered on the bypass was found, called Woodstown 6. It was agreed with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG) that the site would be preserved in situ, as is the preferred State Policy for archaeology in Ireland. Consequently, permission for licenced archaeological works was sought from the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) and DoEHLG for the excavation of two proposed culvert areas (Licence Number 02E0441). The archaeological test-trenches excavated in 2003 were simultaneously back-filled by machine, under archaeological supervision, and the spoil metal-detected (Licence Number O4RO36). Numerous metal artefacts were discovered including many lead pan weights and silver ingots, artefacts synonymous with Vikings. Similarly, on site dry- and wet-sieving of topsoil, recovered quantities of smaller artefacts, such as fragmented bone, that normally would not be retrieved from topsoil. During the excavation of Culvert 1 (Field 23) an isolated Viking warrior grave was found, located outside the enclosure ditch. Following this discovery, the preservation in situ of the site was no longer viable, and the excavation of Culvert 2 (Field 22) therefore deemed unnecessary. The exposed, but undated, features in Culvert 2 included strong evidence of a separate, curvilinear enclosure ditch. In autumn 2004 specific investigations in the wetland area west of the site, to determine if a harbour existed, necessitated additional testing, geophysics and environmental coring here. Although no evidence of a harbour was found, a valuable environmental record for Woodstown, and the River Suir was retrieved. These investigations proved the wetland acted as a natural defensive barrier for the western, landward approach to the site. The Culvert 1 excavation lasted from March-June 2004 and measured, 20m x 60m in diameter, at the eastern extremity of the known site, about 500m from the wetland. Prior to excavation Culvert 1 consisted of an upstanding field boundary hedge, with a drainage ditch on each side, dating to the post-medieval period. Two portions of the Field 23 enclosure ditch, separated by a metalled entranceway, were discovered and excavated by hand. Radiocarbon dating and artefact analysis indicated the ditch was first constructed in the early fifth century AD, the late Iron Age period. The acidic nature of the soils largely prevented the preservation of organic deposits on site, although some wood was found within the ditch, and from the wetland. The excavation of stratified artefacts such as ferrous- and non-ferrous metals (iron, silver, copper, copper-alloy and lead), slag, ferrous- and non-ferrous detritus, crucibles, glass, stone and bone (including antler) from the ditch, suggested some craft-working activities occurred within, and near, the enclosure ditch. The stratified lead and silver finds are the earliest evidence for such metal-workings in the south-east. The discovery of a possible pewter bowl-mould, ivory and amber beads reflected wider contact, typical in the early medieval period. The multi-phase use of the enclosure ditch, including the metal-working, and the finds retrieved, dated between the fifth to the seventh century AD. The ditch originally extended to the River Suir edge, but the WaterfordLismore-Dungarvan Railway unfortunately removed this evidence. The ditch continued to the Culvert 2 stream, as the Geophysics Survey suggested, where evidence was found for its western arc terminating. The enclosure ditch was roughly C-shaped, measuring about 200m in length, and at most, about lOOm wide from the current river edge. In Field 22 evidence for a second, separate enclosure was found. This enclosure was more irregular in shape, measuring about 260m in length, by about 100-160m in width. There was no archaeological evidence found for this enclosure ditch extending into the wetland. The geophysics suggested perhaps, a third, smaller, square-shaped enclosure in Field 23, and further potential, linear/curvilinear features, many possibly of geological/modern origin throughout both fields. The results of the investigations suggested a complex, and varied settlement pattern on the riverbank in the Iron Age / early medieval period. Such an early date would place Woodstown 6 broadly contemporary with the newly discovered vertical watermill in Killoteran, the adjoining townland to the west. It is possible that both sites reflect a wider, Iron Age community established south of the Suir, with Killoteran or the Suir as the foci. The Iron Age evidence recently discovered at Newrath 4km from Woodstown, suggests a wider, early historic archaeological zone, centred on both sides of the Suir.' Based on the size, complexity and undoubted artefactual richness of the site, its strategic setting, beside a major route way, and territorial division (the river Suir), coupled with the nearby placename evidence from Killoteran ('kil' a church, plus 'Odran / Otteran', an Irish saint, adopted by the Waterford Vikings in the eleventh century), and the broadly contemporary watermill from Killoteran, suggests Woodstown was a very wealthy site, possibly either an ecclesiastical centre, or site of great, secular significance, perhaps even with royal connotations. In size, setting, and material culture this phase of settlement at Woodstown would have parallels with, for instance, Clonmacnoise, County Offaly (see below). It is suggested from the discovery of stratified Viking-type objects, and from unstratified Hiberno-Scandinavian arm-ring silver that during the mid-late ninth century Vikings occupied the site, and the defences, whether in disrepair or not, were further strengthened, and possibly expanded. Furthermore, activities such as ferrous and non-ferrous metal-working outside, and undoubtedly inside the enclosures, are suggested from the discovery of a Viking-type furnace. Examples of Viking-type artefacts (including lead pan weights, arm-ring silver and silver ingots) were found throughout the site, at the wetland, and in. the upper levels of the excavated enclosure ditch. The remarkable discovery of part of a Kufic coin from Arabia, the first such discovery in Munster, and a honestone, possibly of Norwegian schist-stone, provided evidence of further Scandinavian imports into Waterford Harbour, and the likelihood of other imports on site is clear. Another significant discovery was a single Viking warrior grave, found with largely intact armour, but no skeletal evidence. The Viking sword pommel can be dated stylistically between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Further post excavation analysis may define a closer date. The Viking settlement in Woodstown may have been a trading-centre, evidenced by the recovery of large numbers of lead pan weights, the largest collection of such objects outside of Dublin, and quantities of silver, both necessary in pre-coinage economies. Undoubtedly, raiding and slavery were additional occupations, as is evidenced from historical sources, and the recovery of weaponry from the topsoil. Evidence of raiding could be suggested from a number of objects of clearly native ecclesiastical origin but these objects could have derived from the Irish settlement phase, and from Irish raiding. Vikings operating in County Waterford are historically attested from the 850s onwards, with large Viking fleets arriving from AD 914. Whether there was contemporaneous native and Viking settlement/interaction in Woodstown is impossible to say but, as such instances are historically attested later, the possibility should not be ruled out. In light of the excavation results, the relationship between Woodstown and the early Viking Age in Waterford city needs to be reassessed. Could there be two, early Viking Age sites in County Waterford, separated by a mere 6km? Woodstown 6 represents further clear evidence of native settlements being occupied, and exploited by opportunistic Vikings. Another recent example is Ninch, Laytown, County Meath (see below). Woodstown 6 is the only definitive, early Viking Age settlement in County Waterford, but similar sites undoubtedly exist on, or near, other waterways in the county. The radiocarbon dates and lack of classic medieval pottery-wares suggest that by the middle of the eleventh century, the site was abandoned, and forgotten from memory, until rediscovered in 2003. This discovery highlights how a site of such vastness and richness could remain hidden for centuries with no above ground indications, or no clear record in the historical sources. In early 2005 the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government sanctioned the preservation of the site in situ, altering this portion of the proposed N25 Waterford City Bypass,
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-122
Number of pages110
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes


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