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Tales from the River bank – Vikings, snakes and hats!

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In the late 1980s, rumours circulating the local archaeological community in Northern Ireland suggested that objects were being metal detected and removed from spoil dredged from the River Blackwater which borders Counties Armagh and Tyrone. This was apparently happening when silt from the river bed was being excavated by the bucket of the dredging machine (seen here) and then left to dry. These mounds were then spread flat over adjacent fields using large machinery. Working then, on contract, for what was the Department of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum, I was despatched to investigate a drainage scheme designed to alleviate flooding.

The truth is that nobody expected to find much; but the reality was different and what was recovered changed the face of Irish archaeology, particularly in the period AD 800 – 1000 (which coincides with the time of Viking raids). Prior to the Blackwater dredging scheme, few Viking objects were known from the north of Ireland. This was puzzling given the Monks preoccupation with recording numerous Viking raids on their monasteries, particularly Armagh, including apparently the presence of a Viking fleet on Lough Neagh. This was in marked contrast to places like Dublin, which has the largest Viking cemetery outside of Scandinavia.

After the dredging scheme hundreds of objects were recovered, some belonging to the Viking raiders, such as this rare gold finger ring (BELUM.A5554). Other objects were taken from church sites and wealthy communities, to be broken and recycled as was the Vikings way.

The decoration on some of the objects is stunning, as on this circular metal fitting which was attached to the mouth of a drinking horn. It was recently sent on loan to Bayeux, France.

Image: Drinking horn  - the body of the horn is a modern reconstruction but originally it is likely to have been a cow horn with the metal fittings attached at either end. BELUM.A8.1991 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Drinking horn - the body of the horn is a modern reconstruction but originally it is likely to have been a cow horn with the metal fittings attached at either end. BELUM.A8.1991 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Image:

It is difficult to appreciate the decoration without a closer look, but the accompanying illustration above by Deirdre Crone, a former illustrator in the Department, is an equal masterpiece!

However, of all the objects acquired by the Museum, a small pair of bronze snakes or serpents (BELUM.A51.1990) sticks in my mind. But how were they worn or used? At 10cm in length they are too long for finger rings and too narrow for bracelets.

Sitting one day in the Ulster Museum the collective wisdom of the Antiquities Department pondered their use – ‘perhaps it was a Viking corkscrew’ someone joked or more likely a cloak fastener, doubling as an item of jewellery, where the tail of the snake could be twisted through loose woven fabric.

This explanation did not satisfy the finder who produced from his pocket a catalogue for women’s hats. Flicking through the catalogue we all stopped at the same page – the model wearing a hat was sporting a pair of snake earrings! It was a eureka moment for the finder if not everyone else. Could that be the answer? If they were Viking, could they be worn by men – perhaps a Kirk Douglas look alike (or some more recent Viking heart throb).

The temptation to try them on has crossed my mind, but that would not be appropriate and thankfully I don’t have my ears pierced.

All objects referred to are on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery of the Ulster Museum, Belfast.