The Vikings began to raid Ireland in AD 795. As time passed, they became more interested in trade than in fighting.
Most Viking objects found in the northern half of Ireland are made of metal. These tend to be discovered as single items or occasionally buried in hoards. At present, evidence for settlements or houses is lacking. This contrasts with cities including Dublin, where objects from everyday life are plentiful.
As a result of Viking raids on churches and monasteries, many broken and damaged items feature in the displays.
Some objects found locally were recovered in a surprising way. They came from the River Blackwater, which forms the county boundary between Armagh and Tyrone. This happened in the 1980s when the river bed was being cleaned and deepened. They must have fallen into the river at some time in the past. Exactly how this happen is not clear.
By AD 1100 the Vikings age was over.
To help with identification, each museum object is given a number beginning with BELUM. This is short for BELFAST, ULSTER MUSEUM.
Viking silver hoard from County Antrim
Viking gold objects are rare. Rings were made from a flat or round strip of gold. They often have the ends wound around each other and tied into a knot. There are eleven Viking gold finger-rings from Ireland.
This ring is made from a flat strip of gold which is decorated. It was found near the Islandbridge cemetery in Dublin. Between Islandbridge and another cemetery nearby at Kilmainham are some 53 burials. The majority of these are male. There are more Viking burials in Dublin than anywhere else outside of Scandinavia.
A large number of objects came from Shanmullagh, near Blackwatertown, in County Armagh. They appear to have belonged to a Viking trader or raider. Many of the objects were probably stolen from the monastery at Armagh.
A similar ring to this was found in France at Île de Groix. This is an island off Brittany. The Île de Groix ring came from tenth-century Viking boat-burial, along with many other objects from Scandinavia.
Gold was sometimes melted into a small bar known as an ingot. Viking gold ingots are rare. Sometimes parts of the ingot were ‘hacked’ off larger objects. This ingot has been cut from a lager one and weights 5.3g. The ingots and hack-gold were used as a form of money or currency, based upon their weight.
From records written by the monks, the ‘Annals of Ulster’ note that the Vikings plundered Lough Brickland (in Irish - ‘Loch Bricrenn)’ in AD 833. The gold ingot may be evidence of contact between local people and the Vikings.
There are 27 Viking weights from Shanmullagh. Many have decorated tops. The decoration came from larger metal objects broken into smaller pieces. The decoration on the weight to the left, may be from a counter used in board games. The decorated fragment on the weight to the right, may have come from precious metal objects used by the church.
The Vikings had a system of weights and measures. Even their silver jewellery was made to specific weights. Part of a set of scales has also been found at Shanmullagh.
Balance pan and beam
These two objects formed part of a set of weighing scales.
The ‘T’ shaped balance beam is made from a metal bar. It would normally have a hole at either end for attaching chains. The chains held two balance pans, though only one pan has survived. One pan held the objects being weighted. The other held the weights. This balance pan is made from a shallow metal disc.
If you imagine picking-up the balance beam in your thumb and forefinger at the central point, then the chains and balance pans would hang from either end. The Shanmullagh scales are similar to a complete set from Dublin.
Silver was sometimes melted into a bar known as an ingot. There are a number of silver ingots and ingot fragments from Shanmullagh.
This ingot is very large. Weighing 379.5 grams, it appears to be the heaviest from Ireland (and possibly Britain). It is of a type known to have been made by Viking metalworkers.
Silver was the most important metal for the Vikings. It was used in two main ways. Attractive jewellery was worn around the neck or arms as a sign of wealth. Silver was also used as a form or currency or money. This was based on the weight of objects measured with a set of scales. The weight of objects became less important when coins were available.
Arm-rings are a type of jewellery. As their name suggests, they were worn around the arm or wrist. This is a very fine example, decorated with vertical lines and a central cross. The decoration is seen in detail in the following image as well as the twisted loops at the back which help join the two ends.
Arm-rings appear to have been made to a standard weight. This means that they could also be used as a form of money or currency. They were sometimes ‘hacked’ into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces of hack-silver could be weighed and used as currency.
Rod arm-ring (‘ring-money’)
Some arm-rings were made from a flat band of silver. Others, like this, were made form a single rod of silver. These objects are also known as ‘ring-money’. They were made in Scotland under Viking influence between AD 950-1150.
Although they could be used as jewellery their main use was to act as a form of money or currency. There are not many finds of ‘ring-money’ from Ireland. It appears that ‘ring-money’ may have still been in use as a form of currency in Scotland when Viking settlers elsewhere in Britain and Ireland were using coins.
Both flat and rod arm-rings are found in a massive hoard of Viking silver from Cuerdale, Lancashire, which includes coins. The dates of the coins suggests that it was buried around AD 905. This arm-ring must also be of this approximate date.
This fine neck-ring was probably made in Scandinavia from twisting rods or silver. The clasp at the back opens and closes the neck-ring. This design is found in other neck-rings from Denmark and parts of Sweden.
At one time it belonged to Robert Day, a collector from County Cork. The Museum bought it when his collection was sold in 1913.
Viking silver hoard from County Antrim
This hoard of Viking silver may have been found in County Antrim. There are the remains of three arm-rings; two ingots; a spiral ring and an Anglo-Saxon coin. Some of these objects are hack-silver.
Artefacts may have been buried in hoards for different reasons. One suggestion is that they were stores of wealth. From time to time people may have added or took items from them. As silver was important for buying and selling things most hoards are likely to have been buried for safe-keeping.
These two pieces of hack-silver are likely to have been part of a hoard. The larger of the two has been cut from an ingot or bar of silver.
The smaller piece is a tiny fragment of hack-silver. It was broken or hacked from an arm-ring. One face has a trace of decoration in the form of a figure-of-eight design.
Silver was a used as a form or currency or money as well as for making jewellery. The value was based on the weight of objects measured with a set of scales. The weight of objects became less important when coins were available.
Viking weapons are made from iron which does not preserve well. There are 140 iron axes recovered from the River Blackwater. Of these, at least 6 axes are definitely of Viking origin. This example is from Clonteevy, County Tyrone. The remains of fourteen swords of Viking age have also been recovered.
The Larne burial, County Antrim
Unlike the large number of burials from Dublin, only a few examples are known from the northern part of Ireland. This includes a small cemetery on Rathlin Island; a female burial from Ballyholme, near Groomsport; and seen here, on loan, objects from the male burial at Larne. Remains of a male skeleton were originally uncovered but the whereabouts of the finds did not surface again until they were discovered in the collection of Alnwick Castle, Northumberland. The presence of these small number of ‘northern burials’ suggests that the Vikings did settled here and perhaps one day more evidence of where they lived will be discovered.