Irish Viking Age silks and their place in Hiberno-Norse society
Elizabeth Wincott Heckett
University College Cork
Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America (2002)
Introduction: From the beginning of the ninth century AD people from Scandinavia, many from present-day Norway began to settle in Ireland. They founded the modern Irish cities and towns of Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Wexford and developed lively and successful trading settlements that flourished until the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169 AD. We know from the literature that the Irish prized and used silk cloth at that time but at present excavations have not disclosed any remains of silk in what can be identified as specifically vernacular contexts. The situation is different for the Viking Age settlements. In particular Dublin and Waterford over the last twenty-five years or so have yielded up enormously rich organic remains including textiles that have illuminated in an amazing way the lifestyle of these incomers. They were enthusiastic traders and their wealth was well known in Ireland. Probably slave-trading played a major role but there was also much commerce in silver, furs, perhaps foodstuffs, silk and other cloth. An Irish account of the sack of Viking Limerick by local people in The Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gaill contains this passage. ‘They followed them also into the fort and slaughtered them…They carried off their jewels and their best property, and their saddles beautiful and foreign; their gold and silver; their beautifully woven cloth of all colors and of all kinds; their satins and silk cloth, pleasing and variegated, both scarlet and green, and all sorts of cloth in like manner. They carried away their soft, youthful bright, matchless girls; their blooming silk-clad young women; and their active, large and well formed boys.…everyone that was fit for a slave was enslaved.’ It is interesting that there are so many references in the passage to silks and beautifully woven cloth; they must have made a deep impression on the Irish fighters and chroniclers.
Finds of silk from Dublin are far less numerous than those of wool; this is a pattern that is repeated in excavations in other Irish towns, and indeed in Europe generally at this time. There are however remains of compound weave cloth, of tablet woven braids, thread, ribbons, cords and filets. Three types of plain silk cloth were found, some were made up into bands, scarves and caps.
There are at least twenty-five fragments of weft-faced compound twill of 2/1 construction, with paired Z-twisted main warps, single Z-twisted binder warps and untwisted wefts. Many are made with red or natural color silk probably patterned, and survive in narrow strips that seemingly were used to trim other garments. Four tablet woven braids use gold metal thread with a silk core as does one silver braid. A second silver braid does not seem to have a silk core but some of the brocading was executed in silk.