Results of radiocarbon dating of objects found in Dunmore Cave, County Kilkenny in Ireland, confirm that activity there, perhaps a massacre, or even burials, was almost certainly carried out by Vikings over 1,000 years ago. 

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, partly to the fact that the site has been disturbed many times over the centuries, by man and animal alike. 

Further investigation may be needed.

Bones, pins, and beads

Some 8 kilometers north of the town of Kilkenny, Dunmore Cave has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1970s. 

Between 2004 and 2007, an upgrade of the lighting system allowed three archaeologists, Marion A. Dowd, Linda G. Lynch, and Margaret McCarthy, to explore the site in a professional capacity. 

They duly found human bones in eight clusters, many belonging to women and children, indicating a slaughter of some kind.

Medieval texts such as the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Innisfallen, and the Annals of the Four Masters indicated such an event taking place in the year 930. 

An earlier excavation of the Dunmore Cave in 1973 uncovered nine silver coins dated around that same time. Further Viking material came to light during another dig in 1999, silver jewelry and 14 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies.

Visitors peering around the cavern in previous centuries speak of a significant number of human bones, and rumors were rife as to whether they had resulted from civil conflict in the 1600s and 1700s or aligned with the chronicles scribed not long before. 

For the three-person excavation of more recent times, the archaeologists had to tailor their work with that of the electricians installing the new lighting system, in six specific trenches, four in the Main Chamber. 

Of the eight bone scatters, three were in the Main Chamber, three in the so-called Market Chamber it leads to. There was a wealth of other materials, glass beads, bracelets, and bronze pins. 

A ringed pin was of the same type prevalent around Viking Dublin in the mid-900s and similar to four others that had been found here on previous digs. The glass beads, covered in foil, match two more from the 1973 excavation.

The many animal bones found, more than 1,500 in total, were harder to identify and date – a certain number would have been the result of animal prey, smaller creatures probably devoured by foxes.

Pictured is the calcite formation called the Market Cross in Dunmore Cave. Photo: Jan-Philipp Litza / CC BY-SA 4.0

Layers of history

The random nature of these remains means that later analysis could not shed any light on how animal husbandry was carried out in the vicinity in early medieval times.

The human remains tell a different story. In all, 351 bones were recovered in the aforementioned six scatters, the first of an adult and a child between three and six years old. 

Another represented an adult, a toddler, and an infant. Perhaps more gruesomely, in another scatter, there would have been two adults, a child of around five, a toddler, an infant, and a fetus of pregnancy towards full-term.

The experts at Queen’s University Belfast inspected four human bones, each from a different part of the site, and each found by the three-person team. 

Examinations of previous findings were of samples uncovered at random and provided by non-professionals, their findspots unclear. 

This lack of clarity allowed leeway for different interpretations. Were they the remains from the Irish Confederate Wars of the mid-1600s? Or the Irish Rebellion of 1798, inspired by the French and American Revolutions? 

Now the evidence was unequivocal, beginning with the child and the adolescent in the Main Chamber dating to 1091. Those from another scatter dated to the mid-1100s, and those in another trench, to the mid-900s. 

More questions than answers

It seems there may have been different phases of human activity here, but the key question arising from the most recent dig is why there were so many objects of Viking origin buried deep in the cave.

If the Norsemen had massacred the local Irish population, items would have been dislodged, but not in the quantity as has been found. 

Furthermore, the many bones show no signs of their owners meeting a violent end. In addition, after any terrible events had passed, villagers would have taken away their dead to give them a Christian burial. This clearly did not happen.

Two of the three archaeologists involved, Marion A. Dowd and Linda G. Lynch, have put forward the theory that, contrary to centuries of legend, Dunmore Cave was actually a Viking burial ground. 

This is supported by osteoarchaeological analysis, pointing to the fact that some of the individuals had been lying down.

If this were true, which cave witnessed the massacre described in those medieval texts? Or were they, too, passing on local legend surrounding a spooky landmark? 

What is certain is that Dunmore Cave requires further investigation, and on a scale far larger than the modest one that was carried out nearly 20 years ago.

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