The Donnybrook Burial Part 1

As requested!

So, in case you didn’t know, I wrote my PhD thesis on gendered symbolism as a medium to negotiate power as evidenced in the Viking burials of Ireland. That is a giant mouthfull of words (also my thesis title) to say that I looked at how Vikings used grave goods and funerals to demonstrate and negotiate their power, and how many of burial items were associated with masculinities or femininities. And so I asked on Twitter, if, while I am finishing up my book on Irish beer history, you all may be interested in reading my thesis, broken down into a series of articles, for the general public. You said yes, so here I am dusting off my old thesis.

We are going to start with the Donnybrook burial, a Viking grave found in, well Donnybrook.

So this grave was an inhumation (burial) that purportedly contained a warrior clad in ‘full armor’ with an additional two women buried at his feet, found in an extant cemetery in Donnybrook in 1879. Purportedly, because that’s what the Victorians said, and many scholars have repeated.

I am going to completely disagree.

Let’s dive in.

I have a lot of FEELINGS (rage) at the way in which antiquarians, that is Victorian historians/archaeologists, handled graves. Sure they likely didn’t know any better, but it is frustrating. Also, they lost a lot of stuff (or sold it off), and when it came to bones, they generally weren’t bothered with much besides the skulls; because phrenology.

So the first person to investigate this grave after it was found was William Frazier.

Frazer stated that ‘the first intimation to reach me of this “vast charnel heap” was on ‘the 3rd day of October, 1879’. By Frazer’s own words, he was friends with a Mr. Thomas Wardrop, the man who purchased the ground at Aylesbury Road to build some houses and this man gave him full access to the grounds and burial as well as placing his workmen at Frazer’s disposal should he have need of them. It is evident that much of the work was conducted prior to the arrival of Frazer and his fellow antiquarians. The investigation of the burial was mostly carried out by a team of workmen who were certainly unfamiliar with the treatment of burial or with archaeological practice. This, naturally, leads to major methodological issues in the treatment and recordings of the burials and grave goods.

Frazer, however, did attempt to perform an excavation of the burial site as methodologically sound as could be in his temporal framework, and this is evident in his notes on the excavation. The Viking interments at Donnybrook were found amongst hundreds of other bodies which were unearthed under the excavation leadership of both Frazer and Professor McCalister of Dublin University, who he asked to assist him.  Frazer also used a Mr. Bailey, Paleontologist to the Geological Survey, who was tasked with aiding in identifying the animal bones and shells found among the bodies. Finally, a Mr. G.H. Kinhan inspected the investigations, lending his expertise in geological knowledge to this process as there were several sandstone tools found at the site.

Frazier was very detailed and methodical in his investigation and as a man of his time, he was following best practice.

However, this is extremely biased, and remarkably sexist, as we shall see.

According to Frazer, prior to his arrival, the workmen had discovered several human bones, including, ‘a perfect skull of large size that had the mark of a sword-cut upon its forehead’ and with this they also found an iron spear and a double-edged sword with an iron hilt and pommel which he labeled as being of ‘undoubted Scandinavian origin’. He recorded that the bones of the three Viking burials were found resting right under the top layer of soil, separated from the air above by a ‘mere superficial layer of clay’.  The following is Frazer’s description of the burial, as related by the workmen who discovered the three bodies in question:

This man’s bones were described to me as large-sized, and they appeared from the description to have belonged to some person of unusually powerful frame. At his sides were placed the iron sword and spear already mentioned, and his head was that which I first obtained, and which bore the mark of a fatal sword-cut, perforating the frontal bone. At a short distance away, and lying on either sides of his feet, the workmen next uncovered two human skeletons, each a separate interment; these bodies they described as belonging to persons of much smaller size and it is probable they were the remains of females. I regret that these bones got removed and mixed up with numerous other human remains that were soon after unearthed, as the excavations advanced, the bones themselves being broken during removal.

Frazer was particularly concerned with the sword contained in the burial though he does also mention three arrowheads being located close by. He argued that because the sword had a hilt with rich ornamentation, ‘inlaid pattern of gold and silver, and the handle retained traces of having been bound round by some description of fine wire, possibly gold…’, of which, ‘all remains of the metal were lost’ indicated that this person was a leader or chief of the Vikings.  He compared these to other swords found at Kilmainham and the sword at Larne and viewed them as ‘identical’. 

So we have 3 bodies, one of supposedly warrior male and two smaller females. In summation, Frazer believed that the large skeleton was of a male Viking chief, who was buried over a mass slaughter of Irish native peoples.


Unfortunately, most of the bones contained in the grave were broken or lost, and the graves were originally discovered by workers, so the declaration of this skeleton being of quite substantial size is, of course, hearsay, as Frazer never saw it in situ. This narrative of a powerful Viking chief buried over a large slaughter, however, fits within the expected dynamics of the relationship between the native Irish and the Vikings as argued by Victorian scholarship. It also demonstrates the insistence on the maintenance of the separate and distinct gender roles for a binary system of gender inherent in their middle class Victorian culture. Nowhere will this be more apparent than in the treatment of the two bodies ‘buried at his feet’.

The hypermasculinized burial traditions of the Norse in this early medieval Irish context, combined with the Victorian antiquarian ideologies of womanhood combined to create a wholly passive status for the so-called female burials which Frazer insisted were buried at the warrior’s feet. He went so far as to say ‘we may believe that the female remains found buried at his feet were additional witnesses to the esteem in which his followers held him (the central burial), and the penalty exacted for his loss’.

A particularly critical point is Frazer’s assessment that the separate skeletons ‘at his feet’ are located in separate interments a ‘short distance away’, a critical point.[1]  Additionally, the size of these two bodies in relation to what he deems the primary are also only at the testimony of the workers, men who had no training in archaeology or excavation methods. This is what led to the conclusion that they were female. As the bones have since been lost, this amounts to hearsay. They could have certainly been reading their own bias into the burials, implying or believing the other bodies to be female based simply on size and their understandings and perceptions of women and femininities. Additionally, based on the size of the figure with the swords, a gentlemen described as being of quite some size, it is indeed possible that these figures might be of average medieval size, which is quite smaller than that of antiquarian or modern contexts. It is only in comparison to this giant of body that these bodies appear quite small. Other possibilities emerge, including that they could have been male teenagers, sons of the person buried in the central burial. There are many options as to why these bodies were buried in this manner near this burial of what Frazer terms a warrior.

According to Hall’s analysis of the skull, the large skeleton bore signs of a violent death, based on a perforation on the frontal lobe, which he attributed to a sword blow, and, well in line with Frazer’s estimations, was probably a Viking chief or leader. It is possible, however, that such damage occurred after burial or during retrieval. However, this potential violent end also might explain the location and prominence of the burial. If a warrior, and especially a leader, fell in battle it follows that the power of his successors might be in question. Death is a time of uncertainty, where peace treaties are renegotiated, disputes created or settled, and new enemies or allies made. This is a tenuous time. It is likely that the society that buried this person deemed it necessary to hypermasculinize his grave, in accordance with the other Viking burials in Dublin. Choosing a pre-existing burial mound and burying the person at the top would further this idea and also claim to the land by creating a visual representation of dominance.

A further scholar, Elizabeth O’Brien, considered the Donnybrook burial in 1992. O’Brien contended that instead of Frazer’s insistence on the burial as an ‘indiscriminate massacre’ of people inflicted by the Viking invaders, that the burial mound at Donnybrook is instead a pre-existing native Irish cemetery that was reused by the Vikings. She also clarified that the shape which Frazer is describing appeared to be more of a low raised platform than a great mound of earth. Based on the east-west positioning of the burials and the way they were laid out, O’Brien concluded that they were representative of normal burial practice in Ireland from the fourth century and, therefore, Christian in nature; and this is further supported by the lack of grave goods.

Many Viking burials choose to make use of extant Christian cemeteries in any number of contexts, including other locations in Dublin and Ireland, for example St. Michan’s church in Dublin. For more broad examples in the framework of the Viking expansion, it is possible to see the reuse of native Christian or prehistoric cemeteries in such places as St. German’s Cathedral on St. Patrick’s Isle, Peel or churchyards such as Kirk Braddan, Malew and Kirk Michael, all on the Isle of Man. It is possible to conclude that O’Brien is correct and that these Viking burials were secondary additions to the original native Irish cemetery. She did not, however, challenge the argument that the two burials found at the ‘feet’ of the ‘warrior’ were female nor did she argue against Frazer’s conclusions that they were sacrificial. Hall referred to them as an ‘unaccompanied interment lay beside each of the warrior’s feet’. But he is still convinced that these burials are female. In fact, he suggested that based on this evidence, they could have been victims of ritual sacrifice; a claim, it is clear, O’Brien also supported.

Before I make this too long and overload everyone, I am going to stop there. Next article will be about human sacrifice in the Viking Age and why it really was not a thing. I take a somewhat controversial stance on this, but the evidence jus does not support it, as we shall see.