Remains of ‘Viking’ boat discovered by archaeologists at Castlebar lake


Sep 10, 2006

ARCHAEOLOGISTS working on the Castlebar sewage scheme stumbled upon what has been described by the National Museum of Ireland as a ‘significant and exciting archaeological find’.

While trench testing close to Lough Lannagh they uncovered a wooden boat, believed to be medieval with a strong possibility that it could even be from the Viking period of around 1,100 years ago.

Measuring 10 feet long and some six-foot wide, the boat is in reasonable condition having been preserved in a blanket of peat which covered it from once the Castlebar lake receded.

It may have been used as a cargo or fishing vessel. Its discovery was made possible due to a drop in the water levels of the lake which have dropped significantly since the 1800s when water was diverted for a mill race. The Moy Drainage Scheme in the 1960s also led to a lowering of the lake levels by as much as 12 feet.

The discovery was made by Olga Sheehy, who is one of a team of six archaeologists headed by licensed archaeologist, Joanna Nolan, currently working at the site.

The team is working on the preservation and recording of the various parts of the boat which has already been visited by conservators from the National Museum of Ireland who have taken samples of the vessel for carbon 14 dating and a sample of the keel also taken for a dendrochronology test which will give it an even more accurate date than the carbon 14 result.

At first it was thought the boat was the remnants of a trackway which were quite common on boggy areas but closer examination revealed quite a significant hull, floor and a vessel that was clinker built and very definitely based on Viking technology.

Joanna Nolan explained that the iron nails were a particular diagnostic feature which gives the boat a very definite medieval date and possibly of the Viking period.

“We are hoping it is but it is certainly unique and very definitely medieval,” said Joanne.

“It is a unique boat and the lightness of planking would suggest it was a cargo boat of light construction. It was found near the old lakeshore, which we believe receded twice in the 1800s when a mill race was being constructed.

“A further drop in water level was caused in the 1960s when the Moy Drainage Scheme was in operation and the lake has dropped by some 12 feet over a period.

“After we did some cleaning, remnants of a larger boat with a keel plank and bilge area with flattened out timber crossing, became visible.

“There is a base of a keel and at least one rib fragment which gave the planking stability. It was clinker built, that means a series of planks were used and they were fastened by iron nails hammered through the plank and held by a clench plate on the end, the clench plate acting like a washer.

“We are naturally hoping that it is early rather than late medieval,” she said.

The fact that the National Museum of Ireland has expressed an interest in the find would certainly indicate that it is significant and experts from the museum have already been to Castlebar to examine the boat.

Describing the find as ‘significant’, Mr. Eamon Kelly, Head of Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, said the technology used to design the boat was undoubtedly Viking but whether the boat itself is from the Viking period is still not certain.

That will be established when a carbon date is returned in the next week or two.

“What we can say is that this was a boat based on the Viking style of building, which was used up to the 17th century.

“In fact, the legendary pirate queen, Grainne Uaille O’Malley, used these style of boats for her famous galleys which were copies of the Vikings so it could fit into a number of periods but it is undoubtedly medieval.

“There was a strong Scandinavian presence around the Clew Bay region and there are several references in the annals concerning the Vikings taking over fishing in the region.

“Such Vikings ships became common around the 9th century when the Vikings first invaded Ireland and were not uncommon in the west of Ireland where fishing was a major occupation of the Viking settlers.

“Mayo would have been a popular area for fishing by Vikings and it was certainly an area where Viking boat building was quite common.”

This latest archaeological find is one of a number of significant discoveries on a number of Mayo County Council projects in a county that has a rich archaeological heritage.

The same team that is working on the Castlebar boat also uncovered what was thought to be a boat in Ballina but subsequent tests have now established that it was a wooden trough, possibly used for washing or cooking.

The Castlebar team would like to thank a number of people who have made their work at the site easier, particularly the owners of the land where the find was made, Carmel and Trevor McDonald.

“Roadbridge Ltd., who are constructing the Castlebar Sewage Scheme along with Mayo County Council have been very supportive of our work as indeed are Tobin Constructing Engineers who are administering the project.”