Dunmore Cave- A Viking Massacre Site.

by Laureen Buckley


January 2000 saw the natural cave at Dunmore, Co. Kilkenny under the world spotlight as a hoard of 43 silver and bronze items which had been discovered late in 1999 was displayed to the public at the National Museum of Ireland for the first time. The hoard was dated by several coins minted in the North of England to around 970 AD It consisted of hack silver and ingots as well as conical buttons made of fine silver wire woven expertly to form their present shape. The richness of the hoard which had been concealed in a rocky cleft deep in the cave and the fact that it was never returned to, hints that a personal tragedy overcame its owner.

The cave was known in the Irish Annals as 'Dearc Fearna'- the 'Cave of the Alders' and was one of the three darkest places in Ireland. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is recorded that 'Godfrey, son of Imhar with the foreigners of Dublin plundered Dearc Fearna and killed 1000 people in 928 AD. Bones have frequently been found by cavers giving credence to the tale of a massacre. A recent study of bones from the cave identified 44 individuals, 19 of which were adult, 25 children. The bulk of the adult bones were female. In 1996 a group of bones were discovered and analysed by the author which gives a sad insight into one personal tragedy that happened at Dunmore.

The bone was from a cavity beside a feature in the cave known as Town Hall. It consisted almost entirely of animal bone but there was a small amount of human bone present. The majority of human bones were from an infant but there were also three fragments of long bone from an adult and one fragment of adult rib.

The frontal bone, part of the right temporal bone and the left maxilla survived from the infant skull. The partially formed crown of a central incisor was the only tooth present.

Most of the left side of the infant, including the left clavicle and scapula, three left ribs, left radius and ulna and left tibia were complete and in a relatively good state of preservation. The right illium remained from the pelvis and there was also a fibula and fragments of a femur present.

The infant bones were probably from one individual and from the state of development of the incisor and from the length of the long bones it was probably not a full term infant.

The length of the long bones was used to estimate the body length (Kosa 1991) and hence to estimate the state of foetal development. All the bones are consistent with a foetus of about 36 weeks gestation.

As the group of bones was so small it is not possible to assess how the tragedy came about. The infant could have been born prematurely and did not survive or the infant could have died when the mother died. Whether the mother died of an infection, during childbirth or as a result of the massacre is also unknown but this case study does serve to bring home the personal nature of this distant tragedy.



Kosa, F. (1991) 'Age estimation from the foetal skeleton' in 'Age Markers in the Human Skeleton' ed. Iscan, M.Y. 1991, Springfield, Illinois.