Dogs, booze and bling: Northern Ireland's medieval shopping mall

Dunnyneil Island Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough was the site of a seventh century 'shopping centre'

Excavations on Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, have revealed a seventh century trading emporium frequented by merchants from as far afield as modern day Russia, Germany, Iceland and France.

Back in early medieval times, there was no cash economy, few buyers, and even fewer sellers, but there are surprising parallels between these ancient trading outposts and modern shopping centres.

Luxury goods, lots of wine
Medieval wine merchants Medieval wine merchants would have traded at Dunnyneil

According to archaeologist Dr Philip MacDonald, who led the dig on Dunnyneil, merchants would have brought wine and other luxury products to Ireland to exchange at emporia for furs, seal skin, slaves and famed Irish wolfhounds.

"High status members of the Dal Fiatach [the local dynasty whose royal centre was Downpatrick, County Down] and local traders, would have frequented the island," he said.

In medieval times, the king controlled trade and wealthy merchants travelled the seas to buy and sell goods. The trade in imported prestige items would have been important for the king of Dal Fiatach, to signify his status and power.

"This little speck of an island had a very high significance to the wealth of the Ulster Kingdom," explains Tom McErlean from the Centre for Maritime Archaeology.

"Dal Fiatach, or the Kingdom of Ulster, was a great maritime kingdom. It was fairly cosmopolitan with connections all around the North Sea."

The particular kind of pottery found at Dunnyneil Island is evidence that luxury goods were imported in some quantity from the continent. The coast around Strangford Lough has the highest density of this type of pottery ever discovered in Ireland, suggesting the Kingdom of Ulster was relatively wealthy.

Dunnyneil Island Dunnyneil Island from the air

Dunnyneil: a brief history

• Believed to be named for Niall of the Nine Hostages, a fifth century king of Ulster who took hostages from nine kingdoms around the UK, one of whom was St Patrick.

• Site of an early medieval emporium.

• A long rectangular hut was built on the island around 900 AD, during the Viking invasions.

• After a period of disuse, it was re-occupied during the 13th century. A belt buckle from this period was found.

"Dunnyneil played a big role in creating their wealth … [it] would have been a profitable stopping point for foreign wine merchants. The Irish kings valued wine very much. There was a big market for wine here. It would be very much worthwhile," said McErlean.

An eye for what sells

Much like the shopping malls of today, Dunnyneil's ancient traders would have needed a keen eye for selling the right products to the right people, as Dr Jonathan Jarrett, a lecturer in medieval history at Oxford University, explains.

"If you sailed [to a settlement] halfway up the east coast and found that a boat had already been by with Scandinavian hides the previous week, that's a wasted stop. But at the emporia someone would probably buy the goods, quite possibly expecting to sell them on."

In short, trading emporia like Dunnyneil Island offered a ready-made market where you could usually find someone eager to buy your goods.

"They probably did offer at least some speciality goods from each area. Ireland and England were both famous on the continent for their hunting dogs, so there were things worth coming a long way for."

And it seems that, like today, the medieval trade in prestige goods wasn't exempt from dodgy rip-offs.

"One Carolingian swordsmith by the name of Ulfberht acquired such a name for his blades, which unlike most he stamped onto the metal, that they seem to have been faked, like knock-off Rolexes," said Dr Jarrett.

Start Quote

Archaeologists of the future will probably notice we're not building cathedrals any more, we're building shopping centres and music festivals ”

End Quote Mark Bourgeois Retail expert
The Holy Grail of retail

As managing director of a large retail investment company, it is Mark Bourgeois' job to understand what makes a good place to buy and sell goods. He sees similarities between medieval emporia and modern shopping centres, particularly in the supply of the latest prestige goods.

St Denis Fair St Denis Fair in France: a depiction of medieval traders at work

"A manager would identify what items will sell well in their area and work with the markets to provide good products for consumers that will sell. It is the mix between the prestige factor shops… which consumers want in their area, as a matter of civic pride, mixed with a variety of good local retailers. That mix is the Holy Grail of a successful shopping centre."

There is very little evidence left on Dunnyneil Island of its wheeler-dealer past. It's a tiny place and the emporium there was never built to last. Only tenacious archaeological investigation has revealed its role as a sort of 'pop-up' shop that could be taken down as quickly as it was put up, but sufficient to catch the passing trade for more than 200 years.

Dr Jarrett perhaps sums up the seventh century trading environment that Dunnyneil inhabited best of all:

"If one were to hear a message from the early medieval business consultancy, it would perhaps be something like: stock goods that no-one else has, cut deals with local resellers so you can sell wholesale, get shopping anywhere else outlawed, and pay the government a cut of your profits for it. Oh, and if shoppers turn up in boats with dragon prows it probably wise to come up with some really special offers!"

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

  • The OfficeIn pictures

    Fifty landmark shows from 50 years of BBC Two


  • French luxury Tea House, Mariage Freres display of tea pots Tea for tu

    France falls back in love with tea - but don't expect a British cuppa


  • Worcestershire flagFlying the flag

    Preserving the identities of England's counties


  • Female model's bottom in leopard skin trousers as she walks up the catwalkBum deal

    Why budget buttock ops can be bad for your health


  • Two women in  JohanesburgYour pictures

    Readers' photos on the theme of South Africa


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.