Dogs, booze and bling: Northern Ireland's medieval shopping mall
- 25 May 2012
- From the section Northern Ireland
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
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 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.
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.
"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!"