The discovery of a 1,200-year-old Viking fortress at Woodstown, near Waterford city, has been hailed by a leading historian as “the most significant new find in Viking studies in perhaps a century”.
The site was found during construction of the Waterford city bypass, which will have to be rerouted after the discovery.
Prof Donnchadh O Corrain, professor of medieval studies at University College Cork, said the site - home to the largest known Viking river camp, or longphort, in Ireland - was “of international importance”.
Dr David Edwards, of the newly-formed Academy for Heritage, said it would be better to reroute the bypass than hold the project up for two-to-three years to allow for an excavation.
Echoing this view, Dr Mark Clinton, a member of An Taisce’s monuments’ committee, said the National Roads Authority (NRA) had only two options, “either they launch a major excavation or they move the road”.
Dr Clinton, a former site director of the Carrickmines Castle archaeological excavations in south Dublin, also criticised the NRA for not being more alert to the possibility of the find.
“We have always known about Viking activity in this area, and a site fitting this description on the banks of the Suir is well documented,” he said. “How then they decided to build the road right through the area is amazing.”
A NRA spokesman denied any suggestion that it had prior knowledge of the site, saying it had fully complied with official guidelines on archaeological protection.
Archaeologists have unearthed materials used in ship-building during the Viking raids of the mid-ninth century. The remains of a Viking warrior armed with a spear, a sword and a pin have also been recovered.
Prof O Corrain said there was a “high possibility” the body belonged to a Danish chieftain called Rothlaibh, or Rodulf, who has a fort named after him at Dunrally, Co Laois.
He said the warrior had evidently been given a pagan burial, adding “there may be 50 graves in there. We do not know. But if there is one there there is the possibility of there being very many more.”
The longphort, which dates from 850-870, was believed to have been used as the command headquarters of Rothlaibh who sent raiding parties from Waterford up the Barrow, Nore and Suir rivers. The fortress dates from the second wave of Viking invasions, more than 50 years after the first recorded Viking raid in Ireland at Rathlin Island off the coast of Antrim.
Some historians believe Rothlaibh was the son of Harold, a former king of Denmark who had been expelled from Denmark in 827. According to one theory, Rothlaibh, or Rodulf, left Ireland in or around 862 to lead a group of Vikings on the River Rhine.