JEROME REILLY A VAST Viking emporium on the banks of the Suir with an economy based on silver may be one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in this country.
One of the world's leading experts on the Vikings, Professor Dagfinn Skre of Oslo University, says initial studies of the Woodstown site at Waterford, which had up to 4,000 inhabitants, show it is even more important than originally thought.
The Viking settlementwas discovered during the construction of the ?200m Waterford bypass which will be delayed by a year to enable the site to be fully excavated. Supplied by a fleet of ships, the bustling Viking market and trading post five miles outside Waterford has already been called Ireland's Pompeii.
A large number of artefacts have also been uncovered, including nails, weights, jewellery, silverware, weapons, ceramics and ship fragments.
Professor Skre who visited the site at the request of the National Museum of Ireland, during the summer is hugely enthusiastic. Stressing that his visit was at the very beginning of the excavation, he paints a picture of a huge trading post where silver was exchanged for high-quality crafts and other goods.
"There are very many lead weights, probably used by craftsmen but also used in trade to weigh silver so this is important information about these kind of settlements," Professor Skre said.
The Norwegian expert suggests Woodstown has the capacity to fill in some of the blanks about the Viking empire builders who left Scandinavia in long boats.
"Among Viking scholars news of a find like this spreads fast. This is a very important site because we haven't found and excavated early Viking settlements before. What we have seen mostly before now are 10th- century or late 9th- century sites," he added.
"This settlement appears to date from the mid-ninth century and from that period we generally have only written sources of information. To get archaeological material from an almost undisturbed site like this with the extensive excavation which has been planned there will be extremely important not only to understanding Viking history in Ireland but the Viking expansion in a larger sense.
"From a Scandinavian point of view we are struggling to answer some questions about how many people did go abroad; how were these ventures organised? Were they small bands or were they large groups travelling together? This site may answer these questions.
"I was very surprised at how large the site was and theartefacts are very informative because they demonstrate extensive trade and craftproduction which is new and important information about the activities in this kind of site."
Early signs are that what may have been the original town of Waterford remains virtually intact, with dozens of streets and dwellings just under the soil surface.
"We can make some guesses from the written sources about the Viking expansion, for example, how many came, how often did they come, things like that, but to have an independent source like an archaeological source telling us about an Irish settlement is important.
"We can see the size of the settlement, the intensity, the length of use, how many people were there, what did they do, things like that. It has the potential to yield major new discoveries," Professor Skre said.