Typically, the opening of a Lidl store doesn’t generate a lot of buzz. But that changed this fall, when the discount supermarket chain opened its latest branch in the center of Dublin. For a couple of weeks, the new Lidl was heralded in headlines around the world, and not because of its reasonably priced range of dried pasta.
What makes this particular Lidl location stand out is the ground beneath it, which is home to the remains of several historical structures, including an 18th-century theater, a medieval church and the cellar of an 11th-century Viking house. The ruins are visible through windows installed in the floor, supplemented by information panels, allowing people to immerse themselves in history as they shop for fresh produce.
While these sites were originally unearthed during construction of the store, they didn’t come as a complete surprise. “This spot is close to the medieval core of Dublin,” says Paul Duffy, an archaeologist with the Irish Archaeological Consultancy, which oversaw the excavation. “Finding the church and theater was exciting, but we knew what we were looking for there. The Viking house was not on our radar.”
There are, in fact, very few surviving buildings of this sort in Ireland, and even fewer that are so well preserved. “You look down and you can see the walls, a threshold polished by feet, a small well in the floor,” Duffy says. “It’s exciting to find any kind of domestic structure, in which people lived their daily lives, where their kids ran around laughing. That’s the dream.”
Hiberno-Norse Dubliners, descendants of the hordes who raided the city in the 9th century, played a large part in shaping modern Dublin. “Vikings brought urbanization to Ireland,” says Duffy. “They built towns, and introduced coinage and trade.” Certainly, the occupants of the Lidl house would have had little in common with their marauding ancestors, in that they were essentially middle-class suburbanites. And it’s this commonplace element that Duffy finds most enthralling. “Heritage is usually going into some grand estate and appreciating it with a po-face,” he says. “But when it restores that everyday aspect, it becomes a lived experience.”
Duffy admits that he will sometimes “lurk” around the aisles of the new shop, watching people’s reactions to the in-store historical marvels. “For people who live here, there’s a visceral connection,” he says. “They see this little house and they stop, they look at each other, they bring their kids to see it. There’s a human aspect that’s very hard to put a value on.”