York, the wild northern frontier nestling on the river Ouse is a popular and busy place. Battered by Brigantes, rampaged by Romans and harried by Norsemen, its had its fair share of long stay visitors, some are on an extended stay at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Today, it is thronging with tourists, pounding the pavement and treading the tourist traps. But beneath their feet is a hidden world and the buried remains of the Viking settlement of Jorvik.
In 1976, before construction work in the centre of York where the Coppergate Shopping centre now stands, the York Archaeological Trust unearthed Viking age timbers and other Viking age artefacts in unprecedented numbers in the damp conditions that helped to preserve the finds. Whether they were raiders and/or traders, or perhaps just wanted better farming land or weather etc is still open to debate. One thing for certain is that my wallet was raided and credit card assaulted by the fee to enter the Jorvik Viking Centre. But at least you can visit as many times as you’d like within the year.
Today the Jorvik Viking Centre stands on the exact site where the remains had been found. Inside, you step on a glass floor with an accurate reconstruction of what the Coppergate dig would have looked like below your feet. Most of the items are reconstructions of discarded objects except the animal bones and shells. Considering they dug up 5 tons of animal bone, there appears plenty to go around. There are maps provided to show you what’s beneath the glass floor but you can’t read them because it’s so dark. I’m guessing Vikings didn’t have street lights, so that makes it authentic.
Then it’s onto a ride taking you back to the 10th century Viking settlement, a street and market place with historically houses, clothes, tools and smells. Animatronics waxwork dummies with faces based on reconstruction of Viking age skulls, speaking the languages of old Norse and old English. It’s a bit like a PG rating of Westworld without Yul Brynner running wild. Nearing the end of the ride, we are err… lucky enough to see, hear and smell, a Norse chap taking a dump, spared only by a wicker screen to protect his modesty and our blushes. It stinks and there is rubbish everywhere. This, dear readers, is what Scandinavian life has to offer you. Then again, I suppose it’s easier to accept it at the end of a pointy sword thrusting at your belly. Disappointingly, not one Viking is wearing a helmet with horns and we do not see anybody having a blood eagle.
The last third of the exhibition has associated collections of 800 artefacts from the 40,000 that were found. Bone and antler working to make combs, leather for making shoes etc. Of course, any Viking experience is not complete without battle and you now get a chance to see a few weapons and the injuries these can cause on the battle-scarred skeletons on display. The weapons are not that good and better examples are on display in the Derby museum from the Vikings when the Great Heathen Army camped over winter at Repton or those on display in the Leeds Royal Armouries. The skeletons however are a grim reminder of diplomacy on the receiving end of an axe edge.
One skeletal chap on display has 16 visible injuries including an axe shaped wedge wound to his upper leg, two stab wounds to the pelvis penetrating the abdomen and two execution style wounds to the back of his head. He was aged between 18-25 and was one of a group of 30 skeletons all showing blade injuries that had not healed. They were discovered in the cemetery at the Church of St Andrew in Fishergate so it is unlikely they died in the famous clashes at the Battle of Fulford, a Viking victory, or the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson (half-brother of King Harold) was killed by the English army of King Harold before he marched down to Hastings to face William Duke of Normandy, heralding the end of the Viking age in Britain.
Learn more about the Jorvik Viking Centre here.