Four decades on from the extraordinary Anglo-Scandinavian discoveries of the Coppergate excavations in 1976-1981, York Archaeological Trust is running an oral history project to capture memories of a truly game-changing investigation. One year in, Chris Tuckley shares some of the highlights recorded so far, and offers an invitation for more.
The Christmastime floods that forced the JORVIK Viking Centre to close in 2015 have been well documented (including in CA 312), as have the centre’s subsequent multimillion-pound transformation and its grand reopening in 2017 (CA 323 and 327). Behind the scenes, though, once the initial rescue efforts and clean-up had been completed, the operators of JORVIK were confronted with some challenging decisions. The flood damage offered a serendipitous opportunity to redesign and update the museum – its last major refurbishment had been in 2010, though parts of the attraction were much older – but how should JORVIK be reimagined for future audiences? Very few parts of the site had been unaffected by the flood, meaning that a ‘root and branch’ overhaul would be needed.
For inspiration, JORVIK staff looked back to the principles on which the centre had been founded. It was born in the Coppergate dig of 1976-1981, when York Archaeological Trust (YAT) excavated over 1,000 square metres, uncovering well-preserved remains of Viking houses and a wealth of evidence for what life was like in Anglo-Scandinavian York (CA 58). The JORVIK attraction lies within the footprint of that dig, and enshrines one of the Trust’s most important missions: to educate the widest possible audiences through archaeology, in situ wherever possible. Yet the long period of time that had elapsed since the dig, combined with the fact that many of the key figures involved had since died, meant that the reborn JORVIK Centre had to find an innovative way to recapture the historical moment of the dig, both for its updated displays and for posterity.
EXPLORING PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY
YAT has published widely on Coppergate, recording its archaeology in great detail, but we did not have a public history of the project that could tap into the rich seam of personal and anecdotal information that the people who had participated in, and visited, the dig preserved in their memories. This was an excavation that had had a transformative impact on public perceptions both of archaeology and of the Viking period, and we wanted to dig deeper. Who had visited the project? How was it promoted at the time? And how had Coppergate influenced the practices and the career paths of those who had worked there?
An initial series of interviews, gathering the recollections of six people involved in the dig, now features as audio in the first gallery at JORVIK. Among these voices is that of Dr Peter Addyman, today a well-known figure within the archaeological community thanks in part to his position as Director of York Archaeological Trust from its inception in 1972 until 2002 (see CA 100).
Then, in the run-up to JORVIK’s reopening, we launched Coppergate Memories – a longer-term oral history project, supported by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund, which aimed to build on these interviews by gathering more spoken accounts of the Coppergate project. Peter agreed to be interviewed again. This time, he recalled how he, his YAT colleague Richard Hall, and Andrew Saunders, the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, identified Viking-era York as a research priority for the city shortly after YAT was first formed, and in the wake of exciting discoveries of well-preserved remains during the excavation of a vault at Lloyds Bank in York. He said:
We came to the conclusion that one of the really useful things that archaeology in York could do would be to select an area of the Viking town and excavate it properly, because (a) we knew very little about ‘Dark Age’ towns in Britain; (b) we didn’t have any single houses of that period in England (lots in Scotland… but not in England); and (c) it was known that the anaerobic conditions in parts of York would give a much broader view of contemporary life. Richard and I went round the whole city looking at where there might be development and where there might be such archaeology. We identified that area from Lloyds Bank down Coppergate and Clifford Street from early finds that had been made and were sitting in the Yorkshire Museum, and other stuff that had come up more recently when there’d been developments in banks for lift shafts and so on… Amazingly, the city council acquired an old factory in Coppergate and determined to pull it down and develop it as a shopping centre. And we thought ‘Wow! If that’s the same as Lloyds Bank, that could be a huge opportunity.’
THE VIEW FROM THE TRENCHES
Peter’s insights are, of course, those of a person who was involved in making archaeological decisions at the highest levels, but other contributors to our project have provided an equally valuable ‘digger’s-eye view’ of Coppergate. One of these is Dr Margaret Nieke, today a Historic Environment Specialist for Natural England, based in York, who first worked at Coppergate as an Archaeology undergraduate in 1977. She had missed the first season due to a prior commitment to a museum placement that had been organised for her by her schoolteachers, but she already knew she was ‘much happier down a horrible hole’. She recalls:
What was really interesting were the environmental conditions and the fact that there was so much black earth and waterlogged material which, given that we were all pretty much only experienced in dry and dusty sites, was a real revelation… I was champing at the bit to get on site when I could.
The Coppergate that Margaret experienced in 1977 resembled a demolition site, with Victorian buildings still partially standing within it, and cellars being stripped out. When she returned in late 1979 – having been made responsible for one of the Viking-era building plots that had been discovered – the site had been transformed. Now expanses of scaffolding had sprung up to cover the street frontages and to support a viewing platform for the crowds who were thronging to visit the dig. Working at such a popular site was a rewarding, if sometimes claustrophobic, experience. She remembered:
They were constantly there, and it was a bit like being in a goldfish bowl at times, with the people wandering about above your head and discussing what you were up to… There was a Portakabin [unit] with a pay point and finds, and a little bit of interpretation around the site, and there was a constant stream of people… Because the Trust was constantly fundraising for the project and keeping public awareness up, there was always a stream of high-profile visitors, and they always started off at the top end of the site looking down at the street frontage, and they worked their way round to the back… We were discouraged a bit from talking to folk directly, unless they brought really high-profile visitors around… Queen Margrethe of Denmark [was] brought round one day, and we had to spend quite a few days beforehand tidying up the site and repainting the loo doors… making sure that the excavation site looked really photogenic, so that when she appeared they’d get some good photographs of both her and the archaeology. It was an interesting lesson in PR: how to keep up popular interest in the site, which obviously paid off.
That PR was the responsibility of Yorkbased Borodin Communications, for whom Chris Mason was the editorial project lead. Much of his work involved writing press releases and other items for use by international media organisations – a task fraught with peril, as he told Coppergate Memories:
The Chairman of the stewards’ committee was Magnus Magnusson. That was very valuable… Magnus, being deeply interested in archaeology and serious history, as well as – at the time – [being] a very prominent TV personality; he’d got a lot of pull… He was a very good communicator. I remember him being very stern with me on one occasion because I was showing him an article that I’d drafted. I was happy that the article was OK, but I’d had a little slip of the brain: because so many things in York begin with a ‘y’, I’d made the heinous error of typing ‘Yorvik’ with a ‘Y’, rather than a ‘J’. I can hear him being very stern, with his Edinburgh-Scandinavian accent!
Chris’ abiding memory of the time is how, in the 1970s and 1980s, York became quite a glamorous tourism and leisure destination – something that the Coppergate dig both contributed to and capitalised on. The project’s findings sparked cultural creativity as well as giving historical insights – this was exemplified in the production of an archaeology-inspired theatrical show, A King Shall Have a Kingdom, which was attended by the Prince of Wales and coordinated by Borodin’s Managing Director, Bill Kingston. Chris recalls:
[The fact] that we were able to put on this splendid extravaganza one Sunday in October 1977 was quite extraordinary… I mean the cast, for the time, was astounding. It was a multisite visit, which was quite demanding.
For each of our interviewees, albeit in different ways, the Coppergate dig was a formative experience, both in terms of their careers and in the long-term friendships and associations that they formed during the investigation. In its first year, Coppergate Memories has produced some fascinating insights into British public archaeology in the 1970s and 1980s, and we are eager to collect more memories of the excavation.
YAT’s Community Engagement team is actively working to find out more about this period of York’s past by recording more experiences of those who witnessed it, and the ultimate aim is to make excerpts from these oral histories, along with images, film, and other resources, available to be listened to online, with the full interviews preserved in the YAT archive for future research. If you have a Coppergate story to share, we would love to hear from you.
To listen to York Archaeological Trust’s growing collection of audio recordings and to see video footage of the Coppergate dig, visit www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/resources/finding-the-future/resilience-year-2-3/coppergate-memories/. Did you come to the Coppergate dig? If so, YAT wants to hear your story. Get in touch on 01904 615504 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow this project and many more like it on Twitter @YATCommunity.
This article appeared in CA 340.