Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman
In this latest excavation of the CA archive, I continue to explore some of the ‘great excavations’ reported on over the years by the magazine. Last month, CA 340 included news of a York Archaeological Trust (YAT) oral history project, which is capturing memories of the 1976-1981 Coppergate excavations; fittingly, it is to this site that I now turn, by any standards a ‘great’ excavation in terms both of its discoveries and its public engagement.
The triumphs and travails of the site have been well publicised down the years, in great part thanks to the extraordinary vision of the YAT not just to excavate the site (discovered during the redevelopment of the area as part of a shopping centre), but crucially to open it permanently to the public. The result, the Jorvik Viking Centre, first opened in April 1984 and, since its formation, has seen 20 million visitors – among them, I am certain, the bulk of CA readers, including me. I well remember my first sight, sound, and crucially smell of the experience as an excited schoolboy in the mid-1980s. Refurbishments followed in 2001, 2010, and most recently in 2017 following floods in the winter of 2015. In true Viking – and also Yorkshire – fashion, it is a site, and a team, that thrives on adversity.
CA 58 was the first issue to
feature the Coppergate excavations, which appeared on the cover.
THE COPPERGATE DIG
Coppergate first hit the pages of CA in spectacular fashion in CA 58 (September 1977), featuring as the cover story. Such extensive coverage can in part be explained by the dynamism of the lead excavator (and then-Director of the YAT), Peter Addyman. A true force of nature of the archaeological community across the 1960s to 1990s, he was involved in a host of different projects and initiatives, including the foundation of both RESCUE and IfA (now CIfA). You can read a summary of Addyman’s career up to that point in CA 100 (June 1986 – in that issue he also recalls how he recommended Hot Diggery as a possible title for the fledgling magazine), and a follow-up in CA 200 in 2002 after 30 years’ work there.
As CA 58 reported, ‘an appeal has been launched for £100,000; Magnus Magnusson is the Chairman of the Appeals Committee and all the principal Scandinavian nations are actively supporting the appeal. Prince Charles has been joined as a Patron by Queen Margrethe of Denmark…, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Crown Prince Harald of Norway, and Dr Kristján Eldjárn, the President of Iceland’. Few projects before or since can claim such a regal line-up: I wonder if the new Duchess of Sussex might be interested in a similar patronage role on a modern-day archaeological project?
Public archaeology has long been an important feature of work on Viking York, as discussed in CA 76’s report on the excavations.
CA 63 (September 1978) related that only a year later, thanks to such support, £90,000 of this £100,000 target had been raised, and in CA 76 (May 1981) the magazine returned to update readers on the significant developments of the intervening three years. The report begins with a recurring theme of the site in its later years – the challenges of what would nowadays be referred to as the ‘public archaeology’ aspects: ‘what can one say about the excavations at York? They are possibly the biggest, perhaps the most lavish, and certainly the most imaginative excavations of our generation, where so many ideas are being tried and tested in experience. Yet there is a temptation for archaeologists to pass them by, to be put off by the overt appeal to the general public’. I will return to this subject shortly.
THE RISE OF THE JORVIK VIKING CENTRE
The next time Coppergate was mentioned in detail in the pages of CA was in issue 87 (June 1983), marking the beginning of a new phase for the site, as it evolved into the visitor attraction that most of us now know. CA here makes clear how revolutionary both the funding for, and the design of, the new ‘museum’ was to be – a £250,000 grant from the English Tourist Board (at that time its biggest ever single grant), matched by another £250,000 interest-free loan from a private donor. Even in 2018 terms, this is ‘big’ money; in the early 1980s, before commercial archaeology and before the Heritage Lottery Fund, such a sum was virtually unheard of. And, as CA goes on to report, ‘it is probably fair to say that an important influence on the new exhibition has been America… Peter Addyman has become acquainted first with Colonial Williamsburg, and more recently with Disneyland, and he felt that their techniques of presentation should be applied to archaeology’.
The floods that hit York in 2015 forced Jorvik Viking Centre to close for more than a year (CA 312).
Such an approach was then, and remains, not without its critics: as CA 92 (June 1984) reported, an unnamed curator of a rival establishment commented at the time that ‘the Jorvik Viking Centre is to archaeology what Mills & Boon is to literature’. CA 91 (March 1984) was, however, far more complimentary: ‘I had a preview when it was three-quarters finished and it was already clear that it is going to be a knock-out’. The Selkirks were impressed, so too were the public, and the YAT won two prizes in the winter 1984 British Archaeological Awards. As CA 102 (November 1986) reported, YAT managed feats of ‘public archaeology’ rarely seen before or since, including a scheme that summer in which ‘Co-op cornflake packets contained cut-out cartoon panels hymning the joys of the Jorvik Viking Centre and inviting cornflake eaters to collect the coupons and send up for a Viking York activity pack, or, if they can chomp their way through a large enough quantity of cornflakes, they can send up to York for a giant poster’. If anyone has a surviving example of such a packet (not, please, its 30-year-old contents), activity pack, or poster, do let Current Archaeology know.
After 15 years away, CA 175 (August/September 2001) returned to a newly refurbished centre. As reported there by Andrew Selkirk, ‘the original display was now over ten years old and needed updating… I went along with a heavy heart fearing that the second time round, it could not possibly be better, and might well be worse. But my fears were groundless… It is all very impressive.’ And Andrew has never been the only supporter: in CA 195 (December 2004/ January 2005), Time Team’s own Carenza Lewis was equally vociferous in her praise: ‘I remember it first opening, yet I now find it difficult to imagine an historic Britain without Jorvik – it has made such an impact on the heritage trail’.
But the restoration presented an opportunity to revamp the attraction, which reopened in 2017 (CA 327).
More recently, Jorvik has had problems. As CA 312 (March 2016) reported, the winter of 2015/2016 saw catastrophic floods across York – unusual even by the standards of a city used to such events – that flooded many properties, including Jorvik. But the centre (and, crucially, its team) was not to be overcome for long. Less than a year later, CA 323 (February 2017) reported the opportunities being presented by the flood repairs to revamp the exhibition, with new sights, sounds, and displays funded, in part, by a gloriously tongue-in-cheek fundraising campaign named ‘Campaign Canute’ that showed just how much people around the world continue to love Jorvik: it raised over £1m in donations. CA 327 (June 2017) paid the magazine’s most recent trip to the reopened displays, showing as much enthusiasm as it first did back in June 1984. As that report concludes, ‘the resurrected Jorvik provides a comprehensive and much more intimate view of a thriving commercial settlement and its inhabitants – and, in the future, the museum should be much better placed to hold back the waves than Canute: the redesign also included cutting-edge new flood defences’.
As Andrew Selkrik wrote back in 2001, ‘if you have not been to Jorvik before, go now; if you have been before, go again’. The same advice stands true in 2018 – long may YAT and its work thrive and prosper.
Discover old issues
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 5 July. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI341’