Last year marked an exciting anniversary for those interested in the Viking Age – the millenary of Cnut’s conquest of England (see CA 321) – but it also marked the start of a challenging journey for the Jorvik Viking Centre which, like the Danish king in popular legend, had been inundated by encroaching waters – in Jorvik’s case, from the River Fosse. The York museum was not sunk, however. Following a far-reaching fundraising drive (‘Campaign Cnut’) and an ambitious programme of restoration and redevelopment, Jorvik has just reopened its doors to the public.
Inside, visitors will find an absorbing mixture of old and new. On entering, you are still greeted by an array of early medieval timbers and other finds preserved under a glass floor, but the space has been reinterpreted with a new focus on excavation and conservation techniques. This room also houses video screens telling the story of the 1976-1981 Coppergate excavations that revolutionised our understanding of Viking York, and sharing memories from some of the original diggers – including a now-married couple who met on site, and an anecdote about how a young local policeman visiting the dig swooned on seeing an excavated skeleton, thinking he had encountered his first murder victim. It is an engaging way to introduce the site and put its spectacular finds, and how they were discovered, in context.
Having heard about how its remains were unearthed, you next explore Coppergate itself; the ever-popular ride through reconstructed Viking streets (now lasting three minutes longer) has also been lovingly restored, and is as atmospherically pungent as ever, with many familiar faces still present. The world it recreates boasts a wealth of new details, however, all drawing on real discoveries. The result is impressively immersive: the old blue support pillars have been transformed into trees, while every plant, patch of moss, and animal present comes from excavated environmental evidence. The cars in which you travel through the settlement have also been updated, with new audio guides reflecting recent advances in research, and while the animatronic inhabitants still chatter away in Old Norse and other early medieval languages, their population has been tweaked to reflect the centre’s new focus on previously neglected aspects of the Coppergate community. The extra characters include a slave trader, a Syrian merchant, a Christian priest, and a family playing the Viking board game hnefatafl.
This broader view is very effective, and is also reflected in the artefact galleries that lie beyond the ride, which have been redesigned as a single open-plan space called ‘Discover Coppergate’. It is a much airier and more spacious area than before, with themed cases lining the walls, and glass pillars in the centre allowing 360° views of ‘star’ finds that include an ornate, intact padlock and key, and the only Viking Age sock known from England. There are also hands-on interactive elements: a seated show-and-tell artefact handling area, and touchscreens allowing for some of the museum’s themes to be explored in greater depth.
One of the latter plays short clips of musicians playing reconstructed Viking instruments, while another, located beside the skeleton of the ‘Coppergate Woman’, has been created in collaboration with York hospitals. (She was a mature adult, whose bones clearly show the congenital hip dysplasia that would have made walking difficult and painful for her; she also features as a character in the ride, leaning heavily on a crutch.) Detailed CT scans of her remains have been turned into a 3D model that visitors can zoom, rotate, and use to look at both the outer surface of the bones and its microstructure. You can also tap the screen to bring up more information on details like the isotope analysis that suggests Coppergate Woman may have been a Scandinavian immigrant.
Women feature strongly in the new-look gallery (two out of three of the displayed skeletons are female), which aims to move away from the warrior stereotype of Vikings to better reflect what the c.40,000 artefacts recovered during the Coppergate excavations actually show. No weapons were found on the site (the only ones now shown in the gallery are a small number of examples on temporary loan from the British Museum, and martial matters have otherwise been largely left aside), but the archaeologists did find remarkable evidence for domestic activities, commerce, and a diverse range of crafts.
For this reason, visitors familiar with the previous incarnation of the centre may notice a distinct change of emphasis in the final part of the gallery. Where once this space held an arsenal of fearsome weapons and human remains bearing grisly battle injuries – none of which were from York – we now find the rare coffined remains of a young woman discovered on Swinegate (CA 311), and cases holding complementary displays of loaned objects. Currently, these contain items from the British Museum representing trade with the Baltic and Gotland regions, and a series of Viking coins on which Cnut makes an appearance. Here, silver pennies are used to explore how the king changed his official depiction throughout his reign to meet the propagandist needs of the moment – from legitimate, self-consciously Anglo-Saxon monarch when Cnut was a newly victorious conqueror; to warrior king in pointed helmet in the middle of his reign, when he was facing down rebellions at home and abroad, and striving to conquer Norway; to Roman emperor-style magnificence, dating from the later years of Cnut’s reign, when his imperial position was secure.
Taken altogether, 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 Cnut: the redesign also included cutting-edge new flood defences.
The Jorvik Viking Centre is open 10am-5pm daily April-October, and 10am-4pm daily November-March. For further details, see www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
This review was published in CA 327.
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