By Jane Hunt, Catapult PR
‘Not every cloud which darkens the day brings rain’. This Viking saying from the Heitharvega Saga is certainly one that resonates when visiting today’s JORVIK Viking Centre in York, reopened in April last year after devastating festive-season floods caused the visitor attraction’s closure in late 2015.
Using the words ‘visitor attraction’ seems somewhat unfair, however. JORVIK is, and always has been, much more than that, being a living mouthpiece for archaeological finds that were discovered right on its doorstep and ‘neath its own foundations. Those finds have been displayed in various ways since it first opened its doors in April 1984, but each methodology used, whether based on time-travel or holograms, has been compelling, fascinating and full of ‘I can’t believe that’ moments.
JORVIK exists precisely because of rain and climatic and geographical conditions that made the ground beneath the Yorkshire city beautifully peaty and moist – perfect, in fact, for preserving the thousands of objects, bones, textile fragments, leather goods, jewellery items, timber buildings, seeds, insect remains, plants and human parasite eggs that are the foundation of JORVIK’s superb storytelling. Serendipity indeed.
It’s hard enough to make heritage appeal to all, let alone archaeology. Mud, dirt and hours spent sifting and scraping for no end product can put pay to that, but JORVIK overcomes our natural inclination to shut the door on history by bringing the Vikings face to face with us in such a way that none of our senses can totally block out their message.
Of course, having an exhibit known as the ‘Lloyds Bank turd’ certainly helps, appealing, one suspects, to every 10-year-old boy who ever enters the building or anyone with an anti-banker bias! But there’s more to this than sheer sensationalism, as it was in the foundation of the Lloyds Bank building in York that the penny – or perhaps pieces of animal bone – dropped and some bright spark realised that this building and others around it were actually built on nine rich metres of archaeological material from the Viking Age.
When the River Foss burst its banks in December 2015, all of the amazing finds painstakingly discovered by the York Archaeological Trust were placed in jeopardy and it was only the quick-thinking of the JORVIK team and their ability to turn their hand to anything – even building a temporary flood barrier – that afforded them the time in which to move exhibits that has enabled this heritage gem to thrill today.
OK, so it’s a little frustrating not to have taken the fast-track option available through pre-booking and see others swan to the front of the queue, whilst hearing the woman behind telling her daughter “we are practising patience today, darling”, but at least as you shift your weight from hip to hip and tap your toes, you can leave someone in the queue whilst you grab yourself a coffee (or even what seems, at first, to be a rather strange menu option of wild boar burgers) from the fast-food stalls alongside you. You will also be entertained by costumed Vikings blowing animal horns and generally looking fascinating and, if you are really lucky, encounter the fast-witted Snotra, with whom, if you are equally witty and on-the-ball, you can have some great banter.
Once you get inside, you’ll find yourself staring at a huge glass floor that gives you the illusion that you’ll fall straight through it, right into the heart of Coppergate in AD975, or there or thereabouts, if you dare to step on it. You won’t. Instead, you’ll be walking directly above timbers from buildings that stood here 2000 years ago and even, if you look carefully, see marks on the wood made by the tools employed by Viking builders.
Whilst doing this, you may be lucky enough to hear the tale of the team who first excavated the site, which included the inmates of an open prison. Their skills came in super-handy when the chief archaeologist forgot his keys to the site one day and was hugely frustrated at losing time at the coalface. The story goes that the prisoners huddled around the gate and quickly picked the lock. Serendipity again!
So, what the 2015 floods allowed JORVIK to do was another stint of reimagining, which has happened throughout the years since 1984. In this latest incarnation, once you have progressed from thinking you will fall through the glass floor à la Alice down the rabbit-hole, you will board a ride, taking a seat within a time-capsule that appeared to me to have a rear-end shaped as a Viking boat, but there’s so much happening that perhaps the imagination just ran riot there.
Even if you’re not a particularly creative sort, you won’t be able to escape the rather strange pongs that invade your nostrils as you are transported through 10th century Coppergate. My companion did begin to turn a rather peculiar shade of green as a result, but it all adds to the ambience, as you simultaneously hear the various animatronic characters speaking in Old Norse, arguing about what to have for dinner and chivvying their slave, as one does.
There’s the tattooed ‘Hunter’, who proves that body art was just as big a deal in AD975 as it is now, the Arabian trader who highlights that the Vikings were not averse to doing a bit of business around Baghdad and along the silk routes, and the blacksmith, sharpening knives and speaking in an Old English that suggests he’d lived in Jorvik (the Viking name for York) all of his life. You’ll be fascinated to learn that every home had a loom – and that many had sheep-lice too – before you check out the fabrics that would have been dyed with madders, greenwood and woad and left drying on the fence.
It’s hard not to glance worryingly at your own hands, particularly if you’ve done the supposed ‘Viking test’ on your veins (or is it arteries?), to see if you’ve got the same Dupuytren’s Contracture as the leatherworker – this being a genetic disorder the Vikings spread around the globe, which resulted in a clawed hand. At least this gives you good reason not to look at the ever-so-slightly creepy woman trying to cross the road – this female 50-something being based on an actual excavated skeleton, don’t you know.
That leads me to the fishermen, one of whom has a face modelled from an actual Viking skull and piercing eyes that seem to want to convey the price of the eels, perch, salmon, trout and, above all, herring on offer that day.
Finally, we encounter the Storyteller, recounting a Viking poem amidst serpents and whirling stars that conjure up an impression of the great Norse saga tellers. Undoubtedly, as you then tour the exhibition area of JORVIK, you will understand how clever the creators have been when it comes to such storytelling, lighting up the imagination before the stroll around glass cabinets and 1000-year-old displays begins and well ahead of encountering the marvellous Lloyds Bank turd, or should we refer to it as fossilised Viking poo?
Whilst it must have been soul-destroying to witness the 2015 flood-damage, particularly as a £1m refurbishment had only taken place in 2010, the resulting evolution underpinning ‘Return of the Vikings’ has perhaps demonstrated just why ‘not every cloud which darkens the day brings rain’. A visit to JORVIK Viking Centre in Coppergate, or Koppari-Gata (street of the cup-makers) as the Vikings knew it, is well worth it, if you are in and around York and you might even learn the reason for the wild-boar burgers. If you don’t, just look up the translation of Jorvik from Viking into modern-day English! If you visit, you certainly won’t be up the creek without a paddle; the visitor journey is too well thought-out for that.
Entrance to JORVIK Viking Centre costs £11 for an adult, £8 for a child and £9 for concessions. Family tickets cost £32 for four and £35 for five. You can also take advantage of a Pastport that will allow you to visit not just JORVIK but its four sister attractions in the city besides (Barley Hall, DIG, the Henry VII experience and Richard III experience), over a 12-month period, for £9 more for adults and £5 extra for children. If those ‘attractions’ are as engaging as JORVIK Viking Centre, it could be an absolute steal. More information is at www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
By Jane Hunt, Catapult PR