Days of Yore in York

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

YORK, England — After a morning spent booking lodging for the next week, we took the opportunity to explore a couple of York museums.  In 866, the Vikings captured the city of York, renamed it Jorvik (yore-vik), and dominated the area for the next 100 years. Though this was a well known chapter of Yorkshire history, little evidence remained of how the Vikings lived their everyday lives in Jorvik more than 1,000 years ago— until one day in 1972 when a contractor stumbled upon some relics while working on a bank building. From 1976 to 1981, a team of archaeologists and historians unearthed and cataloged and studied a treasure trove of Viking artifacts which had been lying just below the street for a millennium.

The archaeological layers were more than 30 feet deep and because they were moist and peaty, organic materials were extremely well preserved including textiles, timber buildings, leather shoes and other artifacts that rot away to dust on most archaeological sites.  The dig area was extended to include more than 10,000 square feet, and massive amounts of artifacts were extracted, including 5 tons of animal bones (obviously not a vegetarian society), timbers used as building materials, 250,000 pieces of pottery, and thousands of other objects. 

The wealth of household items and other relics have helped to paint an extraordinarily detailed picture of how the Vikings lived during the period of their occupation.  From this amazing find, analysis has revealed the construction and layout of the buildings where residents lived and worked, as well as what they ate and wore, how they made a living, and even how they spent their leisure time.

L to R:  Padlock, Brooches, Combs, Leather Shoes (Photos ©York Archaeological Trust)
Developed to showcase this find, the Jorvik Viking Centre has attempted to recreate life in the Viking city of Jorvik during the period when years were still counted in three digits.  Guides and other employees are dressed in Viking era costumes, and small cross section of village has been recreated using animatronics with light and sound adding authenticity.  "You are in Jorvik!" the center's brochure declares, and they use every one of your senses to make you feel that you are.  Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the exhibit was the recreation of the putrid odors from the Viking period.  That detail we could have happily gone without but it certainly did contribute to the historical ambiance.  (In an excellent book The Year 1000, which we read several years ago, the authors also described the unpleasant nature of the dominant smells in the lives of people of this era.)

York Castle Museum
After we escaped those noxious smells, we sucked our lungs full of fresh air as we walked over to the York Castle Museum, an institution renowned for its exhibits of everyday life. Much like the Viking center, the museum depicts how the people of York lived in various time periods.  The most extensive of these is an elaborate recreation of a Victorian street called Kirkgate.  The street name was inspired by the museum's founder, Dr. John Kirk, a Yorkshire country doctor who collected everyday items and developed the museum as a way to share these objects with future generations.

Kirkgate, Victorian Street scene
Like the Jorvik center, the Victorian street exhibit includes sounds and lighting to lend an authentic air.  We were relieved that scents were not part of the plan here.  Real shop fittings and stock from the era demonstrate the kinds of products and services available in the Victorian period.

Our day of history in York was topped off by a performance by York Theatre Royal of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a powerful drama about witchcraft trials in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts.  The production was a performance in the round with audience on both sides of the stage.

York Theatre Royal's The Crucible  (Photo ©York Theatre Royal)

With a talented cast of experienced actors and outstanding contributions behind the scenes, this was an outstanding production and a fitting end to this day in history.