Walk among the Vikings

The unique historical experience of the JORVIK Viking Centre

JORVIK

Photo courtesy of JORVIK Viking Centre
The JORVIK Viking Centre is about learning about everyday Viking life, how they ate, and how they spent their time, including the tools they used and the arts and crafts they developed.

COURTNEY OLSEN
The Norwegian American

Along the banks of the River Ouse in the city center of York in the United Kingdom, stands a tall brick building: the JORVIK Viking Centre. As you walk through its doors, you’ll be greeted by a Viking, welcoming you to visit his home. You’ll then board a specially designed time machine capsule, carrying you back in time through some light turbulence, coming to a brief stop in 866 A.D.—the year the Vikings invaded York. From there you’ll jump forward a few decades to experience the height of Viking era York—or Jorvik, as it was known at the time.

The time capsule will guide you through the city streets of 10th-century York, meticulously recreated to show you what it was like to live in the Viking village. You will meet Old Norse speakers descended from the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons who once dominated the area, new settlers from Ireland, and traders who come from faraway places.

As your time travel comes to an end, you will have the opportunity to explore galleries filled with some of the incredible archaeological finds from 10th-century York: 1,000-year-old artifacts that are some of the rarest from the Viking-era in the world, including earrings, socks, frying pans, and padlocks.

Described as being more of a historical experience rather than a museum, JORVIK immerses visitors in the past, allowing them to experience life as it would have been for the people living in 10th-century York. Most uniquely, however, is the fact that JORVIK was built directly on top of the archaeological site where its artifacts were discovered.

The Coppergate dig
The modern story of JORVIK begins in 1972, when an excavation below a bank revealed nearly 30 feet of archaeological layers, mostly dating back to the Viking era. The layers were moist and peaty, a combination that allowed for the preservation of organic remains. This meant that textiles and timber from houses were preserved, all things that would usually rot away in other archaeological sites. The peaty layers also preserved seeds, plants, animal bones, insect remains, pollen, and human parasite eggs, all of which give a window to the climate, diet, health, and other environmental aspects of Viking era York.

These discoveries launched a major archaeological excavation of the area over the course of five years. Over 40,000 archaeological elements were discovered by the York Archaeological Trust in the Coppergate dig, all important in understanding and reconstructing the 10th-century Viking settlement in York, from the layout and construction of the village to the food the people ate, how they made their living, and what they did for fun.

“Between its capture by the Vikings in 866 A.D. and the Norman Conquest of 1066 A.D., York (or Jorvik), was an important trading hub,” explained Aislinn Dowling, marketing executive at the York Archaeological Trust. “Many well-preserved Viking artifacts were unearthed during the Coppergate dig, which not only reveal important aspects of everyday Viking life, such as how they ate and how they spent their time, but also their expansive trade routes. For example, 23 pieces of silk were found during the dig, which may have originated from Byzantium in the Middle East.”

“What is perhaps unexpected is that despite the Vikings’ fearsome reputation, we didn’t find a single weapon during the dig, but instead signs of Coppergate as a place of work and trade where families settled and thrived for 200 years,” added Dowling. “This was not a military settlement; the Vikings lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons.”

Viking programming

JORVIK

Modern-day Vikings conquer the streets of York in the United Kingdom. The first Viking invasion of York took place in 866 A.D.

Every February, JORVIK hosts a Viking Festival, the largest in all of Europe. Over 40,000 Viking enthusiasts, tourists, and day-trippers flock to York to experience and celebrate York’s Norse heritage. “There’s something for everyone, including kids crafting sessions and ‘Have-a-Go-Sword’ workshops, academic lectures, and our ‘Best Beard’ competition,” said Dowling. “The parade of hundreds of Vikings through the city center is an experience in its own right, and the evening son-et-lumiere sees live combat and pyrotechnics used to tell a different story every year.”

In lieu of a festival this year because of pandemic restrictions, JORVIK instead hosted an online festival, called “That JORVIK Viking Thing,” full to the brim with virtual events for attendees to choose from.

“The festival was based on the concept of the ‘Thing’—a Viking public assembly,” explained Dowling. “It featured hoards of online content including podcasts, videos, livestreamed crafting sessions, lectures from leading academics, and a music event with Einar Selvik. [About] 3.2 million people engaged with That JORVIK Viking Thing across social media—a remarkable achievement—and one which sets the stage for us to continue to develop our digital offering to reach a global audience.”

JORVIK

Fireworks lit the skies above in a celebration of its Viking history. Every February, JORVIK Viking Centre hosts a Viking Festival, the largest in all of Europe.

Outside of adapting the Viking Festival, JORVIK had to make other changes as well. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the United Kingdom last March, the JORVIK Viking Centre and the other JORVIK Group attractions all closed. Usually, school visits and outreach programs are a big part of JORVIK’s programming, but inviting schools to visit the center and sending Vikings to visit classrooms was no longer possible. Over the last year, the outreach program adapted to have virtual visits from Vikings, Medieval Medics, and archaeologists to continue to bring Viking history alive to schoolchildren.

Looking to the future
Despite the challenges of the past year, the JORVIK Viking Centre has a bright future ahead of it. The center is always revolutionizing and improving its experience, and there is hope that it will be a basis for other archaeological ventures to dig further into the deep material history of York.

“JORVIK Viking Centre is owned and operated by York Archaeological Trust, a non-profit charity, so admissions revenue is ploughed back into archaeological research and exploration to help us better understand the past,” explained Dowling. “We are hoping to build a sister attraction, EBORACUM, elsewhere in the city to explore the city’s Roman heritage. Excitingly, the ground conditions on the site are similar to those in Coppergate, so we could potentially unearth remarkably-preserved organic matter from the second century A.D.—from discarded food scraps or human waste to wood and leather—which would give us an incredible insight into the everyday of York’s Roman citizens.”

While international travel remains limited, there are still glimmers of hope to remind us that travel will once again be possible. For any Viking fan, the JORVIK Viking Centre is a must-see. And plans are already being made for a JORVIK Viking Festival to be held in February 2022. In the meantime, if you’re like me and appreciate virtual museum experiences to help get through the 13th month of staying at home, you’ll enjoy the many online experiences JORVIK has to offer, from exploring their online education experiences to reliving February’s That JORVIK Viking Thing through their now on demand recorded events. Whether you are curious about the Vikings or a Viking enthusiast, the JORVIK Viking Centre is sure to capture your imagination.

To learn more about the JORVIK Viking Centre, visit their website at:
www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk

More information about the JORVIK Viking Festival is available at:
jorvikvikingfestival.co.uk

All photos courtesy of the
JORVIK Viking Centre.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Oxford and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2020. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.

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