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Living North’s Christmas Fairs
Jorvik Viking Centre
Places to go
November 2016
Reading time 5 minutes

Jorvik Viking Centre was hit hard by last December’s floods – water damaged the whole building, and everything had to be stripped out. Now it’s on the way to recovery, but it’s depending on the general public to help bring it back to its former glory

The lull between Christmas and New Year is usually a time for working your way steadily through the entirety of Netflix and gorging yourself on selection boxes. Last year, however, wasn’t the most restful for Sarah Maltby. Storm Eva brought torrents of rain, and in York 500 homes were flooded when the Ouse burst its banks. As Director of Attractions at York Archaeological Trust, Sarah was one of the first on the scene when Jorvik started to flood on 27 December.

‘We were open as usual, and then water started coming in through our back door,’ she says. ‘So we had to get everybody out. As the rain got steadier and steadier we actually stopped it coming in for about eight hours by putting a door up at our back entrance and bitumening it in, which gave us eight hours to get all the objects and artefacts out. But then, overnight, it came up through the floors, and by the morning we were about half a metre to a metre under throughout the whole of the basement.’

In little more than 12 hours, the entire exhibition was ruined. ‘A lot of the material that we use is wood and plaster, so once that was underwater it was destroyed,’ Sarah says. Over the last four months of the clean-up operation, the whole place has been stripped out, everything cleaned and started again, from the scenery and artefacts right down to the insulation lagging around the air conditioning ducts. Things have been a bit bleak, to say the least.

They’re looking up now, though. The rebuilding of the main ride is underway, and while the space will be fundamentally the same as before because the experience is based on the original Viking foundations, there will be new perspectives and narratives added to the exhibition based on new archaeological work since Jorvik’s last big revamp in 2000. ‘We’ve got the overall design and the new concepts which we’ll be building into the new version of Jorvik. It won’t be the same as before as we intend to incorporate a lot of the new research and some new designs,’ Sarah says.

‘One of the main new things is the work we’ve been doing on our human skeleton remains – we have probably the UK’s largest collection of human remains that have been excavated from one townscape, so over the last few years we’ve been doing quite a lot of work on those,’ she explains. Advances in DNA and isotopic analysis have given historians the ability to work out where people spent their childhood, and to build up a picture of where the citizens of York came from. One skeleton from a lost cemetery which was rediscovered in the 1980s was particularly revealing.

‘We now think that person had African ancestry. One of the big stories that we’re talking about is that it wasn’t just the Scandinavians, it wasn’t just the Danish or Norwegians coming in; it was this wider population,’ Sarah says. ‘We know, for example, that there was a big slave trade coming out of Dublin, and we were on that trade route, therefore we know to tell that story as well.’

The new Jorvik, Sarah says, will look to explore the cosmopolitan nature of Viking York: ‘The population was very diverse at that point; it wasn’t all speaking the same language, all looking the same, because of trade and because of settlers from other countries.’

The way that they tell the stories is going to change too, with lots of interactive tech to come. As Sarah points out: ‘You can only put so much into the centre – it’s not huge, you can only give people so many words and so much text as they’re going round.’ That means a long- term project will be to put information and research in a vast online archive, giving people the means to dig as deep as they want.

‘We have a limited amount of people who come through Jorvik – although we have 400,000 a year, and we’re hoping to get more than that in this new version – we’d like to open it up even wider and give people access virtually,’ Sarah explains. ‘If people do want to investigate more, one of the ways to do it is through digital media and the internet and to create this digital world where people can investigate down to the minutest detail.’

As exciting as all this is, it costs a fair wedge of cash (or pennigs, if you fancy getting into the Old English spirit of the thing) to make it happen. The whole refit will cost £1.5 million, and two thirds of that has already been raised from the insurance money and various funds and charities. The remaining £500,000 is where the public come in. So far, £28,000 has come in from Jorvik’s Campaign Canute, which has the backing of historian Dan Snow, Horrible Histories author Terry Deary and human foghorn Brian Blessed, and which works a lot like Kickstarter: you donate, you get a reward befitting your generosity, you bask in the rosy karmic glow. The name’s apt; aside from this year being the 1,000th anniversary of King Canute’s accession to the throne, he was the king most famous for sitting in his throne, trying to turn back the tide.

The rewards are varied. Chuck in a couple of quid, and you can take ownership of a piece of straw in a thatched roof on the Viking street. If you’re feeling a bit more generous, you can sponsor props, animals, a seat on the ride capsule or, if you’re so minded, a smell of the day. If you’ve got £10,000 to throw at a charitable cause which also doubles as a vanity project, you can get your own voice installed as that of a Viking on the street.

Most excitingly, everyone who donates to Campaign Canute will be entered into the Loki Lottery, the winner of which will be immortalised as a statue in the Jorvik ride. Imagine: future generations of enthralled history-lovers, staring at your big old Viking noggin as you haggle over a pig for eternity. Ozymandias could only have dreamed of such an enduring legacy.
This is the biggest challenge which Jorvik has faced since it opened in 1984, but, as Sarah outlines the renovation plans, it’s clear that it’s the biggest opportunity they’ve ever had to bring the Vikings into the 21st century.

For more info on Campaign Canute, go to www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk

‘Overnight, it came up through the floors, and by the morning we were about half a metre to a metre under throughout the whole of the basement’

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