The dirty lowdown on Viking life styles

21st September 2001 at 01:00
The archaeologists have done a massive digging job in York as Valerie Hall discovers when she steps inside the revamped Jorvik Centre.

Think Vikings and you see fierce, helmeted men plying the oceans in long ships, invading far-flung lands, raping, pillaging and worshipping fierce gods.

Some centres focus on this warmongering. But school groups can also immerse themselves in the daily lives of our Norse ancestors at the Jorvik Centre in York, which recently re-opened after a pound;5 million refit.

As before, time capsules take visitors through the sights, sounds and smells of this town circa 975AD. But now they gain a greater impression of the scale. Jorvik, with its 10,000 souls, was one of the great towns of tenth century northern Europe.

The displays are based on archaeological discoveries around the site in the last 25 years. They are more detailed now, because the archaeologists have sifted through 36,000 layers of domestic waste and dirt.

A large new area has been opened up, allowing dwellings and tradesmen's workshops to be reconstructed on their actual sites. A whiff of sawn bone, for example, heralds a man carving combs from antlers.

Archaeologists found that between 948 and 975 a vast amount of oak timber was used to replace the crude wattle and daub huts with sophisticated two-storey buildings. In the everyday rubbish of the town were socks, shoes, bees, leaves, and broken combs complete with head lice. In the cesspits were strips of old clothes and moss used as toilet paper. There was excrement, too, from which the Viking diet could be analysed.

I descended with a group of nine-year-olds from Northenden County primary in Manchester, through the layers of detritus built up since 975 (Jorvik was five metres deeper than modern York).

Juddering backwards through the centuries we saw how the streets of modern York are the same as those laid out by the Vikings, but look quite different.

The children's commentary is done by Toki, a nine-year-old Viking, who can be spotted playing a board game similar to chess.

People gossiping and going about their business surrounded us, and their animals scratched and fought. At the river bank, a boat had landed some exotic cargo from overseas. In one house, a family prepared an evening meal around the hearth. Round the corner we hit the hurly burly of Coppergate, then as now the city's commercial quarter, where stallholders call out their wares, including leather, wooden bowls and bread.

From Toki the children learned there was no school in his day and children worked hard weaving in poor light.

The children said: "I liked Toki and finding out about his hard life. But he was also like us because he enjoyed playing games and chasing ducks."

Clare Catahan, their teacher, said: "We've been studying the Vikings all term, but I can only describe how Vikings lived up to a point in class. This visit has brought it alive for them."

ContactJorvik Centre, Coppergate, York. Tel: 01904 543403. Email: jorvik@jvcyork.demon.co.ukWeb: www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.ukCost pound;3.75 per child. A visit can be combined with one to the Archaeological Research Centre, St Saviourgate, where children become archaeological detectives, pound;6.50 per child. One adult free per ten children. Similar attractionsVikingar! Largs, Ayrshire. Tel: 01475 689777. Web: www.vikingar.co.uk

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