Jorvik – Reconstructing the Viking Age

Jorvik 2

The Viking settlement at Jorvik, modern day York, is the largest excavated Viking site in England. Jorvik was an important trading centre due to its river links along the Ouse to the Humber estuary and North Sea and also an important political centre, the largest of the of the six fortified Viking boroughs along with Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby and Stamford under the Danelaw.

Jorvik made use of the old Roman city walls and defensive structures left behind when the legions withdrew from Eboracum to defend Rome. It is thought that in this post-Roman, Anglian period the settlement was abandoned but Anglo-Saxon migrants resettled the area in the mid C6th AD. In 627 AD an Anglo-Saxon king, Edwin of Northumbrian, and his ‘people’ were baptised in the first Minster. It became the capital of the Deira kingdom and then of Northumbria and an important religious and commercial centre during the Anglo-Saxon period and was one of only a handful of towns. The population was probably only a couple of thousand at this point. The famous find of the Coppergate Helmet dates to around 750-775 AD and is thought to have belonged to someone of very high status within the Northumbrian royal household. It was carefully deposited upside down in a pit but the owner never returned for it.

The Vikings began raiding Northern England from their Scandinavian homelands in 793 AD and Ivar the Boneless took York in 866 AD with ‘The great Heathen Army’ as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Within ten years Vikings were beginning to settle permanently in England. York would be under Viking control for almost a century until it was reclaimed by Anglo-Saxons in 954 AD. By 1066 AD the population had increased to between 10,000 and 15,000.

Jorvik 1

The range of artefacts found at Jorvik provides an insight into the extent of Viking trading links across Europe and beyond. Finds include silk from the East, Baltic Amber, lava quern stones, pottery and jewellery from the Rhineland, sharpening stones from Norway, cloak pins from Ireland, and even shells from the Red Sea and a coin from Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Local Yorkshire jet has been found in Greenland and may have been produced locally and traded for goods and food stuffs.

Jorvik 4 shoes

The archaeological evidence at Jorvik is especially important due to the particular nature of the soil on the site. At 9 metres belong current street level, the peaty, moist, oxygen-free soil helped to preserve organic material that are usually lost over time which means that the evidence of timber houses, clothing and leather shoes have survived. Further, the soil has also retained seeds, insects, human parasites, pollen and plant fibres which can be analysed to provide information about diet, farming, livestock and the medical health of the community. Thousands of oyster shells were unearthed and these would have been a stable part of the diet, along with fresh water fish and then marine fish as pollution levels in the rivers caused from industrial production killed off the fresh water supplies. They also ate eggs, grains, fruit and vegetables to supplement their diet. We know this due to excavations of cesspits, rubbish heaps and analysis of coprolite – human faeces at Jorvik.

Concentrations of particular types of material within  the remains of Viking Age houses indicate a range of trades being carried out including leather working, antler craving, wood turning and metal working. You can imagine these tradesmen living alongside each other in Coppergate, the street of the cup makers.

Jorvik 3

There is also a wealth of small objects such as combs which were manufactured for trade in Jorvik from antlers and glass beads along with crucibles and chemical deposits from glass production. Jorvik was one of only a few places were the new high-lead content glass was being produced in the C10th. Cobalt glass beads and finger rings also show evidence for high-soda content glass production.

Jorvik 6 beads

Disc broaches and strap ends with high levels of skilled decoration along with metal deposits, off-cuts and ores show that metal workers were using tin from Cornwall, copper from the Pennines, silver and gold from Europe and Ireland and ingot moulds from Scandinavia in their trade. The waste products from these objects indicate that they were produced on site rather than just traded there.

Jorvik 7 disc broaches

Other small objects like ‘buzz bones’ have been found which give a real insight into the community. these were rather irritating toys for children that consisted of a small animal bone with a hole bored through the middle. Sinew was threaded through and twisted so that it made a buzzing noise. There is also evidence of dice and board games being played in Jorvik to help pass the long, dark winter nights.

Archaeologists have even been able to reconstruct the faces of some of the Viking Age residents of Jorvik from their skeletal remains. One of the most striking aspects of visiting the Jorvik Viking centre is the extraordinary level of detail that has gone into the reconstruction of Coppergate, down to how new the wood looks on one house to the next based on tree ring dating of the timbers of the buildings. The models are based on actual reconstructions and the placement of the houses is also completely accurate based on finds on the site.

Jorvik 8 facial recon

The mixture of Christian and Pagan objects found on the site would also suggest a flexible relationship between the two religions during this period. As early as 601 AD, Pope Gregory had written to Augustine and urged him “…to send to the city of Eboracum a bishop”, to found a new church in “..the land of the Angles”. So, there is evidence that even before Edwin’s conversion, York was seen as an important centre of Christianity in the north of the British Isles. Edwin ordered a church to be built where he had been baptised.

Though under threat from the Mercians from time to time, York grew in importance as a centre of Christianity and learning through the seventh and eighth centuries. The Northumbrian Wilfrid was Bishop of York from 665-709 AD. Alcuin (c.737-804 AD) was educated at the cathedral school, became master there, and later became an important scholar and respected adviser at the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Vikings were trading across Europe and meeting ‘cross men’ in their travels. There is even Viking graffiti in Hagia Sofia in Constantinople which was the capital of Byzantine christianity in the East.

In 735 AD York was made the seat of an archbishopric. By the time the Vikings took York in 866 AD they were probably tolerant of the Christian religion even if they continued to believe in Odin and the other Norse gods as well. They seem to have found it politically wise to maintain friendly links with successive Archbishops of York, one of them, Osketel (AD 956), even becoming Archbishop himself.

It is known that a cathedral church was destroyed by fire in 1069 and 10th/11th century graves have been found which show that it is likely that there was an important Viking Age church close to where the present Minster is built. Earl Sigvard (died 1055) had a church built, dedicated to Saint Olav just outside the west wall of the old Roman fort. Another important pre-Norman minster church (called either Holy Trinity or Christ Church) is known from the Domesday Book to have existed on the south-west side of the River Ouse.

From this we can imagine a mixture of religious belief and practice in Viking Age Jorvik and generally a tolerance of communities with a range of belief during this period. Toleration was also good for trade and economic growth which benefitted all.

viking inscription

This Viking Age runic inscription was found in St Mary’s Castlegate and along with other evidence such as tombstones and coinage show evidence of a mixing of the cultures in Jorvik. Churches were founded during the Viking period. Viking kings like Guthram were buried in churches and coins from the mint at York have Thor hammer designs and St Peter’s Pence on the same coin.

So, the Jorvik site enables us to build a very vivid picture of life in a C10th Viking community, from everyday trades and living conditions to the health and even spiritual beliefs of the community. Archaeology allows us to really imagine their world and bring it to life through the physical remains that are unearthed. Used in conjunction with written accounts we are able to build a detailed picture of life for the residents of Jorvik and to spark new interest in this crucial period of our history in the next generation.










One Response to “Jorvik – Reconstructing the Viking Age”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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