Richard Hall, who died of cancer on September 13 aged 62, led excavations in York that showed that the popular image of the Vikings as Scandinavian thugs intent on rape and pillage was misplaced.
5:58PM BST 12 Oct 2011
His research revealed another, less familiar image of the Vikings as citizens, craft workers, artists, traders and homemakers.
Hall’s interest in the Vikings was sparked during history lessons at school when he found that, while much was known about England’s Norman invaders, very little was known about the Vikings. “Others were interested in the Dark Ages or Greece, but I realised the British Isles had their very own dark ages,” he recalled.
The fearsome stereotype came from the writings of monks who found themselves literally on the sharp end of Viking attacks. Their monasteries were targeted as they contained much portable wealth, and the monks could be forced into slavery. As a result, Hall explained, “horror stories swept over Europe describing [the Vikings] as a revolting bunch of pagans coming from the North”.
When an invasion force led by Ivar the Boneless arrived in York in 866, the old Roman settlement of Eboracum was crumbling. The outline of the Roman fortress remained, but other buildings were long gone. The Saxons had renamed it Eoforwic, but had not altered things much.
The Vikings changed the name of the city to the more Danish “Jorvik” and established a thriving community based on agriculture and trade, leaving a legacy of street names — the suffix “gate” that attaches to many York streets (the Viking “gata” means “street”). By 1066 York was much bigger in terms of size, status and population than it had ever been.
Hall’s involvement in investigating Jorvik began in the 1970s, when approval was given for the demolition of a sweet factory in Coppergate (the “cup maker’s street”) to make way for a new shopping centre. In 1976 he was appointed director of excavations at the 1,000 square metre site before development got under way.
There he unearthed remains of 10th-century closely-packed wood and wattle buildings, set gable end on to the street and surrounded by moist, spongy layers of earth providing anoxic (oxygen-free) conditions similar to those of a peat bog.
In addition to jewellery, bone and antler carvings, metalwork and coins, the damp conditions had helped to preserve everyday items such as wood, leather, cloth, insects, cesspools and even a Viking latrine and its contents. The 1,000-year-old smells, Hall recalled, “hit us at full blast”. In addition there were luxury goods from as far afield as Byzantium and the Arabian gulf, side by side with goods from around the British Isles and northern Europe.
“Archaeology has shown that these people took over by the sword initially,” Hall explained, “but most settled, adapted, indulged in trade and soon became part of the local communities of farmers and fisherfolk.”
The excavations lasted five years and generated enormous local and international interest. Unusually for that time, he saw it as an important part of his job to involve the public in the project, and he provided viewing points around the site from where the work could be seen as it progressed.
The huge range of discoveries prompted an entrepreneur, Ian Skipper, to suggest to the York Archaeological Trust, for which Hall worked, that the excavation should be turned into a permanent exhibition below the planned shopping centre. Luckily the developers were happy with the idea, and the Jorvik Viking Centre, which Hall helped to develop, opened in 1984.
The centre went on to become one of the most successful archaeological exhibitions in the world. Visitors travel in a “time car” monorail that takes them past various Viking scenes (many of them — such as the butcher, fishmonger and latrine — with appropriate smells). To date, nearly 17 million people have visited the attraction.
Richard Andrew Hall was born at Ilford, Essex, on May 17 1949. His father’s job in the linen industry took the family to Belfast, where Richard was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He read Archaeology at Queen’s University, Belfast, graduating in 1971. His dissertation, in which he updated the catalogue of Viking Age material for Ireland, marked the beginning of a lifelong interest. Later on, in the 1980s, he took a doctorate at Southampton University with a thesis on the towns of the English Danelaw.
Hall began his career in archaeology excavating several sites in Dublin and Derby, and also at Mount Grace, the Carthusian priory near Northallerton, Yorkshire.
Moving to York, he joined York Archaeological Trust in 1974 as excavations supervisor, eventually holding the position of director of archaeology and deputy director of the trust. He also held a post as lecturer in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Leeds.
Hall’s expertise led him to advise numerous international excavations, especially of Viking sites in Scandinavia, among them a major dig at the Viking port of Kaupang, Norway. In 2001 archaeologists revealed evidence that the Vikings had abandoned the area in the mid-9th century, raising the possibility that York had been settled by Vikings from the Kaupang area.
Hall was a trustee of the Foundation for the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage and served on the council of the Society of Antiquaries of London, the executive board of the Council for British Archaeology Executive and the council of the Institute for Archaeologists, of which he served as chairman from 1987 to 1989. He was also president of the Society for Medieval Archaeology and of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.
Besides Viking archaeology, Hall was active in the conservation and analysis of church fabric and oversaw excavations of what is thought to be the oldest complete Saxon crypt in England, uncovered during work on Ripon cathedral. In 2005 he led studies on the Ripon Charter Horn, a steer’s horn carved into a ceremonial musical instrument thought to have been given to the city in AD886 by Alfred the Great. Among other things he discovered that the horn had been filed down in what musical experts believe was an attempt to improve its tone and resonance.
During the 1980s Hall and his co-workers published a series of reports on the Coppergate excavations, and Hall also wrote a number of books about the Vikings and their world. In Exploring the World of the Vikings (2007) he investigated Viking culture from its origins in Scandinavia during the first millennium AD, through the period of raiding, trading and settling, to the last surviving settlements in 15th-century Greenland.
Hall’s first marriage to Linda Tollerton was dissolved. In 1991 he married a ceramics expert, Ailsa Mainman, who survives him with their two sons.
Richard Hall, born May 17 1949, died September 13 2011