27 January 2015

Making Tracks-York Vikings

Making Tracks: A weekend in York - Richard III, the Jorvik Viking Centre and taking part in an archaeological dig

By Blackmore Vale Magazine  |  Posted: January 20, 2015
By travel blogger Lottie Hayton

 The Jorvik Viking Centre, in York 
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York”. The opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III link the city of York inextricably to the infamous King. Certainly the city is not best pleased at the loss of their ‘son’, Richard III’s, remains to their rival Leicester..

The more cynical might suppose that the money that could be made by Richard’s presence was the sole driver in York’s campaign to house the King. Yet, the city’s claim on Richard has historical grounds.

Richard was well regarded in York during his brother Edward IV’s reign as he spent time in the North as leader of the Council of the North. His father was the Duke of York. Richard held a grand ceremony at York Minster after his coronation and sources suggest Richard showed preference for the clergy of the Minster.

Indeed some argue that his time in the North made him likely to give preferential treatment to the North, sometimes to the detriment of his relations with southern nobles. Thus, perhaps York’s disappointment at their loss of a High Court case to house Richard’s remains stems simply from their belief that as Richard III was of the House of York, he should be buried in York.
Still there is plenty for Ricardians, or simply those wishing to find out more about Richard III to see in York, despite the absence of the King. The Minster is fascinating to visit and the Richard III museum is interesting if not a little ‘touristy’ and does provide an interesting history of Richard’s life and times.

However, Richard is not the only attraction. York has a rich history and a great deal of pre-Norman history has survived in York compared to elsewhere in Britain. This is unsurprising since York, or ‘Jorvik’, was the Viking Capital from the time of its capture by Viking raiders in 866.
The Jorvik Viking Centre is a reminder that though we in the South, and particularly in the West Country, have been fed an image of King Alfred as a hero for his protection of Britain from the Vikings, in the Viking North, Alfred was simply a King of another region; Wessex. The Jorvik centre brings history to life, part of the relatively recent phenomenon of ‘living history’.
Historians and students with an interest in Viking history and archaeology are all around the centre dressed as Vikings to answer questions on Jorvik. Not as cheesy as it sounds, the “Vikings’” enthusiasm is somewhat infectious, one of them excitedly explaining how he made his ‘historically accurate Viking costume himself’.

The centre is impressive in the way that those who run it constantly change the layout of the model of Coppergate, the area of Jorvik that the centre attempts to recreate, in order to keep up to date with the latest archaeological discoveries. I got the sense that in York they are proud of their history and archaeology and of the way in which they accurately represent it whilst still making it accessible to tourists.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Richard discovery sparked an increased interest in archaeology. It is a little rare to find the lost remains of a King in the first place one digs, even if a member of the Richard III society was certain of the discovery due to the letter R being painted-in modern spray paint on the car parks surface.

This is not, however an attempt to dissuade those who are at this moment hurriedly grabbing trowels and spades. Indeed, they are not alone; I too had my interest piqued by Richard’s discovery and since York is an area so rich with history and historical artefacts, whilst in York, I joined a training ‘Archaeology Live’ dig with York Archaeological Trust on a site at All Saints Church.

As the part of history that can be seen and touched, archaeology offers a different perspective on history. In a weekend the dig found roman tiles and medieval pottery, dateable by the colour of the enamel. Of less historic value in the present day, we also found chicken bones from the lunch of the builders of this century who had previously built on the site.

Other animal bones could inform us of the diet of people of the past and whilst there we started to see the outlines of unmarked graves that had been placed there in the absence of any room in the graveyard. We also used modern surveying technology to draw plans of each level of the dig and the objects found.

Some aspects were more technical than I expected. Archaeology is, in many ways, the meeting of a science and humanity and it felt as though, however minute the piece of tile, ceramic, or bone that was found and then sent off to be analysed, all of those at the dig were part of the process of historical analysis and discovery in which historians and archaeologists take part.

In much the same way as Richard III’s discovery, the bones of humans, animals, tools and other items, however commonly found, bring about wider understanding and debate about the past. For instance, the archaeological discovery that Richard did indeed have scoliosis, a fact nevertheless devastating to those Ricardians who have seen him as a great King whose image was sullied by Shakespeare, is a discovery that poses new questions to the historian.

We must question the extent to which Henry VII, his successor, gave an accurate portrayal of Richard. Essentially: if Henry told the truth about the hunchback then was he telling the truth about Richard’s murder of his nephews, the Princes in the tower?

We do not yet know but the collaboration of modern science, archaeology and history may answer this historical conundrum. Richard III’s discovery, although on a grander scale, was a similar process to the finding and then sending off for analysis of the shards of pottery and bone found on smaller archaeological digs.

Both illustrate the extent to which the modern trend for interdisciplinary co-operation is leading towards a more rigorous study of history and promises to enliven historical study. However, there is a fear that fewer students than ever before are choosing to study archaeology at University.

Interdisciplinary study is not possible if one of those disciplines is losing recruits. Richard, ever a controversial King, has provided DNA which scientific testing has suggested proves that there may be one, or more than one break in the line of succession of the monarchy.

This demonstrates the multiplicity of questions that archaeology and science can raise and which history seeks to answer. Perhaps in order to keep alive the vital discipline of archaeology, historians must be fully aware and appreciative not just of their own discipline but of those disciplines that feed and help them. I felt in York, at least, they had succeeded in recognising the importance of this relationship.

No comments: