Today marks the start of the 28th Jorvik Viking festival: a week of Viking-themed activities (well, Viking-lite, since pillaging and rapine is thankfully excluded by Health and Safety), all focused on the Jorvik Viking Centre. Renowned for its interactive display, this celebrated archaeological museum attracts thousands of tourists to York every year. Though I don’t participate in February, I make my own contribution to Jorvik’s queues, since I accompany some of the third-year students in my class on the world of King Alfred (d.899) there, on what threatens to become a kind of regular pilgrimage.
The appeal is easy to explain. The Viking Centre seems to offer so much more than just texts, archaeological reports and seminar discussion (even really lively seminar discussion). Based on the excavations of tenth-century Coppergate in York, Jorvik (named after the Old Norse name for the city) promises to bring the past alive by offering a ride through a reconstructed street, in which you experience the smells of an unsanitised city, meet animated statues, whose faces, we are assured, are modelled on actual excavated skulls, and chat with Vikings in booths hammering out coins on demand – in short, the real thing, or nearly.
But, while my students think they’re just going for a fun day trip out, I like to ask them a trick question on the train: this is a university, after all. The animatrons in the exhibition all speak to the visitors in impeccable Old Norse (expertly voiced, I should add, by specialists in the field). But how do we know what language the people in tenth-century York spoke? Answer: we don’t know, in fact we can’t know – but we can make a good guess. It would in general not have been Old Norse, it would have been a dialect of English. People certainly travelled in the early Middle Ages, and indeed of the few skeletons from York in this period to have been unearthed, one or two individuals apparently came from Scandinavia. But no one has suggested that all the inhabitants of a town whose population at this time was measured in the thousands or tens of thousands had sailed from some distant fjord.
Does this matter? On one level, of course not. You can hardly begrudge Jorvik one or two artistic licenses, or playing up the Viking connection. ‘Jorvik Viking Centre’ has a ring to it that ‘The centre for the archaeology of tenth-century York’ lacks. The place has to make money, and it does an excellent job of stimulating interest in the ‘Dark Ages’ in visitors both old and young; it also provides CV points and meaningful employment for promising young historians and archaeologists who, fully-clad in leathers, cloths and furs, cheerily hail visitors and usher them towards the till. But Jorvik’s marketing pitch isn’t just that it’s fun, it’s that it’s true. And that bothers me a little.
It’s not just that the Viking aspect is somewhat over-played. It’s that these claims to authenticity are what underpin the whole set-up. Jorvik is jammed full of beautifully-made reconstructions, ‘bringing History to life’. But isn’t reconstruction just a polite word for ‘fake’? The discussion in my seminars is often abstract, or focused on headache-inducingly impenetrable sources; and we don’t, as a rule, dress up as Vikings. Quite often we conclude that we just don’t know, and that we’re maybe asking the wrong kind of questions. But this discussion, with all its uncertainty and provisionality, brings us closer to a real knowledge of the past than any Viking experience I know. And that even includes the ‘Viking on the toilet’ scratch-and-sniff postcard available in the gift-shop.
Dr Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield.
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