Education and entertainment have come together in the ancient city of York to give a unique view of a past age. Visitors to the Yorvik Viking Center go below the modern streets of York into a Viking street of 1,000 years ago - reconstructed in its entirety on the site of the original. Furthermore, everything in the re-created street is based, not on imagination, but on evidence found in excavations on this site and others in Britain and Scandinavia.
``People are being entertained primarily, but they are also learning about our history - learning to appreciate it more,'' says Juliana Delaney of the York Archaeological Trust.
Viking settlers first raided Britain in AD 793. They had a major influence on the country until the Norman Conquest of 1066. They expanded many important settlements, including Yorvik (later called York), which became England's second largest city. The influence of the Vikings is still apparent in the names of many streets here.
The Yorvik excavation has been very significant. Evidence from the dig on the Coppergate site, where the Viking Center now stands, shows that the Vikings were not the barbarians of the popular stereotype. ``The old English image of the Vikings as simply bloodthirsty bands of pillagers vanished with these finds,'' says Richard Hall, one of the archaeologists involved.
Originally funded by a trust that has Prince Charles as its patron, the Yorvik Center was opened in April 1984, from the 2.6 million (now about $4.1 million) raised.
The visitor takes his journey back in time in a fair-ground-style ``time-car'' that actually moves backward! It passes life-sized models representing all generations, from present-day right back to the 10th century, to symbolize just how long ago that is.
The car turns around, and visitors are treated to their first view of the Vikings' Coppergate Street - a narrow thoroughfare lined with wooden buildings, each covered by a huge thatched roof. After lying dormant for 1,000 years, it has been reproduced down to the finest detail.
Lifelike display models portray Viking men and women hard at work in their shops or chatting in the street, while dogs and cats play nearby. The time-car moves slowly down the street and past the various shops - Thorfast the Bone Carver, Lothin's Wood Stall, Snarri the Jewelers, Svein's Leather Shop, and the Coopers of Coppergate. And visitors are offered a closer look at what Viking family life was actually like. In their homes everything revolved around the hearth; spinning, weaving, eating, sleeping, and storytelling all took place there.
Yorvik was a busy port linked to the North Sea by the Rivers Ouse and Humber. In the display, men are portrayed preparing their longboat for a journey.
Not only does Coppergate look as it might have 1,000 years ago, but the sounds and smells of Yorvik have been recreated to complete this journey back in time. ``We wanted to utilize all the senses,'' says Juliana Delaney, ``to give a true picture, a sense of walking through an actual street.'' Visitors experience the smells of the market - leather curing, cooking, apples, and fish. But be prepared - even the smells of Viking latrines have been re-created to make the whole journey as lifelike as possible! And there are the noises, too, of a busy market. It is unlikely one could get closer to the past without being transported by a real time machine.
As the car rounds a corner, visitors are suddenly thrust back to the 20th century - into an accurate reconstruction of the archaeological dig carried out here. Models show archaeologists at work sifting the dirt in a painstaking search for fragments of evidence that will build up the picture of Viking-age York. Many of the original 1,000-year-old timbers recovered in the dig are used here. Visitors also see into a model of a laboratory where archaeologists are closely examining their finds.
The sense of touch is involved in the final section of the center - which offers a more conventional display of objects discovered in the dig. One section of wall is covered by fragments of china, glass, and bone, which visitors are encouraged to touch.
Of the 30,000 artifacts found, about 5,000 are on display in glass cases at the center. These provide an amazing jigsaw puzzle of historical clues to the Viking life style. Combs, glass beads, ivory dice, animal sketches on bone, fishing hooks, and a Viking sock are just some of the finds. Perhaps the most exciting discovery is the helmet found by two workers during the building of the center. Visitors may be surprised that it contains no horns; in fact, no evidence has been found that Vikings ever wore horned helmets.
Judging from the number of visitors to the center, this vivid history lesson is proving a great success. The initial target of 50,000 visitors in the first year was reached in less than seven months. Tourists come from all over the world. The King of Norway and the prime ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea have all tasted the Viking life of Yorvik. The money made by the center is plowed back into archaeology.
The director of the York Archaeological Trust sums up its appeal this way: ``People seem to love it - they stand where the Vikings stood a thousand years ago, and the past becomes the present.'' The concept of reconstruction is a relatively new idea, and the Yorvik center, based largely on evidence excavated on the spot, is a unique venture. And the local people are not neglected. They get a taste of Viking life during the annual February Viking Festival in York, which includes torchlight displays, marching through the town, children in Viking costumes, and Viking longboats sailing up the river.