York History Weekend: behind the scenes with Yorkshire Museum’s curator of archaeology
Roman melting pot, Viking trading hub and medieval powerhouse, York has a long and remarkable history. Later this month, the UK’s leading popular historians will be joining us in the city for BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend.
The festival will take place across two fantastic venues right in the heart of the city: the Yorkshire Museum and the nearby 14th-century Hospitium building...
Published: October 31, 2016 at 4:08 pm
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Ahead of the event, which begins on 18 November, we caught up with the Yorkshire Museum’s curator of archaeology, Natalie McCaul, to find out more about the historic city...
Q: What can you tell us about the Yorkshire Museum and its history?
A: The Yorkshire Museum is home to some of Britain’s greatest treasures. Its collections reveal the early history of York and include internationally important Roman, Viking and medieval artefacts, such as the Head of Constantine the Great [a twice life-size statue of the Roman emperor’s head], the Middleham Jewel [a 15th-century gold and sapphire pendant] and the York Helmet [an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon artefact].
Opened in 1830, the museum was one of England’s earliest purpose-built museums, established to house the collections of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. It was built in the grounds of York's Abbey, St Mary’s, on land given by royal grant in 1086. It probably wouldn't be allowed today, but the museum was constructed over the remains of some of the Abbey buildings, which can still be seen in the basement.
The Middleham Jewel. (Yorkshire Museum)
Q: York has a long history dating back to the Roman period (and beyond). What do we know about the city at that time?
A: While there is plenty of evidence of people living, working and dying in Yorkshire throughout the prehistoric period (the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages), the history of York truly begins with the Romans.
The city was founded around AD 71 when 5,000 soldiers of the IXth Roman Legion marched from Lincoln and set up camp here on raised ground at the confluence of two rivers. Eboracum, as the Romans called York, was born.
When the IXth arrived in what was to become Eboracum, there wasn’t much to see. Although chance finds and recent excavations have evidenced prehistoric activity, there was no permanent native settlement in the heart of York prior to the Romans, so they would most likely have found little more than meadowland. Within a few generations, however, the Romans had transformed the unromantic countryside into the capital of the north.
Eboracum became central to the Roman empire. Goods and people from all over Europe, Asia and North Africa flooded in, shaping the city into a cosmopolitan melting pot of religions, cultures, tastes and ideas. Roman emperors also visited, stayed and even died in the city. Emperor Septimius Severus, originally from North Africa, lived in the city for three years to lead campaigns against the Caledonians, who had been attacking Roman targets in the north of Britain. He died in York in AD 211.
Constantine The Great [r306–337 AD] was also crowned emperor not far from where York Minster stands today. His leadership started in York and went on to shape the history of Christianity across the western world.
Q: The museum holds the Wold Newton Hoard – a rare Roman coin hoard. Why is this such a fascinating archaeological discovery?
A: The Wold Newton Hoard is the largest Roman hoard of its type ever found in the north of England. It was discovered in 2014 by a metal detectorist near the East Yorkshire village of Wold Newton and contains more than 1,800 Roman coins.
The hoard dates to AD 307, a period of great uncertainty in Yorkshire and the Roman empire. Emperor Constantius had died in York in AD 306 and his son Constantine was declared emperor in the city. However, Constantine's succession was far from stable, as different Roman powers looked to challenge his claim to the title. The hoard is remarkable as it contains coins struck just before the death of Constantius in AD 306, alongside some of the first to feature Constantine as ruler.
The Head of Constantine. (Yorkshire Museum)
Q: York is also famous for its Viking heritage – what can you tell us about that period of the city’s history?
A: The Vikings ruled over a vast area of northern and eastern England known as the Danelaw. York – renamed Jorvik – was the capital of this Viking kingdom.
Jorvik was a bustling marketplace and cosmopolitan hot spot, as trade and people flowed in and out. Many of the occupants were skilled craftsmen. Objects manufactured in Jorvik were plentiful and surprisingly uniform, as specialist workers undertook an early version of mass production. Cups, pans, combs, knives, keys and jewellery were all produced. The Vikings were highly competent in these high-temperature industries, working with lead, copper-alloy, iron, silver, gold, and even glass.
These goods were then traded to places as far away as the Caspian Sea and Black Sea in the east, across Russia to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. In turn, exotic luxury goods and raw materials came to the city from across the Viking world, including silk from Iran, and amber and whalebone from the shores of the Baltic Sea.
We know so much about Viking York because of a world-famous excavation of a street known as Coppergate. This was a thriving road during the Viking period, lined by single-storey properties with wattle walls and thatched roofs, which were used as both homes and workshops. Space was at a premium in this part of the booming city and as a result Jorvik’s people lived cheek-by-jowl.
Living conditions were squalid. Human fleas and lice were common and rubbish was thrown out in back yards, a fetid mix of discarded building materials, food remains and human waste. These deposits saw the ground level rise by around 1cm a year. However, they also provided the perfect conditions to preserve the Viking way of life for the benefit of historians hundreds of years later. York’s unique soil conditions have preserved objects that simply do not survive elsewhere; textile, leather, wood and bone are incredibly rare and exciting finds.
Q: What was York’s significance during the medieval period?
A: With its colour, music, money, romance and spirituality, York was a microcosm of the vibrant medieval world. It became the second city of the kingdom and wielded immense ecclesiastical power. But it was also noisy, smelly, crowded and in parts there was great squalor and poverty.
During the medieval period, York saw the building of a new minster as well as St Mary’s Abbey, the largest and richest Benedictine abbey in the north of England. Together, these two great religious powers dominated the city and surrounding countryside, making York a rare sight to behold for most visitors.
York and the crown were never closer than during this period, and many kings visited the city. Edward I used it as a base for battles with Scotland, while Edward III moved his government to York and in 1328 even married in the city. But it is Richard III who is probably most associated with York. He visited several times and was sorely missed by citizens when he was deposed and killed by Henry Tudor in 1485.
Q: There are nearly one million objects in your archaeology collection: what are some of the highlights?
A: One special highlight is the York Helmet. Dating from c750–775, this iron and brass helmet is the most outstanding Anglo-Saxon object to survive in Europe. It was discovered when struck by the claw of a mechanical digger – luckily the operator stopped to check what had been hit. It is sometimes called the Coppergate Helmet, after the spot where it was found. The decoration of the nosepiece, complete with animals entwined in an intricate pattern, is a beautiful example of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship.
The York Helmet. (Yorkshire Museum)
Another highlight is the Vale of York Viking Hoard, discovered by metal detectorists in 2007. The size and quality of the hoard is remarkable, making it the most important find of its type in Britain for more than 150 years. It contains a mixture of different precious metal objects, including 617 coins, complete ornaments, ingots (bars) and chopped-up fragments known as hack-silver. The most spectacular single object is a gilt silver vessel in which the rest of the artefacts were contained. The hoard shows the diversity of cultural contacts in the medieval world, with objects coming from as far as Afghanistan in the east and Ireland in the west, as well as Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe.
Objects from the Vale of York Viking Hoard. (Yorkshire Museum)
Q: At BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend, talks are taking place in the 14th-century Hospitium, located in the museum gardens. What’s the history behind the building?
A: The Hospitium was one of the abbey's support buildings. It's not definitively known what it was originally used for, but it has been suggested that it was a place for visitors to the nearby St Mary’s Abbey to stay. Being right next to the river, the Hospitium would have been well placed to serve guests arriving by boat, or might have been a warehouse, possibly with accommodation on the upper floor.
Over the years, the Hospitium has had several different uses and has undergone a number of renovations. The earliest images show it used as a farm building or derelict. In the 19th century, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society repaired the building and used it to display museum objects. In the 1930s, the upper storey was extended with a new roof. Today, it serves as one of York’s most popular wedding venues.
Q: Is the museum looking forward to hosting BBC History Magazine's History Weekend?
A: We are thrilled to have the History Weekend coming to the Yorkshire Museum and Hospitium. The lineup of expert speakers looks fantastic and has created a lot of interest from visitors, as well as staff and volunteers at the museum.
Q: What else can festival-goers enjoy at the museum? And what other historical sites in York would you recommend visiting over the weekend?
A: As well as world-class archaeological finds, the museum also has strong natural science collections. Its ‘Extinct’ exhibition includes wild beasts that once roamed Yorkshire, including a towering skeleton of a moa and giant sea monsters which swam in the oceans here millions of years ago.
Outside the museum, the York Museum Gardens include the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the Roman Multangular Tower and York Observatory, the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire.
Further afield, York Castle Museum, the National Railway Museum and York Art Gallery are all worth a visit. And a trip to York wouldn’t be complete without a visit to York Minster, the Shambles and Betty’s tearooms!
Natalie McCaul is curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum.
BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend will be taking place at the Yorkshire Museum and Hospitium on 18–20 November. You can find out more about the weekend and book tickets here.