It must be the smell that most people remember after visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre. That’s certainly the case for me, and a decade on from my first visit to York’s Viking museum, I was looking forward to seeing if my nostrils would be wrinkled to quite the same extent by the tenth-century urban odour that they have conjured up. I’m delighted to report that they were.
If you don’t like fairground rides, historical dioramas, plaster cast figures or indeed olfactory sensory experiences, Jorvik won’t be for you. However, if you’re interested in seeing, hearing and smelling how the Vikings lived, this is as close as you’re going to get. York was a key Viking city in the ninth and tenth centuries and archaeologists have made some fantastic finds there – over 40,000 artefacts were unearthed, for example, during the 1976–81 Coppergate excavation, run by York Archaeological Trust. Jorvik itself sits on the site of this now-legendary Coppergate dig.
Your visit commences in a time machine room, with a floor that shakes to signify your descent back to the year 975. Then you’re ushered on to the main event, a haunted house-style ride through a recreation of part of the Viking city. This is where the authentic smells are emitted, as you glide in your time capsule through reconstructed Viking streets, complete with life-size models of the original inhabitants.
It’s all positioned on the site of the excavations so you’re looking at the actual building and street layouts. You might also be gawping at original Viking countenances as the curators have used skeletal reconstructive technology to create the models’ faces. It’s great fun, and full of witty detail to keep even the most jaded museum visitor entertained.
After the ride you’re ejected into a more conventional museum exhibition space. Here’s where they tell you how the finds made during the Coppergate excavations have informed the recreation you’ve just enjoyed. It’s good stuff, with lots of interactive touchscreens and some slightly off-putting floating heads of Viking ghosts that start talking to you from video screens inside the display cabinets. The actual archaeological finds do get rather overshadowed by all this technical trickery but they are there if you want to look. The basic effect is to ensure that you don’t leave Jorvik without understanding that the Vikings of York were an industrious bunch for whom trade and craft were the way of life.
But, before you’re pressed out into the inevitable gift shop there’s one more display, lest you’ve formed the impression that the Vikings were solely interested in the quiet city life: a Viking skeleton handily annotated with all the wounds its unfortunate owner received in what must have been a violent life. There’s barely a bone on the man that hasn’t been damaged. It’s fashionable to dismiss the martial element to the Viking existence these days, so this clear depiction of the brutality of the age is a useful counterbalance to conclude your trip round an excellent attraction.
Don’t miss: The Are you a Viking? display which gives you a chance to work out how likely it is that you had Viking ancestors.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Open 1 Apr–31 Oct daily 10am–5pm;
1 Nov–31 Mar daily 10am–4pm.
Adults £8.95, concs £7, children £6
York tourist information: 01904 550099