Archaeologists dig deep to shed new light on city's Viking heritage

IT has long been acknowledged that York is an archaeological gold mine, but the true scale of the city's long history still remains buried underfoot.

However, one of the most significant discoveries in a generation has thrown up new evidence to provide a clearer picture of how far the city sprawled during the Viking era.

A thousand years ago York ranked among the 10 biggest settlements in Western Europe, but archaeologists have now found the remains of a Viking settlement at the Hungate dig close to banks of the River Foss.

The discovery is less than a mile from the remains of similar buildings found during the world-famous Coppergate dig 30 years ago, providing further clues as to the true size of the Viking town of Jorvik.

The Hungate excavation's project director Peter Connelly said: "For any archaeologists, this is a hugely exciting find. We are extremely privileged to be working on a dig like this, but we could only hope to find something as significant as this building.

"We now have definitive proof that people from the Anglo-Scandinavian period built settlements on this site, and this gives us more evidence that Jorvik was far bigger than many people thought.

"We knew that it was a large town of real significance and it was probably the biggest settlement in the north of England at the time, but now we have more vital evidence."

The excavations are being carried out ahead of the 150m Hungate development, and it is the biggest archaeological dig in the city since Coppergate in the 1970s and early 1980s which saw the creation of the Jorvik Viking Centre to house the finds.

The timber-lined cellar of a two-storey Viking age structure was unearthed more than 10ft below the current street level at Hungate last week, and it is thought the building dates from the mid to late 10th century.

While its exact use is still not known, the York Archaeological Trust's experts think the building could have been used as a workshop or for storing food and other perishable items.

However, shards of pottery, discarded animal bones, a comb and an amber bead dating from the Viking era have all been found buried in the soil in the building's cellar, indicating that it could well have been a domestic dwelling.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the find is that timber from a ship has been used in the building's construction – the first discovery of its kind in York.

The recycled timber provides further proof as to how valuable wood was during the Viking era as it has been re-used in the building and has thrown up clues that Jorvik was an important trade centre, with boats arriving on the nearby River Foss.

The York Archaeological Trust's chief executive John Walker claimed the fact that the building had a cellar showed land in Jorvik was at a premium, as the builders had taken the effort to hollow out the room from the ground.

He said: "They could quite easily have built a store further away, but the decision was taken to create the cellar. The discovery of this building is phenomenal, and does throw up so many questions as well as some answers.

"We always knew that Jorvik was big, but we never knew quite how big."

Archaeologists are nearing the half-way point in the five-year 3.3m dig on the 10-acre Hungate site to pave the way for more than 700 new homes, shops and offices.

The timber from the house will be taken away for scientific tests at the trust's laboratories in the hope of unlocking further secrets from the past.

The remains of the building will eventually go on display, possibly on the Hungate site once the development is finished.

More than 11,000 visitors have toured the site in the last 16 months, and the city's residents are able to help in community archaeology digs.

The York Archaeological Trust started work on the main part of the Hungate site in spring last year and the excavations have revealed a host of finds dating back more than 1,000 years.

Discoveries include traces of Viking age life such as bone ice skates, fragments of combs and a rare small glass bead.