Why it took 40 years to piece together city’s Viking past

Dr Ailsa Mainman, widow of the late Dr Richard Hall who spearheaded the Viking dig at Coppergate, York'.
Dr Ailsa Mainman, widow of the late Dr Richard Hall who spearheaded the Viking dig at Coppergate, York'.
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Archaeologists arrived in York’s Coppergate in 1976. Now, almost 40 years on, the final report into the landmark dig has just been published. Sarah Freeman reports.

Archaeology is a painstaking business. When you’re dealing with artefacts hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old, often buried under a few feet of soil it has to be. All of which may explain why it has taken the York Archaeological Trust almost 40 years to publish the final report into the Coppergate dig.

The excavation on land earmarked for a shopping development in the heart of the city began in 1976 and very quickly the team of experts knew they were onto something big. With a history of settlements dating back to Roman times, York has always proved a rich vein for archaeologists, but even by those standards, Coppergate was something special.

Led by the late Dr Richard Hall the excavation lasted five years and by the end it had attracted more than one million visitors to the city and revealed in excess of 40,000 objects. Some were no bigger than a thumbnail, but this dig was as much about quality as it was quantity. As the team began to expose what lay beneath the ground, they discovered some of the best ever preserved buildings from the Viking period.

“The dig revealed for the first time a great swathe of the Viking age city with backyards, pathways and the remains of 13 houses, some still standing almost two metre high,” says Dr Ailsa Mainman, wife of Dr Hall and fellow archaeologist at the Trust. “The conditions on site meant that perishable items such as wood, leather, cloth and even bugs and beetles were perfectly preserved.”

The project allowed archeologists to paint a detailed picture of life in York, from the trades carried out by its residents to the food they ate and even the bugs which plagued their lives.

“It was possible to date the timber buildings very precisely, in some cases to the actual winter when the trees were felled,” adds Dr Mainman. “The results showed the pace of development in York was incredibly fast once the great Viking army settled in the city. It was a bit of 9th-century town planning which just took off and York boomed throughout the following century.”

The Coppergate dig also inspired a brand new visitor attraction in York. Prior to the opening of Jorvik, most British museums had been rather stuffy affairs, content to display exhibits in glass cabinets with text heavy information boards the nearest they got interaction.

Jorvik ,with its train ride which took vistors back to an authentic Viking settlement, complete with genuine smells and sounds of hundreds of years earlier, changed all that. However, as the queue for the attraction was snaking around the square outside, Dr Hall was just beginning the really hard work of chronicling the extensive archaeological research sparked by the excavation.

By the time of his death in 2011 he had already published countless research linked to the excavation, but his final report was only three quarters finished. With one final piece of the jigsaw to complete, Dr Mainman decided she would pick up where her husband had left off. “Richard was passionately interested in the Viking Age and devoted a large part of his career to understanding this site,” she says. “It was very important to him that his work was completed and we had to see that it was done.”

With the help of David Evans and Kurt Hunter-Mann, both field officers for the trust, Dr Mainman has fulfilled her husband’s last wish with the publication of the final volume in a series. “We hope that Richard’s legacy in this latest and final Coppergate report will be to enthuse the next generation to learn about York’s Viking past. The archive he and his colleagues created will be alive for decades to come, ready to be explored a new as more sophisticated techniques are developed.”