The brainchild of John Sunderland, along with the York Archaeological Trust, the story of how a museum dedicated to telling the millennium-old story of York became one of the United Kingdom's most admired museums is as fascinating as it is fun.

A potted history of York

The city of York has a history stretching back over two millennia to the start of the Roman Era in the British Isles during the 1st century CE. Yet it was in the early medieval period, following the first Viking incursions, that York (Jorvik) grew in importance from a minor regional town. 

Though peoples from Viking societies had been ravaging coastal communities of the British Isles since the late 8th century, it was in 866 CE that Ivar the Boneless is said to have led a "Great Heathen Army," comprised of mainly Scandinavian warriors. 

Ivar captured York that year, and the Vikings managed to hold it for three years before an uprising by the local Anglo-Saxon population booted them out.

This restoration was only temporary, however, and when Viking king Guthred died in the late 9th century CE and was buried in a local church, it appeared that the Catholic Church, the other focal point of power, had made a new accommodation and accepted the rule of the Viking overlords, the new Viking cementing Jorvik as a key town in the Viking sphere of influence (the Danelaw) in the British Isles.

From 875 to 954 CE, Jorvik would not only be the center of a Viking kingdom, but its influence grew as trade, commerce, and people flowed back and forth across the North Sea to the Viking homelands on the Scandinavian Peninsula

It was eventually absorbed into the new Kingdom of England following its recapture by the Anglo-Saxons, from the House of Wessex, in 954 CE, but it stayed the second largest city, after London, well into the 11th century CE.

What lies beneath...

The next phase of this story starts with the demolition of what was once a confectioner's factory, on Coppergate, a street smack bang in the middle of York, in 1976 CE, about a millennium after the last Viking king of Jorvik, Eric Bloodaxe, was brutally murdered (one assumes that Eric probably lived by the axe, so he likely died by one too...). 

Urban planners needed this Victorian-era factory demolished to make way for what would become the Coppergate Shopping Centre, breathing new (commercial) life into the center of York.

Following the factory's demolition, consultation was made with the local York Archaeological Trust, a charity founded shortly before in 1972. It was in that year that minor renovations to a local bank uncovered 9 meters / almost 30 feet of archaeological layers, mostly dating to York's Viking era. 

These layers were mostly moist and made of peat allowing the perfect condition for the preservation of York's buried past.

This discovery piqued the interest of historians, archaeologists, and academics throughout York and, indeed, all over the United Kingdom. 

What was discovered next, over the course of 5 years, would reshape much of how the Viking history of the United Kingdom is taught. 

Following extensive excavations, a huge array of objects, artifacts, and items, dating mainly from around the early 10th century CE, was uncovered. 

By 1981, more than 40,000 items had been uncovered, from whole timber frames of Viking-era buildings to animal bones, metalworks, leather, textiles, and even more organic items like pollen and human parasitic eggs! 

What was uncovered was the most comprehensive snapshot of Jorvik during the height of its Viking era. What was needed next was somewhere to display this Viking-era treasure for the people of York.

The medieval 13th-century city wall in York, England. Photo: Eagle_Watch / Shutterstock

The man with a plan

It is now, in our story, that John Sunderland enters the frame. No one, least of all John himself, would have guessed the influential and vital role he would play in the historical and cultural life not only of the city of York but in the broader United Kingdom and beyond. 

Following the end of the Coppergate excavations in 1981, the York Archaeological Trust had a problem: how best to display the wealth of items that gave the best snapshot yet discovered of a Viking-era town in the British Isles. 

They knew that the United Kingdom was in no shortage of museums, the competition was stiff, and they needed something to stand out from the pack. They could not compete with the prestige, history, or money of other museums, so they needed to turn to a man with a plan. 

That man, it turned out, was former cartoonist and designer John Sunderland.

In his snortingly funny memoir, On My Way to Jorvik, John recounts how although he had a deep love and appreciation of history, he found the visitor experience in most museums lacking a great amount of fun. 

This thought had been niggling in his mind throughout his career as an animator, designer, and filmmaker. However, the Coppergate Viking excavations presented the perfect opportunity for John to solve this lifelong dilemma. 

The York Archaeological Trust placed John as the Project Designer for the new museum to be built on-site at Coppergate. John's vision was to make a museum more like a film set. Instead of spending hours walking through exhibitions, John envisioned "time cars" that would take visitors through historically accurate sets of Jorvik circa 975 CE.

Following this vision, the York Archaeological Trust worked with John and the Yorkshire Communications Group to collaborate with a plethora of academics and experts in everything from sculptors to taxidermists to thatchers to build and recreate the most historically accurate reconstruction of Viking Era York. 

In just three short years, the Jorvik Viking Centre was envisioned, designed, and built, opening its doors to the public on April 14, 1984.

Animatronic models of fishermen working at the Jorvik Viking Centre, Photo: Chemical Engineer / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

A Yorkshire success story

The first incarnation of the Jorvik Viking Centre saw visitors taken in a "time car," back to the 10th century CE, to visit Viking-era buildings found surrounding Coppergate, including the workshops of a tanner, a jeweler, and a bone carver. 

The end of the experience saw visitors plunge back into 20th-century York to see the latest remains of Jorvik uncovered by the York Archaeological Trust. What separated this museum from others was the emphasis on a blend of historical accuracy with a sense of fun and adventure more reserved for theme parks than staid museums. 

The result was an unparalleled success with the public as record numbers of people visited the Jorvik Viking Centre from its opening.

The next 16 years saw advances in technology and academic research enhance the visitor experience. The models used in the exhibition were based on facial reconstructions of Viking-era people, using the latest in computer technology. 

However, by 2001, the Centre was refurbished and enlarged to the tune of GBP 5 million. These changes included the extensive use of the Old Norse language by the Viking models, lengthening the "time car" ride to over 12 minutes, and more interactive displays of some 800 items unearthed during the original excavation.

The focus on a full sensory "time warp," first envisioned by John Sunderland as a fun and interesting way of historical education, was the key to the success of the Jorvik Viking Centre. 

The need to make history accessible to the masses, and enjoyable, influenced other museums and historical exhibitions. Since 1984, more than 20 million people (about the population of New York) have flocked to see how Coppergate was in the late 10th century CE and how the people of Jorvik lived on a daily basis. 

Not only has the Jorvik Viking Centre added to the richness of the cultural life of York, but John Sunderland has seen his vision to make history fun spread to a vast list of museums and cultural heritage attractions from North Wales to New England and everywhere in between.

For more on the Jorvik Viking Centre, visit their website here.

John Sunderland's hilarious memoir is available to buy on Amazon, whilst a short YouTube clip on the Jorvik Story is available to watch here.

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