What do people remember most clearly from their visit to Jorvik Viking Centre, a Viking museum in York, England?
Is it the near-complete skeleton of a Viking woman, found in Coppergate, where Jorvik museum now stands?
Or is it the modern-day Vikings, the hooded staff members who roam around the Viking museum, telling stories. Like the one about the Viking antler combs, which archaeologists found in the 1980s, with fossilised lice still on them.
Jorvik Viking Centre invited us to visit. Our tickets were complementary.
No. After speaking with friends who’d been to Jorvik Viking museum, it was the smells that they remembered the most. And we found out why when we visited. In places, Jorvik Viking Centre quite literally stank.
Why do parts of Jorvik Viking Centre smell bad?
It was completely intentional. Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, said “Viking-age York would have been a very smelly place – a city of 15,000 people without the benefit of underground drainage would inevitably create a host of noxious aromas, and that is something that creates memories that last for decades for our visitors.”
For its 35 years of existence, Jorvik Viking Centre has been casting vivid memories. One person I spoke to said one of her earliest memories was of Jorvik. She was only two or three when she visited. Haunting, gripping, and sometimes a little spooky, Jorvik will stay in our memories, too.
A Viking museum in England: the background
Jorvik Viking Centre is on the site of the Coppergate Dig, an archaeological project that ran from 1976 to 1981. Archaeologists and historians unearthed skeletons, jewellery, and even a piece of fossilised Viking poo. The Viking museum opened in 1984, and since then over 19 million visitors have come through its doors. The neat, compact museum attracts people from around the world. I heard a lot of Scandinavian accents when we were on our way round, and I got chatting to a woman who had made a trip from Norway especially to see Jorvik. It’s one of those places you just have to visit, if you’re interested in Viking history.
Discover Coppergate: the entrance hall
The area where visitors wait before entering Jorvik’s reconstructed Viking village has been turned into a display gallery. On our trip, the queue for the centre’s main attraction, a reconstruction of a Viking village, stretched three-quarters of the way down the gallery. Along the walls, films showed scenes from the Coppergate dig. Cheery archaeologists with mop-top 1980s hair described their excitement at discovering an astonishing range of findings. Over 40,000 remains were catalogued.
The videos were interesting, but what turned this hall from a waiting area into an attraction in its own right, was the glass floor. Under the glass was a reconstruction of the dig – a series of neat trenches, complete with trowels and other tools that were used to coax out the Viking treasures from their resting place. My children were fascinated by the muddy floor. Was this really the place where historians found clues about how the Vikings lived? It was great to be able to tell them that yes, it was. The fact that my son’s learning about Vikings at school right now, made the visit even more timely.
Tip: You’ll find toilets in the entrance hall, but be warned: there is only one for each gender. When we visited, we had to wait a few minutes in a queue for the toilet.
The Viking Village at Jorvik Viking Centre
It took us about 10 minutes to get to the front of the queue. And then, the real excitement began. We climbed into a family ‘time capsule‘, a car big enough for six people. The woman at the front of the queue made sure groups and families travelled together in the cars, so we had the capsule all to ourselves.
The capsule moved off, into a darkened space. In front of us there was a touch-screen, so we could have changed the language if we preferred not to listen to the commentary in English. My notes said that the touchscreen highlighted things we could look out for on our 15-minute journey through Viking-age York. We didn’t notice this feature, though. We were too captivated by the realistic figures, the clattering village noises, and the smells around us. The ride really was a sensory spectacle.
It began with a tall Viking man, holding onto a dog that was very wolf-like. The two looked as though they were standing guard over the village. Then, we slowly trundled past houses that would have been like those in York in around AD 960. Stallholders shouted about their wares. A blacksmith forged some metal, cloaked in the smell of smoke. A family sat outside their home, playing a board game. A rat perched on top of a table, nibbling at the bloody remains of an animal that had been carved up for its meat.
It was all very graphic, and a little bit too much for our seven year-old daughter, who took fright at some of the 31 eerily realistic animatronic figures. Our ten year-old son, on the other hand, loved watching the animals and humans going about their daily business. Especially the man who was straining to go to the toilet – with the smells to match.
Most of this part of Jorvik Viking Centre was destroyed in a flood in 2015, so the animatronic figures, buildings and time capsules were mostly new. It was an atmospheric ride, and it really brought the Viking history to life.
Coppergate Dig artefacts
The Jorvik Viking Centre experience ended with a more traditionally laid out museum section. Some of the thousands of pieces of metalwork, bones, and artefacts from Viking life found in Coppergate sat in cabinets, with roaming staff members on hand to explain more about them.
The skeletons caught our attention the mosts. Excavators found three of them on the dig, including one that was near-complete. We also enjoyed looking at the Viking jewels, and the maps that showed how far the mighty marauders travelled.
A really fun detail was the coin strike. A man in Viking costume stood with a hammer, and if you paid him for a souvenir coin, he would hammer a piece of metal, to create the coin. There was a big crowd around the coin striker, and he did a good job of repeating his tale about the Viking coins as the visitors flowed past him.
We left Jorvik Viking Centre through a gift shop which had some nice, tasteful souvenirs, like Viking-inspired jewellery, and wooden swords for young Viking wannabees.
How long does a visit to Jorvik Viking Centre take?
You should leave one and a half to two hours to explore Jorvik Viking Centre. It’s a compact attraction, and if you’re considering it as part of a trip to York, there are plenty of other things to do in York to fill a day or more.
What to see in York when you’ve been to the Jorvik Viking Museum
A good complement to the Viking centre in York is Jorvik Dig, a hands-on experience with excavation pits modelled on the real Coppergate Dig.
Also worth visiting are York Minster, the National Railway Museum and York Museum.
The city is a beautiful place to just wander. We enjoyed walking down the Shambles, the street that Diagon Alley, in the Harry Potter films, is supposedly modelled on. There are lots of pretty half-timbered houses to look at, and it’s free to climb up onto York city walls, where you can walk around the town’s circumference.
To find out more about these and other things to do in York England, see the Visit York website. If you’re interested in experiencing the magic of a York Christmas, check out this feature by North East Family Fun for inspiration.
If you’d like to read about more family-friendly museums that bring history to life, check out this feature on the Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth.
How to get to York
It’s easy to reach York by rail. Direct rail links run from London, Edinburgh, and Manchester in around 2 hours.
York is midway between Edinburgh and London, just 20 minutes from the M1/M62 motorway network. Six Park & Ride sites operate in the city.
The nearest airport to York is Leeds/Bradford, with Manchester, Humberside and Robin Hood Doncaster/Sheffield all close by.