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Valhalla: In Search Of The Viking Dead, 10 Coppergate until November
A new exhibition asks: where are York’s missing Vikings? Stephen Lewis reports.
THE woman looks peaceful in repose. She lies with her arms crossed neatly over her chest, her legs stretched out full length. And even though it is a thousand years or more since she died, archaeologists can tell that she was a wealthy woman in life.
She was about 46 when she died, they believe. But her teeth are in excellent condition – indicating a good, soft diet – and her skeleton shows few signs that, during life, she ever had to do much hard work. “She was obviously treated extremely well,” says Peter Connelly, director of archaeology at the York Archaeological Trust.
The clincher about this Viking woman’s high status is the grave in which she was buried. She was unearthed last year during the dig at Hungate, in a grave lined with stones. There were traces of woody material above, suggesting the grave may have been covered by a wooden board of some kind. “It was possibly brightly painted,” says Dr Connelly.
No grave goods were found with her – jewellery, or delicate woven or embroidered cloth – such as you might expect with a high status, pagan Viking burial. But that may be because by the time she died, Christianity was beginning to have an influence on Viking York, Dr Connelly says. “They didn’t have the idea that you needed to take these goods with you (to the next world).”
The woman was one of three Viking skeletons unearthed close to each-other at Hungate last summer.
One was in poor condition, and the remains have not yet been analysed.
The third belonged to a middle-aged man. He was quite short, and evidence from his teeth and bones – including damage to joints and marks suggesting he had well-developed muscles – suggests his life was quite hard. He wasn’t a warrior – there were none of the kind of wounds you’d expect on a fighting man. So was he a poor labourer?
We’ll probably never know. But if you head down Coppergate from tomorrow, you’ll be able to see both him and his high-status female contemporary.
After being analysed by researchers at York Osteoarchaeology, the two skeletons have gone on display at No 10 Coppergate – just up and around the corner from Jorvik – as the centrepieces of the York Archaeological Trust’s new summer exhibition Valhalla: In Search Of The Viking Dead.
The exhibition also includes a stunning, sleek-prowed replica of a Viking “faring”, or trading ship, which is filled with the kind of grave goods you’d normally expect to find buried with high-status Vikings – weapons, armour and drinking horns for men, jewellery and woven cloth for women.
The aim of the exhibition is to try to answer a question that has puzzled archaeologists about Viking York – where are all our Viking ancestors buried?
Because the skeletons found at Hungate are an exception. Very few Viking burials have been found in this hugely important Viking capital.
“There would have been upwards of 10-15,000 people living in the city,” Dr Connelly says. “Why aren’t we finding any of them? Where have they all gone?”
Beneath the Minster is one possibility for a Viking burial site. A number of carved Viking burial stones were found here, and are on show in this exhibition.
Lining the slopes above the River Foss may be another likely place to look. Rivers were the cultural and economic heart of Viking life, and the three skeletons unearthed at Hungate last year would all have been on a slope overlooking the river.
But it is also possible York’s Vikings may have been buried further out of the city. “They may have been further up the Foss or the Ouse in slightly more rural environments, away from where people lived,” Dr Connelly says.
It is a puzzle that remains unanswered – but one which makes this intriguing exhibition all the more fascinating.
• Valhalla: In Search Of The Viking Dead opens tomorrow at 10 Coppergate, and runs until November.
Entry is free to anyone who has visited Jorvik or another York Archaeological Trust attraction, or £2.50 adults, £1.50 concessions and £1.00 children for entry to Valhalla alone .