It’s almost 30 years since a new Viking museum deep beneath the city of York first opened its doors to the curious public. STEPHEN LEWIS looks back at Jorvik Viking Centre.

IT IS easy to forget just what a sensation the Jorvik Viking Centre was when it opened 30 years ago.

We've become so used to the idea of York as the 'Viking city' – and to the regular sight of visitors queuing at Coppergate for their tour of the underground museum. But back then, it was all startlingly new.

The world's media had been allowed privileged access ten days before the new museum was due to open on April 14.

More than 200 journalists turned up from all over the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan .

And the reports they wrote about the recreated, underground Viking 'city' created an explosion of interest.

"Uncannily life-like figures bargain, argue, sing and gossip in the market place and sit in the homes and workshops exhaustively copied from the remains of the originals," wrote one, Ian Cundall of the Evening Press's sister newspaper The Northern Echo.

"It even smells realistic – rotting rubbish putrifies in the gutter, the fragrance of wood smoke fills the air and the fishmonger's stock of herring and eel gives of its unmistakeable aroma."

The new museum was different to anything seen before. So small wonder that when it opened there were huge queues – at one point a line up to 100 yards long snaked around the 'new' Coppergate shopping centre.

The reaction of those who'd been inside was ecstatic. "Truly marvellous", said one visitor, emerging blinking into the daylight. "Even better than expected," said another.

The new museum's official opening, by Prince Charles, came a month later, on May 17. "The Viking Prince", read the headline in the Evening Press. What the report didn't say was that during the prince's visit there had been one of those embarrassing glitches that were perhaps inevitable given how pioneering the design and technology of Jorvik were.

Peter Addyman, the man who had founded the York Archaeological Trust in 1972 and who was one of the driving forces behind Jorvik, took Prince Charles and other high-profile guests on a tour of the museum in its celebrated time cars.

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, he can see the funny side.

"There were the prince and myself in the first car, and the Lord Lieutenant – who hadn't been able to get his sword in the car – just behind," he says. " And then part way round the cars just stopped!"

There had been some kind of problems with the cars' safety mechanisms - the pressure-sensitive rubber bars at the front of each car designed to stop them running over anybody who got in the way. It seemed the bars were also sensitive to changes in weather: and a thunderstorm caused such a change in atmospheric pressure all the cars came grinding to a halt.

Dr Addyman made the best of it. "I said to the prince 'what an opportunity! We can get out and have a closer look.' And he said 'I'd love to!'"

As its fame spread, the phenomenal levels of early interest in the new museum showed no signs of abating. In its early years, says the present-day director of attractions Sarah Maltby, Jorvik was attracting about a million visitors every year.

And it set new standards of museum design: one that in the decades since has been imitated by museums all round the world. "People still come to us and ask us about what we do to this day," says Sarah.

So how did a comparatively small city like York ever get to have such a ground-breaking museum?

It all goes back to the Coppergate dig.

When plans were put forward for a new shopping centre at Coppergate, the York Archaeological Trust seized on the chance to investigate the Viking remains beneath the site.

Trial excavations began in 1976 – and within weeks the remains of several timber buildings were recovered.

Around them lay an extraordinary range of objects, including textiles, leatherwork and bone combs: the everyday stuff of ordinary life that enabled archaeologists to build up a unique picture of what life in the Viking age was like.

The dig was to continue for five years - and it made headlines around the world.

"As find after amazing find came out of the ground the discoveries generated an international media frenzy," says Dr Addyman. "Who could resist a story about a well-preserved Viking sock - with a hole in its toe?"

Magnus Magnusson, the Icelandic (and hence Viking) television presenter, made a documentary about the dig. And it quickly became a tourist attraction in itself.

Visitors were charged a small fee to look around. And thanks to the input of Lancashire entrepreneur and archaeology enthusiast Ian Skipper, it began to turn into a moneyspinner for the archaeological trust.

He kept suggesting ways to make it more commercial, says Dr Addyman.

For example, when told that thousands of oyster shells had been uncovered – the remains of Viking meals – he suggested selling them as mementoes. The trust wouldn't have sold more valuable artefacts. But oyster shells? "We sold 20,00 of them at £1 each," Dr Addyman says.

It was Skipper who, when the dig began to draw to a close, suggested there should be a permanent attraction to take its place. The idea for an underground Viking city in a basement beneath the new shopping centre was born. Skipper even helped persuade his bank to put up the loan to make the £2.6 million museum possible, says Dr Addyman.

Then what was needed was someone to translate these ideas into a workable museum – one that would change forever the way archaeologists presented their work.

Step forward TV illustrator and designer John Sunderland.

He had no experience of museum design. But more than 20 year earlier, as a Wakefield schoolboy with a penchant for playing truant during maths lessons, he had had a vision.

The 11-year-old would regularly slope away during maths classes to spend his time at the local cinema, or else mooching round the Wakefield museum. And one day he found himself thinking: 'why can't museums be more like films?'

Twenty years later, he read about the York Archaeological Trust's plans for an underground Viking city, and that old vision came back to him.

He worked out some ideas on paper and 'pitched' them to the Archaeological Trust.

His vision was to present the Viking city to visitors almost as though they were in a feature film. "My idea was to have people sitting in the time cars, so that as they went around people would be like the camera," he says.

The trust interviewed several designers and architects: but for Trust director Dr Addyman, John Sunderland was the one who stood out.

"I said to Ian Skipper, 'this chap has got it,'" he says. "He had this crazy, mad idea of making the museum into a film set, and taking people into the film. But we were looking for something completely different, and this chap was different!"

It proved to be a brave but groundbreaking decision. "Because he turned out to be a genius!" Dr Addyman says.

* John Sunderland has written a book, On My Way To Jorvik, about how he and a hand-picked team designed the museum. It is published by CreateSpace priced £9.99 (ebook £3.09)

Vikings were also traders and family men too

THE Coppergate dig of the 1970s transformed our understanding of Viking life. Yes, they were robbers and raiders: but they were also traders, farmers and family men, too.

During the course of the dig, something like 39,500 artefacts were discovered. "And only five of these were military," says Dr Peter Addyman, the founder and then director of the York Archaeological Trust.

"There was a sword hilt and and two spears. But it was clear there was another side to Viking life. Raping and pillaging only takes half an hour a day! There were still 23 1/2 hours to do other things!"

The Jorvik Viking Centre, the recreated Viking 'city' built in a basement beneath the Coppergate centre on the exact site of the dig, set out to show visitors this other, more peaceful side of Viking life.

It showed family scenes; craftsmen at work; people haggling and bargaining; even a man using a privy. and everything was based on the evidence of the thousands of artefacts found on that very site.

The museum has been through two major refits since - one in 2000, and another in 2010. But it still aims to tell that story of the Vikings as not just raiders and looters, but as traders, settlers, craftsmen and family men.

On Monday April 14, there will be a day of celebrations in Coppergate to mark the museum's 30th birthday. Vikings will set up camp in the square, and you will be able to come along to take part in activities such as striking your own Viking coin.

There will also be a major exhibition in July to mark 30 years of the museum - and Jorvik is hoping people will get involved in that by sending in photos and stories about their visits down the years. Watch this space, or head to Coppergate on April 14, to find out more.