In April, Jorvik will turn 40. In the first of a series of articles, STEPHEN LEWIS looks at how the idea for the Viking centre was born

YORK could so easily have been the City of Vicars, rather than the City of Vikings. If only a pesky PR man had been a little less obsessed with a sexy hard sell…

Way back in the early 1970s a young archaeologist called Peter Addyman was looking for sponsorship to help expand the work of the archaeology unit he’d set up in York.

He wanted the York Archaeological Trust to have a laboratory of its own, and a proper research institute with a staff of permanent archaeologists.

All of which would cost money. A PR man was called in: and he knew that if the trust was to attract sponsorship, it needed something to ‘sell’.

York Press: Dr Peter AddymanDr Peter Addyman (Image: Newsquest)

“He said: ‘What have you got to offer?’,” Dr Addyman recalled, in an interview with the Press on his retirement in 2002.

“We said ‘we have this marvellous excavation of the Roman legionary fortress’. He said ‘Romans, h’mm, that’s quite interesting. What else?’”

Which was when Dr Addyman mentioned the exciting excavation taking place near the Minster - the Vicars’ Choral.

Nothing to do with singing priests - the Choral was actually a kind of hall of residence for the vicars of York Minster. The vicars were the priests who deputised for the Minster’s canons back in the early 13th century. The trouble was that despite being in holy orders they were easily tempted by the sins of the flesh.

“They got drunk and they were found in evil company,” Dr Addyman said. “It was suggested that the best thing would be for a ‘college’ to be set up, so they would be less open to temptation.”

The ‘college’ was actually a kind of communal priestly accommodation block - and it survived from about 1250 until Henry VIII blitzed the lot during the Reformation.

Whether it helped improve the vicars’ morals or not isn’t clear: but when archaeologists began to uncover it in the 1970s, they were quite excited.

Sadly, the PR man was less enthusiastic. “He yawned,” Dr Addyman admitted in that 2002 interview. “And then he said ‘what else?’”

Which was when Dr Addyman thought of the other dig going on in York - the Viking site beneath Coppergate that was later to become the Jorvik Centre.

The area was being cleared ready for a new shopping centre.

And preliminary excavations had revealed evidence of wooden timbers and pottery that dated from pre-Norman Conquest times and were thought to be Viking.

The way Dr Addyman told the story, you could almost see the PR man’s eyes light up. “He said ‘Ah! Vikings. They’re sexy. I can sell Vikings!’”

The rest, as they say, is history.

York Press: The Coppergate DigThe Coppergate Dig (Image: Supplied)

The recently formed York Archaeological Trust put together an exhibition - The Viking Kingdom of York - at the Yorkshire Museum. Then, as other buildings were demolished, they began to extend their dig.

They even came up with a neat fund-raising idea: visitors, for a small fee, could watch archaeologists at work from a walkway beside the dig.

Then it was decided the whole thing should be more ambitious. A bit of celebrity gold-dust was wanted. “Who is the most famous archaeologist in the country?” someone asked.

No-one, not even Dr Addyman, seemed to know. But then he had a brainwave. Magnus Magnusson, presenter of the hugely popular TV quiz show Mastermind, was an Icelander and proud of his Viking roots, he said.

“He’ll do,” said someone. “How do we get hold of him?”

It so happened that Magnusson was in York. Dr Addyman met him for coffee, and the TV presenter agreed to be the dig’s fundrauising chairman.

Before long, Prince Charles had been persuaded to visit.

York Press: Prince Charles at the Coppergate DigPrince Charles at the Coppergate Dig (Image: Supplied)

Then, Magnusson recorded a short BBC programme on Viking York. It went out late one night – and the following morning Dr Addyman received a telephone call from a Lancashire motor-engineering supremo by the name of Ian Skipper.

What happened next is vividly told by Dr Addyman in his book York Archaeological Trust: 50 Years On, published in 2022 on the Trust’s 50th anniversary.

Mr Skipper wanted to come and see the Coppergate dig for himself.

“When?” Dr Addyman asked. “Now!” came the reply.

And sure enough, later that day, a Rolls Royce turned up on site. Mr Skipper emerged, ‘immaculately turned out (and) accompanied by his his elegant wife and two delightful daughters’, as Dr Addyman recalled it in his book.

Mr Skipper insisted on descending to see the dig there and then. And then he offered to help - not with a cheque, but by sending over a team of consultants, who proceeded to turn the dig into a world-famous tourist attraction.

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

It was Mr Skipper who kept suggesting ways to make the dig more commercial.

So, when told that thousands of oyster shells had been uncovered – the remains of Viking meals – he suggested selling them as mementoes. The Trust sold 20,000 of them at £1 each.

It was also 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…

NEXT TIME: the creation of Jorvik