KIDS these days, they don't know they're born.

In Ivar The Boneless's day, they'd have had no time to idle great hours away in front of computer games or Da Bungalow. Viking kids would have been lucky to fit in a quick game of hnefatafl between hazardous fishing trips, farm duties or other chores.

That's if they survived at all...

On Friday, the 20th annual Jorvik Viking Festival begins. To celebrate this milestone, the jamboree has doubled in length to a fortnight. And it includes many new features, notably a children's "festival within a festival" with a host of events for youngsters this weekend.

But what was it like to be a child a millennium ago? In a word, tough.

Viking expert Dr Andrew "Bone" Jones, of the York Archaeological Trust which organises the festival, says that many of the children of Jorvik never made it to adulthood.

In a society where women had only a 50 per cent chance of making it to 35 and men didn't last much longer, infant mortality had to be horrendously high.

No one knows how many Viking children were stillborn or died young. "Unfortunately the archaeological record is not brilliant at telling us about this, because children's bones are relatively soft and survive less well than adult bones," Dr Jones said.

Neither were children afforded much status. Vikings "didn't invest the same sort of emotional energy into these little infants when death was much more of a phenomenon than in our society".

That did not mean Jorvik parents were callous to their offspring. "You can't go through the business of having a child without becoming emotionally involved," he said. "They must have been cherished and loved."

Because life was short, so was childhood. Under Viking law children became adults at 12 and could marry or go off to battle at that age.

Long before then they were expected to take on a fair amount of adult work. "There was much expected of them. Today we encourage children to play for play's own sake. I don't think there would have been much time for that in Jorvik.

"They would have been expected to do what they could to help out. I am sure Viking kids were spinning from a very young age.

"I am sure they were helping with weaving tasks. I am sure they would be doing a lot of fetching water and helping with food preparation."

Once they were strong enough, Jorvik youngsters would be grinding corn, picking fruit, milking the cows - much as the children of 19th century farm labourers did.

And just as fishing communities continue to see two men and a boy set sail, Viking children were likely to accompany fishermen and do the jobs their nimble fingers best suited - baiting and unhooking.

One of the most useful commodities in Viking times was moss. It was used for packaging, not to mention babies' nappies and the Jorvik equivalent of loo roll. No doubt it was the kids' task to go rolling into the woods and gather some moss.

Dr Jones speculates that children could then have cut their entrepreneurial teeth selling the stuff door to door. Normal coarse moss would be sold cheap to the masses, while the softer stuff, impregnated with desiccated leaves, would be the Andrex of the day, the price marked up accordingly.

Boys would have been brought up to be hunters, soldiers or craftsmen. Most girls, Dr Jones said, would have been prepared to be homemakers. There is little archaeological evidence for anything else - although new assessments of Viking sagas suggest that previous translations had unfairly reduced the role of strong women characters.

But what about Viking education, education, education?

"There were no formal schools as far as I am aware," says Bone Jones.

Instead, children would have been sent throughout Jorvik to learn skills for adulthood. They might be apprenticed in wood or leather or metalworks. They could learn to work textiles or make pots.

"One of the things I am quite intrigued by is how children learnt to read," Dr Jones said. Our knowledge is equally sketchy as to how they did their sums. Being such entrepreneurial types, Vikings needed to be able to add up. Dr Jones believes they may have counted using the horizontal abacuses prevalent in other European nations.

In the Coppergate dig which gave birth to the Jorvik Centre, archaeologists found many objects which could either have been Viking counters, or pieces from board games.

One such game that the children would have played is the aforementioned hnefatafl: it encouraged strategic thinking, a little like chess.

What of religion? The Vikings came here as pagans but eventually converted to Christianity - partly persuaded, Dr Jones theorises, by the fact that the Church offered them more varied and tastier food, including wine and wheat bread.

He said: "You can quite easily envisage a kid in Viking York starting off being pagan and becoming Christian as mum and dad did."

The extended family was very important in the days of Jorvik. Aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces and nephews would come together for great feasts. Afterwards children would listen to the sagas, which they would eventually know off by heart, ready to pass on to the next generation.

It sounds, well, fun. And when food was abundant, a Viking child could have enjoyed happy times in Jorvik, said Dr Jones.

But disease, crop failures and political instability meant that those times must have been strictly rationed.

Highlights for children from the Jorvik Viking Festival

Friday, February 4, 12.30pm

Local schoolchildren perform a Viking saga in Coppergate Square to launch the festival then parade in full period costume to the

festival tent in St Sampson's Square to perform more sagas

Saturday, February 5 & Sunday February 6

Find out how Viking children lived at The ARC, St Saviourgate (11am-4pm)

Watch battle drill practice and take part in a Viking sage at the festival tent, St Sampson's Square (10am-4pm)

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Updated: 09:29 Monday, January 31, 2005