Lisa Byrne - my admiration for archaeologists
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 April 2017
In praise of toiling archaeologists who work to recreate the past for generations to come
I became obsessed with becoming an archaeologist in my early teens, though I am clueless as to what inspired me, it certainly wasn’t watching Indiana Jones movies, but I felt an invisible draw to the profession. The only explanation I can think of is that I’ve always felt like I’ve lived here before. Whether I’m walking through the ruins of Middleham Castle or traipsing the cobbled streets of York I genuinely feel part of the fabric. Maybe, that’s why all my homes have been old, with my current farmhouse being over 300 years old which is rather too new by my standards. Minimalism and modern are swear words in my dictionary.
So back in the mid-1980s I volunteered during the school holidays to help out on a dig for York Archaeological Trust in Fishergate. Unfortunately, after a few hours I realised the tedious hard labour it entailed wasn’t suited to an impatient, sulky teenager like me. I was bent double pawing through the soil for what seemed like an eternity, and spotting that I was finding it tough, the head archaeologist allowed me to sit down to slowly sift through pounds of soil. Naively, I thought I might discover a Roman jewel or a horde of medieval coins, but all I found were some animal bones, broken pottery and a few green shield stamps. Suffice to say I didn’t last too long and decided to read medieval history at university instead.
Which is why I have so much admiration and respect for the archaeologists who trample our county in the hope of opening our eyes to discovering the way our ancestors lived. Not for them the quick fix of the metal detector treasure hunter, trying to find loot from long forgotten relics lying beneath our feet. Instead archaeologists break their backs toiling through all weathers, not for any financial gain, but for the quest to recreate the lives of the past for generations to come.
Yorkshire proudly boasts one of the most famous museums in the world, the JORVIK Viking Centre, which has welcomed millions of visitors from across the globe, keen to discover the sights, sounds and smells of what life in Viking York was really like. Between 1976 and 1981 hundreds of archaeologists worked endlessly to uncover one of the best preserved Viking sites ever excavated, which was transformed into an amazing history centre with rides and characters telling the story of the Vikings as human beings, rather than stereotypical cartoon characters who do nothing but murder, rape and pillage.
Which is why it was so devastating for us all when on the 27th of December 2015 water was spotted seeping into the centre’s lower level. Unfortunately, the growing flood which had decimated much of Yorkshire was intent on annihilating the Vikings. Terrified of its impact the collections team rushed to remove priceless artefacts as they watched in horror as the water flooded into the recreated Viking wharf which had to be urgently stripped out. Only the elevated Coppergate street scene remained without water damage - with all the various exhibits having to be stored in special conditions.
Only now - down to a multi-million pound investment from insurance and funds raised by the nation through #CampaignCanute, which has the Prince of Wales as its patron - can the centre be reopened. The Jorvik team are keeping the ideas behind the newly reimagined Viking city under wraps, though we know that many of the characters will be animatronics rather than static models and there’ll be new displays depicting the day to day lives of the people of Jorvik. But with lots of surprises in store for the transformed museum, I for one will be first in the queue when the centre finally reopens on April 8th.