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Discovering the ‘Sole’ of England’s Vikings

By David Ellis
Special to The Epoch Times
Nov 08, 2005

A Typical Viking Street: This market stall trading in poultry has the sounds and smells accompanying the scene to recreate the original atmosphere. (Dave-ford.co.uk)
High-resolution image (640 x 516 px, 1 dpi)

Dr. Peter Addyman collects shoes. He’s got nearly 10,000 pairs of the things, and is showing no signs of letting up.

But his is no footwear fetish. In fact, he’s seldom even tried putting a pair on, and when he gets them he doesn’t even consider sticking them in the wardrobe. He puts them in the freezer.

Dr. Addyman is an English academic, and despite what it seems, he’s no doddering professor. He just likes collecting the unusual and the older it is, the better. So successful has he been that the Queen’s even given him a CBE for his efforts.

The shoes in Dr. Addyman’s collection are hundreds of years old, and were recovered from a huge archaeological ‘dig’ that sprawls over – or rather, under - a great part of England’s bustling City of York.

Even more interesting, they’re all the discarded or misplaced footwear of Vikings who invaded the place from around the year 793. After their conquest, these Vikings decided England wasn’t a bad sort of a place, and many stayed on to farm and trade, doing an occasional bit of pillaging and plundering on the side just to stay involved and to uphold family traditions.

And so York became something of a Viking center in England.

Along with his shoes, Dr. Addyman has 20,000 or so other items that he’s uncovered in his work with the famed York Archaeological Trust and what is known as Jorvik, The Viking City, an almost-living museum that he founded in 1984 after an archaeological ‘dig’ he conducted between 1976 and 1981.

That ‘dig’ produced Britain’s largest and most varied collection of 10th century remains ever – and resulted in Dr. Addyman going on to do something that’s never been done before: he exposed the remains of an entire community that once lived 11-meters under a now-thriving, pulsing center-city, and then reconstructed a complete ‘ancient village’ directly below the high-rise bricks, mortar, roads and traffic of modern-day York.

To the amazement of colleagues and skeptics alike, he also talked private enterprise into both financing it, and then building a series of subterranean Disneyland-like ‘time stages’ through which visitors could travel on computerized ‘time cars’ on a magnetic track to view life-size dioramas of village and community life as it was in Viking days of yore.

It was while excavating his dig-site that Dr. Addyman came across not only the thousands of perishing shoes he’s collected, but the tens of thousands of other ‘treasures’: pieces of human bone, weapons, armor, food scraps and even entire meals, fragments of clothing, tools and cooking utensils, and perfectly preserved human waste.

"Because the soil’s constantly moist, all these items have remained pretty-well preserved, as have many of the timber foundations of Viking buildings we’ve found deep under York City," says Dr. Addyman. "They give us a marvelous insight into life in those days.”

So much so that Dr. Addyman and his fellow-archaeologists have been able to recreate under York what village life was like in Viking times, with life-size streetscapes of thatched houses, workshops, alleys, a wharf, ‘tradesmen’ and ‘craftsmen’ as they would have been at work, fishermen, street vendors, silversmiths and others.

There are also life-size wax ‘children’ at play in the streets, and the sounds of voices and street noises as archaeologists speculate they would once have been heard – even the smells of the time--wood smoke, fresh apples, a home kitchen, fish and a dockside pier.

Remarkably, but thankfully only briefly, there is an encounter with a cesspit as the ‘time car’ glides past a wax Viking doing his business behind a low wicker privacy screen. (All the odors are created by heating special oils; and if you REALLY do need to know, Dr. Addyman believes that in the absence of paper in those days, the old Vikings used strips of discarded clothing – or handfuls of mosses to complete their needs.)

Jorvik, The Viking Center is open daily. Odyssey Travel specializes in cultural and heritage travel for inquisitive Australians over 45, and has a number of ‘programs’ to the UK every year, including York and an exclusive one-hour talk and slide show by the remarkable Dr. Addyman.

This is followed by a personally-conducted tour of Jorvik, The Viking City and its archaeological ‘time stages.’ For more information call Odyssey Travel in the UK at (02) 4224-7000.