How do we know how people lived in the past if they don’t write about it? This is when finds from archaeological excavations come into use and they can reveal a lot about the communities who settled there. This includes diet, climate, town planning, resources available, trade networks, and what people held important in their everyday lives. Another aspect they can highlight is the activities of everyday life, and here, Viking-Age York (Jorvik) will be used as an example, in particular, one street in York’s modern city center, Coppergate.
Scandinavian York during the 10th century became a booming manufacturing hub that supported many industries, most notably crafts. A wide range of crafts was possible due to an apparent extensive trade network and objects that flowed through the city, from silver and gold likely from mainland Europe or Ireland, tin from Cornwall, and stone ingot molds from the Shetland Isles or Scandinavia. The excavations that occurred under Coppergate between 1972-81 left over 40,000 objects of an archaeological context over 1000 square meters to dig that in parts went 9 meters of archaeological layers deep!
Due to the peaty, moist soil, a vast number of objects such as textiles, organic materials, and timber were preserved. This vastly helps with revealing different aspects of crafts undertook in Viking-Age York. Firstly, the name Coppergate derives from the Old Norse, Kopparigata, meaning street of the cup-makers. The etymology of the name matches with archaeological objects discovered. Evidence of woodworking was prominent in archaeology with wood shavings, tools, and hundreds of wooden cores found. Wooden cores are characteristic debris from turning wooden bowls or cups on a rotary pole-lathe and the vast number found indicates that normal wooden tableware, such as cups and bowls, were being mass-produced on a commercial scale on Coppergate in the 10th century. There is also evidence for special workshops on the street just for woodworking which highlights how prominent and necessary it was in everyday society. In combination with timber building remains, craft industries present occurred in houses-cum-workshops with fronts onto the street, clearly, the Vikings also made working-from-home fashionable!
However, the street of the cupmakers was not just exclusively reserved for woodworking and other crafts and industries have been discovered here, suggesting this area was a popular industrial area that would have been busy with residents and those coming to purchase goods or trade their wares. There is evidence for a thriving metalworking industry, with knives, dress accessories and tools being produced in various qualities of metal; gold and silver for those who could afford, but also a cheaper option of copper or lead alloys. Archaeological objects discovered suggested that all aspects and stages of production were visible including metal-separating trays, crucibles and moulds through to the finished products. There were also waste products such as off-cuts and failed castings and even evidence of a blacksmith’s workshop on site.
Other industries that were present alongside wood and metalworking include perhaps more delicate crafts such as leatherworking and bone and antler carvers. Shoes were constructed from leather (there is also evidence for shoe repairs too). Additionally, belts, pouches, straps and thongs were also constructed from leather alongside elaborately and intricately decorated sheaths and scabbards. The location of leatherworking was determined from the site of off-cuts of cow and occasionally sheep hide. Additionally, the use of bones in fine crafts was also seen in the construction of small finger rings, game pieces and amulets. Larger pieces of bone were used for handles for knives and tools and even for skates! Bone could also be used as a type of musical instrument once holes were carved into it and then threaded onto twisted cord which would be pulled from both ends. The resulting sound would be a buzz or a hum like noise. Hygiene instruments, especially combs, were also created from bone or antler, and these were among the most numerous finds on Coppergate, reflecting the activities of general grooming but also as tools for removing head lice which would have been just as prominent in the 10th century as today. Most combs were also intricately carved which suggests that they were important and valuable objects that were also made to be appreciated alongside their practical use.
It is clear that from the archaeology, York was a Scandinavian focal point in Northern England that functioned as a trade center due to the crafts and industries that were supported in the settlement and benefitted from a vast trade network from other areas of the country and also from further afield such as Scandinavia or mainland Europe, if not further afield. What can also be seen is that certain products, just like today, would also have been treasured and valuable, such as bone finger rings, whilst everyday items such as cups and bowls would have been produced on a large scale and were thus less valuable, but as equally important for everyday life. The range of industries and crafts in Viking Age York reiterates the importance of York as a settlement during the 10th century and that it appeared to flourish and expand under the Scandinavian rule. Come back soon to find out more about life in this Scandinavian stronghold, the Viking home away from home.
Information and all images used were kindly provided by the Jorvik Viking Centre and York Archaeological Trust.
About the author
Medieval historian and archaeologist from the UK, specialising in the historical archaeology of the “outland” in Scandinavia and Northern Britain. I obtained a 2:1 Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Ancient and Medieval History from the University of Birmingham and a Master of Humanities (Archaeology) (two years) from Uppsala University.
I am also in the process of completing a Master of Arts in Global Environmental History (two years). My archaeology thesis focused on identifying, locating, and contextualising a medieval region called the Ragundaskogen in eastern Jämtland (Sweden) using written sources from the Jämtland and Härjedalen’s Diplomatarium from a Niche Construction perspective.
My future goal is to complete a PhD with an interdisciplinary focus allowing me to pursue both my love for analysing texts and archaeology. In my spare time I can usually be found doing High Intensity Interval Training, cooking or snuggling up with a historical fiction novel and a dram of scotch.