Thousands could visit York’s biggest historic dig since Coppergate – including every child in York

The five-year-excavation of Coppergate was a big attraction. Photograph: York Archaeological Trust / jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
25 Sep 2020 @ 11.21 am
| News

Ambitious plans were unveiled today to bring every child in York to witness the city’s biggest historic investigation in 40 years.

York Archaeological Trust has outlined a proposal to operate the biggest dig since it finished excavating the Viking treasures of Coppergate which finished in 1981.

And the trust wants to make this a ‘major new city centre outdoor visitor attraction’ – which could help boost York’s economy in challenging times.

Plans have been submitted by the trust and developers North Star to redevelop Rougier Street as the ‘Roman Quarter’ with flats, offices and commercial space, and an underground Roman museum.

This would be preceded by a two-year archaeological investigation of the site.

Under their plans,  a canopy will cover the entire site to enable digging to continue in all weathers over the two years, which will make it accessible to visitors and residents.

Perfect addition to York

Trust archaeologist Ian Milsted at work

Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, said many indoor attractions were challenged by the social distancing rules – including the trust’s own Richard III and Henry VII Experiences in Monk Bar and Bootham Bar.

“We have no idea what the next 12 months will bring for tourism in York – whether that is a gradual relaxing of social distancing rules and increased capacity for indoor spaces, or a tightening of restrictions if there are signs of a second wave of infection,” she said.

“But we do know that some of York’s indoor attractions are struggling to operate with low capacities and social distancing rules, including our two attractions within the city bars.

“An outdoor city centre attraction focused on heritage and history would be a perfect addition to York’s visitor economy, and that’s what we’re looking to provide with public access to the dig site over the two years that we are excavating.”

Engaging young people

If planning permission is granted for the development this autumn, the trust will start marketing Dig for Eboracum as a tourist attraction for summer 2021.

And it could be to this generation of York schoolchildren what Coppergate was in the Seventies and early Eighties to kids back then.

Sarah said: “A big part of the trust’s remit is to support education, so we’ve made an ambitious target of every school child in York visiting the site during the dig. 

“Just as children peered through the hoardings of the Coppergate when they visited the city centre with their parents in the late 1970s, we want today’s children to engage with this exploration of York’s history with physical visits and online activities that they will tell their own children about a generation down the line.”

David Jennings, chief executive of York Archaeological Trust, said: “We want local people to feel a sense of ownership, not just now, but for years to come as this historic site becomes as important to the city’s Roman heritage as Coppergate does for the Vikings – aspects of our local history that draw a truly global audience.”

What will they find?

How the redeveloped Roman Quarter might look. Image: planning documents

Archaeologists expect to find traces of many different eras in York’s history under Rougier Street – from Victorians to Vikings, Anglo-Saxons to Roman settlers.

Evidence unearthed at neighbouring sites suggests that the area sits adjacent to the main bridge into the military base that gradually expanded to become the Roman city of Eboracum.

“This is a site incredibly rich with archaeology, so we are very excited about what we may unearth – potentially, this could give us the same kind of insights into life in Roman York as the Coppergate dig gave us into Viking life,” adds lead archaeologist for the project, Ian Milsted.

Jorvik Viking Centre has welcomed more than 19 million visitors since opening in 1984.

It was built on the Coppergate site which yielded remarkably well-preserved Viking remains – including organic material, from wood and leather to human excrement – giving historians a unique insight into life in 10th century York. 

The Rougier Street site is known to have similar soil conditions which preserved the 1,000 year old timbers down to Roman levels – potentially providing similar preservation of 2,000-year-old Roman remains.