For the first time, a regional museum is showing its medieval and Viking treasures at the British Museum. Steve Pratt discovers the story of England’s capital of the North and unearths an unusual recipient of a Blue Peter badge.
THE gallery at the British Museum is crammed with extraordinary objects of national and worldwide significance, as keeper of prehistory and Europe Jonathan Williams calls them.
There’s the York Helmet, the most outstanding Anglo-Saxon find to survive in Europe, and the Middleham Jewel, regarded as one of the finest pieces of Gothic jewellery found in this country. In another display case is the 1,000-year-old Gilling sword, one of the best preserved Viking swords ever found.
This two-edged iron sword with a handle decorated with silver has something no other object in the Treasures From Medieval York exhibition has – a Blue Peter badge.
Nine-year-old Garry Fridd discovered the sword in 1976 while playing in a stream at Gilling, near Richmond. He was later awarded a Blue Peter badge for his efforts and another badge was given to the sword.
The ninth century sword is among Yorkshire Museum treasures on display at the British Museum, in London. The York city centre museum, the country’s second purpose-built museum, is closed for a £2m refurbishment.
The closure gave the two museums the opportunity to come together to tell the story of “England’s other capital”, a phrase those selling York to tourists may adopt.
One of medieval England’s most powerful cities, which rivaled London in size and importance, York was the main administrative and judicial centre for the North of England.
The exhibition marks the first time a regional museum has been invited to show its collections at the British Museum.
“And what things they are,”
says Mr Williams.
“It’s a first for us and very important. York was the focus for power, authority, religion, arts and wealth other than London. York was not only a city of religious significance but the capital of the North.”
THIS is the latest stage in a long collaboration after British Museum experts handled the research and conservation of the objects when they were found.
Mr Williams said: “It’s mutually beneficial.
It’s a great opportunity to show things we don’t have and show to an international audience.”
The star objects are certainly shown at their best. The York Helmet, dating from the 700s and possibly owned by a member of the Northumbrian royal family, is one of the most extraordinary Anglo-Saxon objects to survive in the UK. It was found by the operator of a digger starting work on a shopping centre in 1982.
A Viking gold arm ring, probably worn by a Viking royal or favoured warrior, was discovered in very different circumstances – in the sock drawer of a York builder after his death.
The Vale of York Viking Hoard, the most important find of its type in Britain for more than 150 years and recently jointly acquired by the two museums, was found by metal detectorists.
This collection consisted of precious metal objects – including 600 coins, complete ornaments, ingots and chopped-up fragments known as hack-silver – in 2007. The gilt silver vessel in which these were contained was the most spectacular single object of all.
Another metal detectorist found the Middleham Jewel, dating from 1460 and an outstanding example of medieval craftmanship.
The diamond-shaped pendant includes a valuable sapphire. Engraving suggests it was made for a pious woman with worries about pregnancy or epilepsy to contain a religious relic.
The Middleham ring comes from the same period and the word “sovereynly” engraved on it suggests ownership by a court member or leading noble of the period. One of the finest pieces of Anglian silversmithing found in England, the Ormside bowl, is on show. Made in York and probably seized by a Viking warrior as loot, it was buried with him in Cumbria. The outside is covered in fabulous beasts nestling among a vine. The silver lining is held in place by silver and glass studs.
Less glittering prizes such as a silk cap, leather boot and Viking woollen cloth are on show. These were unearthed from parts of medieval York where the soil was waterlogged and anaerobic (lacking in oxygen). This preserved organic products that tell a great deal about people’s lives and occupations.
THE London exhibitions serve as a good advertisement for the reopening of the Yorkshire Museum on August 1, Yorkshire Day, and restoration work also uncovered a skeleton.
“This is being looked at to see if it’s medieval or Roman,” says Janet Barnes, chief executive of York Museums Trust. “It was obviously there when they built the museum in 1830.”
Staff have elected to do some work rather than call in building contractors. Interior walls, mainly of hardboard, have been removed and windows unblocked to create a more spacious and lighter museum.
Ms Barnes said: “It’s like a different place.
We’ve been able to recycle a lot of stuff, giving some to other museums and selling some.”
The new-look museum is aiming to increase the number of visitors, doubling or even trebling the current 70,000 figure. “The refurbishment will make people realise the quality of the collections and how important Yorkshire is,” says Ms Barnes.
Treasures From Medieval York is at the British Museum until June 27. For more information on Yorkshire Museum visit yorkshiremuseum.org.uk