It seems to me that the English in general have a very high tolerance strange affinity for camp and kitsch. The four-meter-tall statue of Freddie Mercury on Tottenham Court Road, the Charles Dickens theme park in Kent, and the endless pages of High School Musical 3 coverage in the free papers all seem to suggest that kitsch is as much a part of English culture as kawaii is of Japanese culture.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Jorvik Centre in the charming city of York. York is so far north it may as well be in Scotland, and it has a castle, and cool old city walls, and attractive buildings dating back to some ridiculously early period. Of course, practically every sizable city in England seems to have a castle and cool old walls and buildings, so what what really makes York special is the Jorvik Viking Centre. Around the same time The Specials gained national fame for “Ghost Town,” York was making headlines for the discovery of huge amounts of viking bones and artifacts below the city streets. The vikings apparently pillaged York in the early 900s, and the chilly, wet Yorkshire soil acted as a sort of refrigerator for all their stuff, preserving it neatly for a millennium or so. In 1979, a bunch of archaeologists decided to dig it all up, and the unlikely outcome of this massive excavation is the Jorvik Centre, a viking museum-theme park that feels like something that could have been an EPCOT Center reject.
Visitors are taken into a time machine that dumps them in the year 927, a few decades after the initial viking invasion of York, at that time called Jorvik (pronounced “you’re Vic”). Here they are loaded into a helmet-shaped gondola that tugs them through the viking settlement, complete with horrible animatronics, considerably better architectural recreations, and weird smells. Actually, make that weird smell – the literature on the Jorvik Centre says that visitors will be able to smell distinct things – viking food, viking poo, etc. – but really there is just one, overbearing odor through the whole thing, a sort of musty, yeasty, vaguely cheesy odor.
Following the viking settlement tour there are cabinet-style displays and employees acting like vikings who give little talks and demonstrations about viking material culture. This part was actually pretty interesting. I especially liked the information about the vikings’ diet – who knew they ate so many oysters? – and the interactive “Are you a viking?” quiz, which allows visitors to see how closely they resemble the vikings physically, culturally, and gastronomically. There was a queue for this and I was too impatient to find out whether or not I am a viking by the Jorvik Centre’s standards. But screw them, anyway – I don’t need their seal of approval!
I also liked the viking skeleton they had laid out which detailed all his wounds and grotesque ailments. The skeleton had about a dozen injuries from spears, arrows, and clubs, and the placard merely stated that he “probably” died in battle. Really, probably? The man had a spear wound that severed two of his cervical vertebrae. Ouch.