York: art and culture

Post-Roman Ebrauc (Eboracum)

According to the scholar Alcuin (c. 732–804), ‘York was  first established by the Roman army to be a merchant-town and a  stronghold for their governors. York was founded around AD 71 under the name Eboracum. Although the discovery of mosaic pavements, sepulchral inscriptions, and a sewage system suggest high standards of living for the residents of Eboracum, little is known about cultural and artistic life in the city during this period.

Around 410AD Eboracum was abandoned as a Roman military base. Following this, Germanic tribes from northern Europe, mainly Anglo-Saxons, settled the area. No contemporary written reference to the city exists between 314 and 627 and hardly any artisan crafts produced in V century can be found.

Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic

Pope Gregory I’s edict to convert England to Christianity in 601 marked an important turning point for York as a cultural center due to his proposal for an archbishopric in York. By 735, the cathedral in York housed one of the only two archbishops in England. Although the clergy in York lived in modest wooden homes among the Roman ruins surrounding the Cathedral, there was a scriptorium, a library, and active metal manufacturing.

The first evidence of York as a home of rare literature is from letters to Ecgbert, Archbishop of York from 735-766, from an Anglo-Saxon missionary named Boniface thanking him for a gift of books. After Ecgbert, York grew as a literary center. Aelberht (d. 780) was the head of the York school and had collected a diverse set of books from his journeys to the continent. When he became Archbishop of York in 766, his student Alcuin (c.735-804) took over responsibility of the school and his library and boosted its reputation even further, with people from all over Europe requesting access to its contents. Alcuin’s notoriety led to his appointment as headmaster of Charlemagne’s school in Aachen in 782. Because of this Alcuin is often credited as the architect of Carolingian culture. Through Alcuin and his library, Anglo-Saxon York had a profound influence on literary and ecclesiastical culture in Europe.


Material culture

A very significant part of our knowledge of the material culture of York over centuries comes from the Coppergate excavations (1976-1981).

The objects found include:

  • 5 tons of animal bones, and lots of oyster shells, providing evidence for the diets of people living in York over centuries;
  • Thousands of Roman and medieval roof tiles, sometimes re-used by the vikings for other purposes;
  • Metal working slag, providing evidence for technological advances;
  • A quarter of a million pieces of pottery;
  • 20,000 individually interesting objects.

The York Helmet (750 – 775)

An Anglo-Saxon helmet is a rare find. This one combines Germanic animal ornamentation with certain traits derived from Roman helmets. It is made of metal, which is an indication of a higher military hierarchy level of its owner, as opposed to the more common leather caps.


Anglian Burial Vessel

Cremation was a common practice in early medieval York. The ashes were stored in ceramic vessels like the one on the picture. These vessels and other cemetery remains are some of the only pieces of evidence of the existence of settlements in York in 5-7 century.


 Bone Trial Piece (410AD – 866AD)

Paper was a rare material in Anglian York. One of the substitutions used for sketches was bone.

Found in the Coppergate excavations in 1979.


Anglian Hanging Bowl (600AD – 699AD)

We don’t know exactly what this vessel from Anglian York was used for, but one of the theories is that it held holy water.


Anglian cross (700AD – 850AD)

This cross, made of a relatively cheap copper alloy, was most likely used as a brooch. It has an unusual style for Anglia, so it might be coming from elsewhere in Europe.


Anglo-Saxon carving of lay-people (850)

Originally this carving from the church of St Mary, Bishophill Junior, was probably the shaft of a cross.
Even though Christianity wasn’t popular in York at the time, a secular carving of simple lay-people was even more unusual. It is probable that this is a depiction of the patrons who paid for the carving.

Viking Jórvík

The Viking invasion of England in 866 served to boost York’s (now Jorvik) status in the region. As a result of the Danish invasion, Jorvik became the largest provincial town in England. Archeologists have found evidence of leather, wood, and bone manufacture as well as gold ornaments, bone skates, and jet chessmen, demonstrating a significant level of wealth among the population. This period was also marked by the manufacture of coin, crosses, and grave coverings which were all used in the surrounding region. For the first time, York was now capable of manufacturing art and other goods that could be distributed beyond the city itself. Jorvik thus became the artistic and cultural center of Northern England during this time period


Material culture

Viking coin stamp, with a dedication to St Peter and a Viking sword and hammer

The single coin-mint in the region was in York, thus, confirming the economic importance of the city.


Viking male comb

According to the 12th century writer, John of Wallingford,

‘…they [vikings] were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices.’


Viking boot

Viking Silk Cap (900 – 999)

Silk must have been rare in England at the time, which provides evidence for York vikings’ long-distance trade connections.

 Viking Sword Pommel

The pommel and guard above are made from whalebone, a very light material unsuitable for battle, suggesting they served a decorative purpose. They are pieces of material evidence supporting the written evidence of whaling in X century Britain.


Gold arm ring  Gold finger ring

Vikings carried their jewelry with them and buried it as deposits for the times of trouble. Silver was more common than gold, and jewelry was often cut into pieces to be used as currency; thus complete gold rings like the ones above are rather rare.


The Horn of Ulf (beginning of XI century)

The Horn of Ulf, named after its owner, a Viking nobleman Ulf, is a large elephant tusk which was carved by Islamic carvers in Salerno, Italy. The Horn acted as a land deed and was given to the Minster when the land transferred in to the ownership of the Dean and Chapter of York.


Works Cited

Garrison, Mary. “The Library of Alcuin’s York.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by Richard Gameson, 1:633–64. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521583459.033.

Lapidge, Michael, Blair, John, and Keynes, Simon. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013. Accessed March 11, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

“York | Grove Art”. 2019. Oxfordartonline.Com. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000092908.

“Coppergate Dig | JORVIK Viking Centre”. 2019. JORVIK Viking Centre. https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk/about/jorvik-story/coppergate-dig/#4ICOUwHd02LMlLvD.99.

“History Of York”. 2019. Historyofyork.Org.Uk. http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/.


  1. palenovad

    Some of our sources for York art and culture

    Encyclopedia of the Medieval Ages:

    Dictionary of the Middle Ages:

    The library of Alcuin’s York:

    Library of Wulfstan of York:

    Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England:

    Medieval Archaeology an Encyclopaedia:


    General overview:

    Material culture:

    Yorvik excavation project:

    Starting point for Coppergate helmet:

    A Viking Sock from Coppergate:

    + If we get stuck, we can talk to Matt Bailey (Library 470, 507-222-7670, mbailey@carleton.edu)

  2. pihlajaa

    Hi, I’m working on York’s Anglo-Saxon religious life and see that we have a bunch of overlaps in information, so we should probably work to figure that out tonight.


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