Home / World Localities / Inside York’s new Roman museum: a time-traveller’s guide

Inside York’s new Roman museum: a time-traveller’s guide

Our business today isn’t with this block of flats, however. Instead, we turn down the narrow lane that is Tanner Row. Half way along, we turn left, go down some steps – and suddenly we’re in a different world.

A recreated Roman road runs along behind the new block of flats to Station Road. Looking down the length of the Roman street, you can actually see a section of the city wall in the distance.

Actors dressed as Roman tradesmen and farmers are chatting to people standing in a queue which has formed half way down the street. They’re teaching them snippets of Latin, and also taking them on at knucklebones, the simple Roman dice game. A woman is playing a Roman harp.

Artist’s impression showing how the entrance to Eboracum might look. Concept only

The queue is filtering slowly through a wide entrance into the building on the left under a sign which says ‘Eboracum‘. The visitors troop down two flights of stairs, into a deep double basement 25 feet underground. And then they step out into the Roman city of Eboracum.

A Roman street with side alleys leading off has been recreated deep beneath Rougier Street, on the very site which archaeologists spent more than two years excavating.

The Roman city recreated deep underground here fills most of a space that is almost 100 feet by 100 feet. So it is twice the size of Jorvik. And unlike in the Viking museum, you can wander freely around these streets, interacting with the actors that populate the street, the shops and the stalls.

A computer generated image showing what a recreated Roman city beneath York might look like. Concept only

At one side of this deepest level of the museum, there is a glass floor. Below it, you can see a section of the remains of a large public building that was discovered beneath Wellington Row before the Aviva building was built. A complex light and graphics display plays around these archaeological remains, bringing this ancient building back to life. The mosaic floor stretches out, the walls rise, people pace the floors. Then it all flips back to the bare archaeological remains, before the whole display begin again.

Elsewhere, there is a model showing a reconstruction of the whole Roman civilian city which once stood on this side of the river, complete with streets, public buildings, temples, a forum, and a bridge over the Ouse to the military fort across the river. Again, lights and graphics are used to show how the city changed over the course of 300 years of Roman occupation: from a small settlement huddled across the river from the fort to a substantial city with streets, public buildings and squares. Towards the end of the Roman period, it changes again. Farms appear within the city limits, as it becomes less heavily urbanised.

How a model of York’s Roman civilian city might look. Concept only

On the floor above the ‘deep basement’ – but still underground – there are galleries displaying some of the Roman artefacts uncovered during the dig: stone, masonry, pottery and metalwork, of course, but also items of clothing and leatherwork preserved by the waterlogged conditions. There is also space for learning areas, possibly a performance space and – something Jorvik doesn’t have – a proper visitors café.

A tower-like structure spanning both floors of the underground museum, meanwhile, contains a timeline, featuring some of the kinds of people – soldiers, artisans, shopkeepers, slaves, civil servants – who might have lived in the civilian city at different points of its history

All this is how bosses at York Archaeological Trust would like the new museum to develop. But will it really look like this?

The exact look of the museum will depend partly on what is found during the archaeological dig. It will also depend on the stage of museums technology at the time work begins on actually building the museum, a few years from now. “So lots of things will probably change,” admits David Jennings, chief executive of the York Archaeological Trust.

But the plan is very much to take the idea of Jorvik – about recreating and bringing to life a Viking city, its people and their everyday lives – and apply it to the new Roman museum, but using the latest technology.

York Archaeological Trust chief executive David Jennings

So it will be very much the full experience – sights, sounds, smells, a Roman city reconstructed underground on the site of the remains of the actual Roman civilian city.

The recreated ‘Roman street’ that leads off Tanner Row to the entrance of Eboracum could be used for entertainment and other Roman-related activities that give a flavour of what the museum itself is like.

And will there be animatronic Romans that move and talk in the museum, or is that just too old hat?

Possibly, David days – that hasn’t been decided yet. One problem with new technology is that it can become dated very quickly – so the designers of Eboracum, as the new Roman museum is to be called, will be a little wary of relying too much on the latest whizz-bang technology. “We want to try to create a complete experience, incorporating smell, sight and sound. we will be using the latest technology where we can – but we don’t want to get carried away with technology for technology‘s sake.”

They are keen, however, to learn from good examples elsewhere – that idea for a glass floor revealing archaeological structures that are then extended and completed using light displays and graphics, for example, comes from the Domus Romane museum in Rome.

The archaeological trust is also determined that, while Eboracum will be a museum with the wow! factor, everything will be based on solid evidence.

View through the floor of the proposed Roman museum to real archaeology below. Concept only

That idea that towards the end of the Roman period, for example, Roman cities in northern provinces like Britain became less urbanised and perhaps less heavily populated is based on solid evidence.

Something called ‘dark earth’ has been found on the site of several Roman cities – including during previous digs in York. It dates from the late Roman period, and is evidence that farming was going on within the city walls from about 300AD onwards.

Is it proof that towards the end of the Roman period, Roman York was already in decline?

Not necessarily, David says. When York was first settled by Roman legionaries in 71 AD, most of the army recruits would have come from established Roman provinces such as Spain and Gaul (modern France). By the late Roman period, army recruits would have been mainly locals from this part of Britain.

The Romans were no longer invaders, perhaps – they were part of the local community.

So the de-urbanisation of Roman York from 300AD onwards may not have been a sign of decline, merely a change in the structure of Romano-British society. “So it may not be depopulation but a dispersal of the population into rural areas,” David says.

One thing’s for sure. The Roman York of 300 AD was very different from that of 100 AD – just as York today is very different from the York of 1820 The new Roman museum will try to capture that change

THE ROMAN DIG

The archaeological dig beneath Rougier Street is expected to start this summer, and will last probably for two years.

The York Archaeological Trust is keen to involve as many people as possible: not just as passive observers, but also through educational visits, by inviting volunteers to help archaeologists clean, sort and label finds, and through ‘citizen science’ in which local people – including schools – help with the analysis of samples like leatherwork.

To find out more about how you can be involved, visit digforeboracum.co.uk/ to register for a newsletter which will give information about the project.

WHAT DO ARCHAEOLOGISTS THINK OF THE APARTMENT BLOCK?

An artist’s impression of the proposed 11-storey apartment block on Rougier Street. Image: MCAU

The plans submitted earlier this month for the Roman museum and the 11-storey apartment block above were lodged jointly by York-based developer North Star and the York Archaeological Trust. But what do archaeologists think, honestly, about the block of flats?

The application is the result of a genuine partnership that will bring public benefits for the city, says David Jennings. A lot of work has gone into the design of the apartment block, which will align with other buildings in the area. And it will be open and accessible at ground level. “The building has been designed to create a much greater engagement at street level,” he says.