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York displays its treasures

24 May 2013


Undercroft display: the cathedral's collections manager, Vicky Harrison, with the tenth-century Horn of Ulf

Undercroft display: the cathedral's collections manager, Vicky Harrison, with the tenth-century Horn of Ulf

A VIKING drinking-horn that doubles as the original title-deeds for York Minster, and "wallpaper" from the headquarters of the Romans' Ninth Legion, which once stood on the same site, feature in a new display that opens tomorrow at York Minster.

"Revealing York Minster" is said to be the largest visitor-attraction inside a British cathedral, and displays the location's history over the past two millennia, from Roman fortress to church, and treasure-house of historic regalia still in use today.

The ornately carved drinking-horn is fashioned from an elephant tusk, and its presentation was a Viking tradition signifying the completion of a deal. It was given by a Danish nobleman, Ulf, who donated the land on which the first church in York was built.

The story was that Ulf, a favourite of King Cnut (Canute) rode into York shortly before his death in about 1029, bearing his favourite drinking-horn. There he filled it with wine, knelt before the altar, and bestowed upon "God and the blessed St Peter, Prince of the Apostles, all his lands and tenements".

Experts believe that it is Persian, and dates from the tenth century. The scholar Cyril Bunt once suggested that it might have been exchanged by Viking traders for Anglo-Saxon slaves.

It is now a centrepiece of displays in six chambers in the medieval minster's undercroft. The spaces have been opened up in an area first excavated in the 1970s, when emergency work was done to shore up the fragile fabric of the cathedral's central tower.

New surveys have also unearthed the foundations of the earlier Norman cathedral, and, below them, the walls of the Roman fortress that was home to the Legio IX Hispana, the Ninth Legion, which vanished in mysterious circumstances in about AD 117, after marching north from York to quell an uprising. 

Large portions of a brightly coloured fresco that once decorated a senior legionary officer's quarters were rescued from the rubble around the walls, which are now covered by a glass floor, allowing visitors to look down into the first-century stonework.

Also on show will be the York Gospels, an exquisitely decorated 11th-century volume that includes the oaths still in use by the Archbishop, Dean, and Canons of York when they take up office.

The displays are the latest part of a £20-million restoration, supported by a £10.5-million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Dean of York, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull, said: "York Minster has stood at the heart of the city for centuries, but even before that, this site was instrumental in the growth of York from a military barracks into a major conurbation.

"The land on which the cathedral now stands has been a centre - military, political, social, and theological - for that whole time, influencing not only regional but national history. 'Revealing York Minster' brings together the archaeological discoveries and the written archives dating back to the seventh century."


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