August 3, 2012 by talkaboutyork
School holidays, and despite having a very long to do list thanks to moving house, small boys still need entertaining. With a brand new city on our doorstep, this summer is all about exploring the many attractions York has to offer.
We started with DIG York. Owned by the same people who discovered the Viking-age city in York and created Jorvik, DIG gives kids the chance to become archaeologists for a day.
When I first arrived I was underwhelmed. Perhaps it was my hyperactive children who needed a bouncy castle to let off steam rather than ancient artefacts to handle. Or perhaps it was the price (£5.50 per adult and £5 per child – not extortionate but another chunk of money going out in the name of entertainment). Perhaps it was the cold wind that blew around the outside of the building where Victorian funfair games were set up. Whatever it was, I wasn’t initially blown away.
However, by the time we left I was a convert.
Situated in St Saviours Church on St Saviourgate, DIG demonstrates how archaeology has helped us understand York’s history, starting with the Romans, moving through to the Vikings, then the Medieval period and lastly the Victorians. You can simply turn up and wander around parts of the small museum but you need to book into a tour which run every half an hour. They say that in very busy periods you should book this in advance to ensure you get on a tour but we went in the middle of summer holidays and it was pretty quiet.
The tour starts in a small room with a guide who explains what you’re going to be doing and what archaeology is all about, i.e. not just the finding of old stuff, but what that old stuff tells us about how people lived.
Our guide was great and very quickly had the kids engaged. Once the preamble was over, you got to go into the DIG area armed with small plastic trowels. This area has four different ‘excavation sites’ based on real excavation sites found in York covering the four aforementioned eras.
Children (and grown ups) get to dig through the sand (a type of chopped up rubber, not real sand) in search of items stuck in the ground. So for example in the Roman period, you might find some dice and games tokens with a sheep’s jawbone. The kids loved finding things, but it was the guide who came over and asked them what those things might mean that really helped bring it to life. (In case you’re wondering, Romans who had the time to play games and the money to eat meat were pretty wealthy).
You get about 15 or 20 minutes to dig through the different sites. More time would be useful and having a guide with you permanently would have made it better (he had to cover several people digging at once) but it was still good fun. My top tip: if you’re going, wear long dark coloured trousers so that you can kneel down while you dig, as opposed to the white skirt I wore.
After digging you move to a station with trays containing fragments of real things found in excavation sites. Your job is to try put the pieces in labelled trays – anything from leather to pottery to bits of antler. The guide then tells you lots of interesting facts about the various pieces. The bit the kids loved the most were, rather unsurprisingly, the poo stories including the largest bit of preserved human poo in the world. See evidence of my son holding this lovely item.
The tour concluded there but you were then free to explore the rest of the museum with plenty of hands on activities for kids.
The bit I found most interesting was a slide show depicting a certain street in York and how it has changed from recent years all the way back to 1AD. Fascinating stuff.
While it costs over £15 for a mum and two kids, once you’ve paid to go to the DIG, you can go back as many times as you like for free over the next year, making it far better value for money as there is plenty more we could have looked at, but the children’s attention had drifted off. That’s what I always find about museums, children enjoy them but in bite sized chunks. So being able to go back several times to explore a bit more each time is great. You also get free entry into a temporary exhibition to Valhalla – in search of the Viking dead. That’s a trip for another day.
It was an unusual day out but one in which my children (and I!) really did learn something. I imagine that if you could have a tour guide all to yourself, you could learn a great deal more as the guides are actual archaeologists who obviously have a wealth of knowledge but who only have the time to gloss over the top line facts.
How did I know it was a success? When my 8 year old said: I think I’d like to be an archaeologist when I’m big.