Q&A | “We think of it as a launchpad catapulting you into the time of Anglo Saxon Winchester”
An innovative partnership between video game giant Ubisoft and Hampshire Cultural Trust has produced the imaginative – and immersive – experience 878AD in Winchester.
Opened in November in the 1990s-built Brooks Shopping Centre, one of the unusual aspects of 878AD is that shoppers (TK Maxx is next door) can pay their fee and walk in without having to make a special trip to a museum.
Ubisoft has lent its richly layered graphics from Assassin’s Creed to Hampshire Cultural Trust to integrate into the world of Anglo-Saxon Winchester. Visitors step into a space with noises, smells and actors playing Anglo-Saxons, interspersed with accessible large panels about the time and the people. There’s a large video wall with Anglo Saxon-Assassin’s Creed graphics where actors stand in front of and talk about their lives.
The exhibition design takes you to a time of mostly wooden buildings with museum objects integrated into this layered experience.
The world they’ve created is one on the brink of war with the Vikings in 878AD, but one of the most exciting aspects is just how accessible it feels for the everyday shopping centre visitor. You can step right in from the “street”, the objects and interpretation are accessible to ages 10 and up. The displays show different parts of Anglo-Saxon life – from medicine to law, games to music – there are people to interact with, a trail for kids, and it probably doesn’t take most people longer than 45 minutes to see.
“It's the smells, it's the feel, it's the noise,” says Jaane Rowehl, the director of collections and programming at Hampshire Cultural Trust. "It's everything around you."
How did the project come about?
Hampshire Cultural Trust had been looking for an opportunity to tell the story of King Alfred the Great and what his reign meant for Winchester for ages. We'd had many discussions about how we tell a story when the archaeological evidence is underwhelming. We’d been introduced to the video game company Ubisoft through another project, so that partnership wasn’t difficult, but this is the first time we've made an attraction with so many different elements – game graphics, museum objects and actors – on this scale. It's really exciting to see something that has existed in our heads for so long come to life.
Why the year 878AD?
Anglo Saxon kings ruled different areas across Britain, plus they often moved around a lot, which meant there wasn’t just one capital city, and Winchester was one of the many royal cities. The capital of the kingdom of Wessex, Winchester was also one of the capitals of Christianity, having been converted around 650AD and Alfred becoming a champion of the religion.
But the city also had good defences from previous conflicts, which was important because the experience we’ve made is based on the eve of war in 878AD. The Vikings, led by Dane Guthrum, were approaching Winchester preceding the Battle of Edington, which is an important moment in history because King Alfred the Great and his army from Wessex defeated the Vikings and maintained Anglo Saxon independence from the Danes, who had conquered East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.
Winchester was the stronghold and that's the story we want to tell here – Winchester as a safe haven on the eve of war, as Vikings close in.
We brought together a group of academic advisors – we had representatives from Winchester University, an expert in archaeology, experts in the English language, as well as an expert on Anglo Saxon music.
We talked about how we could enable visitors to connect with everyday people in Anglo Saxon Winchester. Then came the idea of zoning in on a moment in time that you could actually reconstruct. Then 878AD as a battle became our focus point. We think of it as a launchpad catapulting you into the time of Anglo Saxon Winchester.
What objects are on show in the immersive experience?
The 20 finds we've chosen come from across the city and are just tiny glimpses, but they representative the stories we want to tell. A flute helps paint the picture of music in Anglo Saxon times, and we also have a soundscape so that visitors get a flavour of the whole city being filled with noise.
But the star of the show is the Winchester Reliquary. It was found just outside the city’s defences in the 1970s. It is unique because it's one of the few Anglo-Saxon relics that we can securely date to the ninth century, and it tells a fascinating story about the role of religion. It has the shape of a bag and has decorated gilding on the outside – you can see the figure of Christ on it.
Through painstaking analysis the reliquary was found to have been sealed shut and would have remained so during religious ceremonies. We decided to respect that wish, so we had to use advanced techniques to find out what – if anything – was inside. As part of this project, we sent it to the University of Southampton for further research using the latest CT scanning equipment.
We now know that there is a piece of wood inside and some parchment. We think this is what’s meant to be a relic of the (supposed) One True Cross and a label saying just such because the reliquary might have carried a few other relics too. But ultimately, it's still a mystery.
How factual is the experience?
As you walk in, you’re met by an actor playing an Anglo-Saxon person and they take you around the space. The idea being that you get a particular person's view of the history they’re telling, which should give visitors a glimpse of how subjective history can be.
It’s just one person’s version of what the events of 878. And this gives us an opportunity to fill in gaps as to how a person’s story might have played out.
But they are calculated guesses – everything you hear has been tested, discussed and rigorously checked with our academic advisors to make sure everything we’re saying would have been possible.
Of course, some is absolutely based on historic evidence. For example, the Bald’s Leechbook, which contains a selection of medical remedies and cures, was written in Winchester in the ninth or 10th century so our section on Anglo-Saxon medicine is largely based on this, and you’ll hear snippets in the performances too.
What is the aim of the new app you’ve developed?
One of our objectives was to tell the story of the legacy of Alfred in Winchester and we felt the best place for you to see that is in the streets of Winchester.
We wanted to make sure that whatever experience you have is really closely linked to seeing the city. The app does just that, it gives you a suggestion of a route and on eight stops around the city you learn something about Alfred’s legacy. There’s also the option of downloading more information if you're interested.