ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 2, March 1995


Simon Denison talks to Chris Salisbury

Treading the hard road to success

It has been said that to be truly successful, one cannot afford to waste time in relaxation. If a case study of this rather severe maxim is needed, Chris Salisbury's life will do well enough.

Now 65, Dr Salisbury was a GP until his retirement a few years ago, who taught himself archaeology in his spare time and became a recognised specialist in waterlogged wood. For nearly 20 years, almost every evening and weekend have been taken up by his obsessive interest in the subject - mostly in the slow, unglamorous work of recording the archaeology of local gravel pits during extraction.

The importance of the work, however, is underlined by the occasional major discovery requiring immediate rescue excavation - such as the first of three medieval bridges across the Trent that he spotted recently at Hemington near Castle Donington.

Chris Salisbury is a man who avoids novels, which he adores, because they are `a waste of time', and who avoids most social life - arguing that `an archaeologist with a social life is probably not a good archaeologist.' He admits that his obsessive interest contributed to the breakdown of his first marriage; but he married again (this time to an archaeologist, although she promptly switched jobs and became a solicitor).

And his reward for all this dedication? Personal satisfaction aside, he was named Archaeologist of the Year in the 1994 British Archaeological Awards, and in addition won the Pitt Rivers Award for the best amateur project for his work at Hemington.

I met Dr Salisbury at his home, a traditional Nottinghamshire cottage with a new extension built painstakingly in the local vernacular idiom. Fastidious in all things, he designed and supervised the work himself. `I had to keep my eye on the builder every minute of the day. He did that part wrong,' he said, pointing to a whole section of wall, `and I made him do it all again.'

Chunks of the Hemington bridges - he insists they had no conservation value - are incorporated into the new building as lintels and door-sills; other chunks litter the driveway. Indeed, his entire garden is a kind of archaeological builder's yard - with a rockery shaped like a long barrow, a flight of steps built out of a Roman well, and medieval anchor weights lined up against the back fence.

For a driven man, Dr Salisbury is surprisingly gentle in manner, with a soft voice and a diffident smile. There is something boyish about his enthusiasms. He delights, for instance, in showing me the Sheela-na-Gig - a woman displaying her genitals, from medieval iconography - painted above his porch, and the brick phallus carved for his wife by a volunteer on one of her excavations. `He was an ex-convict,' Dr Salisbury explained.

However, if you had visited Dr Salisbury as a patient, this is probably not the side of him you would have seen. Hard on himself, he is also hard on others, refusing to prescribe `unnecessary' drugs for the third of patients nationally who visit their doctor with no detectable physical symptoms. He sent such patients away with a flea in their ear if they complained.

He has the same uncompromising attitude towards fellow amateur archaeologists who `whinge' about the supposed over-professionalisation of the discipline. `There is plenty of archaeology that needs to be done. They should simply go out and do it,' he said.

Partly for these reasons, Dr Salisbury professes himself `dead against' the Council for Independent Archaeology - an organisation set up to promote the interests of amateurs - predicting that it would `turn amateurs sloppy'.

`The proper role for amateurs is to be handmaidens to the professionals - as nurses are to doctors,' he said. `Professionals are responsible for maintaining rigorous standards, and I use them as my role models. I am, of course, better than many professionals, but that's because they are bad professionals.'

These are scrupulous words from a man whose talents entitle him to greater immodesty. Dr Salisbury is also a skilled photographer, carpenter and craftsman, building props for the local dramatic society and archaeological models for Nottingham's museums.

However, he says he has never wanted to be a professional archaeologist - saying the job involves `too much administration, and not enough pay'.

In that, perhaps, there lies a lesson for our times.

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