British Archaeology, no 7, September 1995: Interview

Simon Denison talks to Peter Addyman

So farewell then, Mr President

If the presidency of the CBA had a formal `job description', it might read something like this: massively time-consuming work, much of it at weekends, endless travelling to represent the CBA as advocate, conciliator, enthusiast and guide; payment, nil; thanks, occasional; pleasure, potential; prestige, enormous.

Sounds fun? Perhaps not. But Peter Addyman, who retires as President this month, has carried out the task with diligence and - he insists - great enjoyment for the past three years. There are many at the CBA, aware of the burden of work he has voluntarily taken on, who will be sorry to see him go.

Peter Addyman's `real job' is at the York Archaeological Trust, which he set up, and has directed, since 1972. The Trust is one of the most commercially innovative of Britain's professional units, and visitors are treated with a kind of smart business panache: we met there on one of the hottest days of the year, and out came the strawberries and sparkling elderflower cordial no instant coffee for guests at this unit!

Peter Addyman is canny and circumspect, naturally reticent about his feelings and private life, and aware of the fact that too much heart-searching in front of a journalist may not always do oneself, or one's organisation, any favours. His answers are often indirect - he tells you what he wants you to know - which makes him somewhat perplexing to interview. So to an extent one has to read between the lines.

Ask Peter Addyman what he himself has achieved at the Trust, or at the CBA, and he will tell you at length what each organisation has achieved. So what can be said about the man himself? One thing, perhaps, above all: the Trust's remarkable commercial innovations (such as designing visitor centres, publishing picture libraries on CD-ROM, and opening three tourist attractions in York, including the Jorvik Viking Centre) demonstrate his unparalleled ability to pick up a good idea and to carry it through to success. At the CBA, the ideas he has been proudest to run with have been the projects - last year on metal detecting, and this year on the Defence of Britain.

The Trust's commercial bent has attracted criticism from purists, but the criticism is almost certainly unfair; and to question him on it stings Peter Addyman into a defensive tone. He insists that the purpose of most of the Trust's enterprises has been to communicate the joy of archaeology to a wide audience (as well as to underpin the Trust's finances for continuing academic research).

He seems to have a genuine passion for the subject; and to believe that there is little point in research unless one shares its results with the outside world. The delight and wonder on the faces of children at the Jorvik Centre are not, he says, incidental to his work, but `what it's really all about'.

Peter Addyman was born in Yorkshire in 1939, the son of an engineer and amateur archaeologist. He took up archaeology at school, in his spare time, and read the subject at Cambridge in the company of such luminaries as Colin Renfrew, Martin Biddle and Barry Cunliffe. Afterwards, he taught at Belfast and Southampton Universities, and was beginning to make his name as an excavator of Anglo-Saxon sites when he founded the Trust at the age of 33.

Since then, he said, he'd `not done a damn thing' in terms of his own research. Did he mind? Not at all: for 23 years he'd supervised all the Trust's research and publications; he'd introduced `perhaps 10 million people' to archaeology through the Jorvik Viking Centre; and the Department for Education had just ordered 2,000 copies of the Trust's CD-ROM on the Vikings. In other words, he said, he'd reached far more people, through his organisation, than any number of academic book-writers.

Peter Addyman has an acute mind - throw him a metaphor, for instance, and he'll instantly throw it back with an unexpected spin - but he disguises his intellect at times behind a soft, hesitant voice, a remarkably quiet presence, and a slight tendency to ramble. It has meant that he has not, by and large, been a charismatic President of the CBA, but one who has `listened to other people's ideas, and tried to make sure the bright ones weren't dropped'.

And his hope for the CBA's future? Above all, he wants a `millennium campaign' of massive training excavations to be set up over the next five years - a `bright idea', he believes, that has not yet got off the ground. Considering his knack for backing winners, this is one that perhaps deserves a bit more thought.

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