York's Mr Archaeology Peter Addyman has announced he is to retire later this year after almost 30 years as director of the York Archaeological Trust. He spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS

YORK could so easily have been the City of Vicars, rather than the City of Vikings. If only that PR man had been a little less obsessed with the hard sell. Almost 30 years ago a young archaeologist called Peter Addyman was looking for sponsorship to help expand the work of the archaeology unit he'd set up in York.

He wanted the York Archaeological Trust to have a laboratory of its own, and a proper research institute with a staff of permanent archaeologists.

All of which would cost money. A PR man was called in: and he knew that if the trust was to attract sponsorship, it needed something to 'sell'.

"He said: 'What have you got to offer?'," Dr Addyman recalls. "We said we have this marvellous excavation of the Roman legionary fortress. He said 'Romans, h'mm, that's quite interesting. What else?'"

Which was when Dr Addyman mentioned the exciting excavation taking place near the Minster - the Vicars' Choral.

Nothing to do with singing priests - the Choral was actually a kind of hall of residence for the vicars of York Minster. The vicars were the priests who deputised for the Minster's canons back in the early 13th century. The trouble was that despite being in holy orders they were easily tempted by the sins of the flesh. "They got drunk and they were found in evil company," Dr Addyman says. "It was suggested that the best thing would be for a 'college' to be set up, so they would be less open to temptation."

The 'college' was actually a kind of communal priestly accommodation block - and it survived from about 1250 until Henry VIII blitzed the lot during the Reformation.

Whether it helped improve the vicars' morals or not isn't clear: but when archaeologists began to uncover it in the 1970s, they were quite excited.

Sadly, the PR man was less enthusiastic. "He yawned," Dr Addyman admits. "And then he said 'what else?'"

Which was when Dr Addyman thought of the other dig going on in York - the Viking site beneath Coppergate that was later to become the Jorvik Centre.

The way Dr Addyman tells the story, you can almost see the PR man's eyes light up. "He said 'Ah! Vikings. They're sexy. I can sell Vikings!'"

Dr Addyman's eyes twinkle. "And the rest, as they say, is history."

It's hard to imagine now, but before the Jorvik Centre - now known simply as Jorvik - nobody other than archaeologists really connected York with Vikings at all.

Jorvik is actually one of the achievements of the York Archaeological Society of which Dr Addyman is most proud. By the end of this financial year, he says, 13 million people will have visited the attraction. It's probably done more to promote popular understanding of and interest in the Vikings than anything else. And on top of that it has been, Dr Addyman admits, a "tremendous joy".

Nevertheless, 30 years of doing even something you love is a long time. Which is why Dr Addyman has announced that on September 30 this year, after precisely 30 years in the job, he will be hanging up his hat as the York Archaeological Trust's director.

Which isn't to say he will be turning his back on archaeology. "Archaeologists retire to do archaeology," he says. He's got a couple of projects up his sleeve yet.

The man who has become synonymous with archaeology in York first became hooked as a schoolboy.

Brought up in Harrogate, he helped out as a little boy with various excavations in York's Museum Gardens.

"I remember digging holes all around the Museum Gardens in a way we'd never be able to do now," he says. One of his first 'jobs' was to sit on top of the 'spoil heap' and look through dirt as it was shovelled out of the trenches.

As a little boy he remembers the excitement of finding his first artefact. He knew at once it was a bottle top, but the archaeologist in charge of the dig insisted on taking it away for proper identification. "A fortnight later he came and said 'Do you know what that was? It was a 16th century bottle top' and I thought 'I could have told you that!'"

Nevertheless, his passion for archaeology was born. After leaving primary school he went to Norwood College, a public school at Sedbergh not far from Kendal. While there, he and some school friends uncovered a medieval village at Underbank near Sedbergh.

Their discovery attracted the attention of the Ministry of Works, which despatched two experts to see what they were up to. The experts demanded to know whether they had been keeping proper records of their excavations. They had: and they were stored in the hen coop that was acting as their makeshift site office. "I dashed in, then 30 hens emerged at great speed, followed by me plus an enormous number of drawings," Dr Addyman recalls.

The experts, however, were suitably impressed; and Dr Addyman and his schoolmates published a report of their dig in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal before they left school.

There followed an archaeology degree at Cambridge and a spell as a research assistant at Queen's University, Belfast. During that time, while excavating an Anglo-Saxon village in Devon, he met the woman who became his wife, Shelly Oliver, a young American doctoral student from Atlanta, Georgia. After that, Dr Addyman wound up as a junior lecturer in Archaeology at Southampton University.

He was set for academia when, in 1971, he was enlisted by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and the Council for British Archaeology to write a report on the archaeological impact of a proposed inner ring road in York.

He completed his report in six weeks, recommending that because of the unique archaeology that was being threatened the city set up its own excavation unit. Such a unit would, he said, have enormous educational spin-offs, as well as being a potential tourism draw. Report written, he headed back to academia in Southampton.

The next thing he knew, he had received a telephone call saying the money to set up the unit had been found, and would he mind being its director.

The rest really is history. Over the past 30 years, the York Archaeological Trust has published 60 volumes on every aspect of the city's archaeology, and has put tens of thousands of items in storage. Thanks to its efforts, the archaeology of York is probably among the best documented of any city in the world. There is also the Archaeological Resource Centre in St Saviours Church which, along with Jorvik, is a cause of great pride to Dr Addyman.

It is all about sparking an interest in archaeology in young children, he says.

"I've always thought that if you catch a child at seven, you've got him for life. Well, some of the seven-year-olds who went to ARC are doing archaeology at university now."

Which is about as good a legacy as you can have.

Updated: 10:56 Tuesday, February 19, 2002