Bishop Big Dig to uncover Bishop Auckland’s hidden history

Archaeologists hope to engage the community in digging hundreds of test-pits across the town.
Archaeologists hope to engage the community in digging hundreds of test-pits across the town.

Throughout this year, a team of archaeologists from Durham University, in partnership with pupils from King James I Academy and local volunteers from The Auckland Project, are embarking on an ambitious plan to discover the hidden history of Bishop Auckland.

The Bishop Big Dig will explore the rich history of the town, from prehistory to the present day, and the team of archaeologists are asking local residents for help to uncover what lies beneath the ground in their gardens.

After recent excavations at Binchester Roman Fort and Auckland Castle, a little more is known every year.

Until now, however, the town itself has not received the same level of archaeological attention.

There are lingering questions that the team say only an archaeological exploration of the town can help answer, such as: Who lived in Bishop Auckland before the bishops? Why did the bishops choose to live where they did. What are the origins of the medieval town and what was daily life in the past really like?

The archaeologists will employ a tried and tested method called test-pitting, to dig hundreds of holes across Bishop Auckland town.

Test pits are discrete 1m by 1m holes, which are completely excavated and filled in again in a single day.
As these test-pits are dug layer-by-layer, the finds, like pottery, glass, buttons, and coins, are gathered together and analysed according to what soil level they came from.

John Castling, archaeologist at The Auckland Project and PhD researcher at Durham University said: “While one test-pit doesn’t tell us a great deal, the information from lots of test-pits can help us pinpoint zones of historical activity, including where people lived, where different industries were concentrated and how these changed over time.”

Explaining the test-pitting method, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, Chris Gerrard told the Bishop Press that it “has been used really successfully in a number of different towns and villages across the UK.

“It has provided insights into the hidden histories of places which would otherwise have remained unknown.

“The great thing about this technique is that it allows us to learn a lot about a big area where we wouldn’t otherwise be able to excavate.

“Traditional excavations are costly, disruptive and take a long time whereas test-pitting is quick, tidy and can happen wherever there is open ground.

“The magic happens when we piece together all those snapshots into the past to create a bigger story”.

To make this project a success, test-pits need to be dug in as many places as possible across the town, so the team are making an appeal to Bishop Auckland residents as they are seeking the use of private gardens and land wherever homeowners are willing and keen.

Project Officer and archaeologist Dr Caroline Smith explained: “In the past we have worked alongside homeowners who might have needed a hole dug for a new tree, or their flowerbeds and veg patches reworking.

“Other people have simply been fascinated to learn what history might lie beneath their lawns and have been very happy to let us dig our test-pit.

“Our techniques have been honed to cause as little disruption as possible.

“We put down tarpaulins, sieve the soil into sacks, and put the soil and turf back the way it came out of the ground so that we leave as little trace as possible.

“After the ground has resettled, the only lasting effect of us having been there will be the knowledge that residents have added a piece to the jigsaw of understanding Bishop Auckland’s rich history.”

If you are keen to find out more, or to sign up your garden to be part of The Bishop Big Dig, check out the project website

You can also find them on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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