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Fascinating medieval finds unearthed by archaeologists and volunteers at Auckland Castle


Jun 8, 2017
  • A major archaeological excavation of 900-year old Auckland Castle has provided rare insight into the medieval castle’s architectural structure and history
  • Experts from Durham University’s Archaeological Services have been working with more than 70 volunteers from regional charity, Auckland Castle Trust to excavate the site of a new museum extension in the Castle’s Scotland Wing
  • The investigation has provided further insight into the historically rich land surrounding the Castle, previously home to the Prince Bishops of Durham
  • This research has taken place as part of a wider development of the Castle in a major £70m revitalisation project being undertaken by Auckland Castle Trust

The archaeological excavation of 900-year old Auckland Castle, County Durham, has revealed some surprising details about the former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Experts have announced the discovery of a number of rare and unexpected artefacts, and revealed the previously unknown scale of the building, which appears to have a much larger footprint than the Castle that stands today.

The five-month dig centred on the site of the Castle’s Scotland Wing – ahead of its development into a new museum extension that is part of a major transformation of Auckland Castle.

The museum wing will restore the atmosphere of the early medieval enclosed spaces revealed by the dig, and will look to reflect the medieval archaeology within the layout and design of the enclosed garden, created to the south of the Scotland Wing.

One of the key discoveries has been the original location of the Western and Southern sides of the medieval Castle’s curtain wall, revealing the imprint of a network of impressive buildings that point to a significantly larger original castle structure than the present one.

Archaeologists have unearthed fragments of the former perimeter walls still standing to a height of up to one metre below the soil in some places. This surprising discovery expands the scale of the site substantially and would appear to suggest that Auckland Castle was not created as a Manor House for the Prince Bishops of Durham as previously thought, but that it has always stood as a large castle complex.

This hypothesis is supported by the discovery of a pillared gatehouse area and majestic staircase, revealed through the excavation process – these spaces are thought to date back to the 13th or 14th century.

An additional long room, dating between the 15th and 17th century, has also been unearthed, with its four large fireplaces indicating that it was once a busy kitchen serving the residents of Auckland Castle.

These impressive spaces would most certainly have been befitting of the private palace of the Prince Bishop of Durham; the second most powerful man in the country after the King of England, with immense political power on both a national and international stage.

The discovery has helped the Archaeological Services team and volunteers to build up a picture of what life would have been like at Auckland Castle – particularly in the time of Prince Bishop, Anthony Bek.

Bek served as Bishop of Durham 1283-1311, and was a key figure in Medieval England.  As a seminal figure in the life of Auckland Castle, Bek – alongside other Prince Bishops such as Wolsey and Van Mildert – is noted in history as a man who shaped the landscape of British faith and politics at a formative moment in history.

His tenure at Auckland Castle saw the palace developed to befit his status and the excavation hints at the opulent environment Bek would have enjoyed in his role.

Peter Carne, Manager of Archaeological Services Durham University said: “The building works at Auckland Castle have enabled an unprecedented amount of archaeological excavation and research into the Castle and its grounds.

“By piecing together the surviving foundations, it is possible to reconstruct the plan of the Castle in the medieval period, and how it has been adapted and changed through the following centuries. The massive scale and importance of the Castle in the past has really become apparent.

“It’s been great to work with such an enthusiastic group of volunteers in uncovering the remains, and we look forward to continuing to research the Castle and its origins in the years ahead.”

A trove of rare artefacts has also been discovered during the dig, including two Roman items; an ornate coin and a detailed copper figurine. Other fascinating finds include pottery and bone dating from the medieval period onwards, as well as a collection of pins, window glass, medieval silver pennies, an iron key and even a thimble.

The discovery of these items and extensive building perimeters will help the Curatorial team at Auckland Castle Trust to piece together the story of this celebrated building and share it with the public following a £17m restoration of Auckland Castle, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which is due for completion in 2018.

Dr. Christopher Ferguson, Curatorial Director for Auckland Castle said: “We’re really excited to have uncovered such a major finding at Auckland Castle, revealing the original scale of the Castle, which was much larger than was previously known.

“Looking to the future, we hope to add to the story of the lives of the Prince Bishops over the next few years, working on a research focused archaeologic al project that will reveal even more about the original Castle, its structure and contents.

“As part of a five year research programme led by myself and Professor Chris Gerrard at Durham University, we hope to find the lost major chapel of Bek and other structures from his palace.

“We will continue to work with the committed volunteers from Bishop Auckland, whose overwhelming support and community spirit have been such a great help in conducting the excavation.”

The restoration of Auckland Castle forms part of a wider £70m revitalisation programme being undertaken by Auckland Castle Trust, which also includes the creation of a new Faith Museum as an extension to the Scotland Wing where the archaeological dig has taken place.

The new museum, due to open in 2019, will include 10 specially designed gallery spaces and be the first of its kind to explore the history of faith in the British Isles, from prehistory to the present day.

To find out more about the excavation and the ongoing research on the artefacts and findings at Auckland Castle, please visit www.aucklandcastle.org

By Emily