Community excavation projects unveils local history

Durham University

Two school pupils digging in a test pit

A collaborative community project involving our Department of Archaeology has unearthed thousands of artefacts from back gardens in a bid to reveal the history of a North East town.

About the project

The Big Dig the project, which was launched at the beginning of the year, is an archaeological project exploring the history of Bishop Auckland. It is part of an Economic and Social Research Council funded project by Durham University’s Archaeology Department, in partnership with The Auckland Project and pupils from King James 1 Academy, in Bishop Auckland.

Members of the public were asked to donate their back gardens or other outdoor spaces to the project, in a bid to bring local history to light.

The team use a tried-and-tested method called ‘test-pitting’ to ensure minimal disruption to the donated gardens. Test-pitting involves the use of a thick pond-liner, with a 1x1m hole cut out of the middle. The soil is then removed in layers and placed on the liner, where it can be sieved, before being put back into the hole in the same order.

Unusual discoveries

The staff and students from our Department of Archaeology and volunteers from The Auckland Project provided specialist training to the pupil from King James 1 Academy, so they could support in the miniature excavations.

During these excavations, the team has discovered over two thousand finds so far, which has included everything from toys, coins, animal bones and even fizzy drinks bottle which were made in Bishop Auckland.

One of the quirkier finds was a 1970s fire alarm buried a metre under the ground, which the team believe may have been buried after the alarm sound couldn’t be switched off.

Despite there being no indication to Roman archaeology so far, as the team would have expected, some gardens have produced lots of medieval finds, which the team hope to use to map out the evolution of the town over the past 1,000 years.

The Auckland Project will be hosting events throughout the year where members of the public can see what has been found. The Big Dig project ends in December of this year. The team predict they are on track to excavate over 100 gardens and would like to hear from anyone who has a garden or open area that might be suitable.

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