Q&A with Christopher Ferguson

Excavation reveals key finds at Auckland Castle, County Durham
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Eleanor Mills
Archaeologists have discovered significant medieval and Roman finds on the site of Auckland Castle, County Durham, one of the best-preserved medieval bishops' palaces in Europe.

As part of a site-wide development project (with the first phase set to be completed in 2018), experts from Durham University’s Archaeological Services department, with the help of 70 volunteers from Auckland Castle Trust, have conducted an excavation.

Previously unknown parts of the castle site have been revealed, as well as a number of precious artefacts, which will inform research happening around the redevelopment of the venue.

Christopher Ferguson, the curatorial director for Auckland Castle, talks more about the excavation and the prospects of this important medieval religious stronghold.

What new discoveries have been made at Auckland Castle?

The excavations at Auckland Castle have given the first real insight into the medieval development of the Prince Bishops’ palace complex. The archaeological investigations have revealed the original location of the western and southern sides of the medieval castle’s defensive walls, a pillared gatehouse area and majestic staircase thought to date back to the 13th or 14th century.

A previously unknown range of Tudor buildings, running parallel to the northern Scotland Wing of the present-day castle have also been revealed, as well as a number of rare and unexpected artefacts. These include an ornate Roman coin and a detailed Roman copper figurine, 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 a thimble.

Why is this significant?

Auckland Castle, like almost all the Episcopal palaces of England, has previously had very little archaeological research dedicated to it. The massive scale and nature of the original complex reflected the power of the Prince Bishops of Durham. The castle’s remains were substantially demolished as a result of the English civil war in the area we’ve been excavating, but they show the ambition of one of the most important Prince Bishops – Anthony Bek.

As a key advisor to King Edward I (monarch from 1272 to 1307), bishop Bek was a central figure in medieval English society. He constructed numerous palaces for himself as Prince Bishop of Durham, including Eltham Palace in south London, and expanded his castle in the town of Bishop Auckland.

Archive evidence also suggests he built a substantial two-storey chapel here to mirror that of the king’s at Westminster. We hope to identify the location of this lost chapel, and the rest of the early castle, over the coming years.

Will the findings be put on display?

Some of the finds will be displayed either within Auckland Castle itself when it reopens in 2018, or within the new Faith Museum due to open in 2019. The development of the castle from the medieval period to the present day will be part of the visitor experience.

It is by piecing together the surviving foundations that we have found it possible to reconstruct the plan of the castle in the medieval period, thus learning how it has been adapted and changed throughout the following centuries.

What can people expect to see on completion of the castle's redevelopment?

The restoration of Auckland Castle, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), 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.

The restored Auckland Castle, opening in 2018, will also include the incredibly well-preserved Georgian gothic interiors designed by James Wyatt and will tell the stories of the Bishops of Durham, their families, those who lived and worked here and the ongoing importance of the site.

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