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A research project of the Department of Archaeology


The Big Dig was supported by the ESRC Impact Accelerator Fund and the Durham University Research Impact Fund.

Durham Research Team


  • John Castling (The Auckland Project)
  • Dr Caroline Smith (Portable Antiquities Scheme)


The Bishop Big Dig was a programme of test-pitting which took place in Bishop Auckland, a medium sized market town in County Durham. A total of 107 1m2  test pits were dug between January and December 2022. Students from King James I Academy (13-14yrs old), University of Durham students and local volunteers all took part. The aim of the project was in part archaeological - an exercise in conducting urban contemporary archaeology - and in part a community undertaking designed to enhance ‘cultural capital’ through engagement with local history and archaeological skills.

The results provide new evidence for the location, depth and date of archaeological deposits as well as for the evolution of the town.

No prehistoric or early medieval contexts or finds were identified. A single Roman pottery sherd was recovered.

Later medieval deposits are focused around the current market place with post-medieval and modern expansion of the urban area to the south. A later medieval pottery assemblage (to 1550) of more than 200 sherds, much of it residual in later contexts, is complemented by a rare find of a wild boar humerus and the bones of fallow deer.

The post-medieval assemblage (here defined as to 1800) is dominated by nearly 4000 pottery sherds and more than 600 clay pipes from the region and beyond, with evidence for an 18th century horn-working industry at High Bondgate. Notable artefacts include a musket ball and an 18th century bone domino piece.

During the 19th century, and up to c.1930 when kerbside waste collection began, town gardens were used for rubbish disposal. There is a heavy emphasis on breakable ceramics (including a wig curler), clay pipes (one representing the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes; Figure 3.1 Appendix A3), vessel glass and animal bone, together with evidence for very local demolition and construction projects (e.g. standard utility services) and coal sweepings from domestic fireplaces. Notable artefacts include a Victorian filigree brooch, pieces from miniature porcelain tea sets as well as the remains of crab, periwinkles and other edible marine molluscs.

After c.1920 there is less evidence for generic rubbish disposal and more for specific outdoor activities such as gardening (forks, gardening gloves), children playing (marbles and toys), laundry drying (e.g. clothes pegs and clothing), the burying of pets as well as snacking, smoking and drinking (including bottles from ‘J W Cameron’ in West Hartlepool, ‘Vaux’ in Sunderland, the ‘Darlington Bottling Co. Ltd’). The principal archaeological signatures of the later 20th century and early 21st century are aluminium and plastics, among them hair combs, beads, furniture coverings, curtain hooks, a fire alarm and an RTI card, but there are also more unusual finds such clay pipes manufactured in the town by George Bell (1856-94), a figurine of international Scottish music hall star and comedian Sir Harry Lauder (d.1950) and even buried vinyl records from the 1980s.

The full report on the Big Dig can be found here:


Poster advertising the BISHOP BIG DIG Roadshow, an interactive archaeology experience

A collection of tools used for archaeology, photographed as publicity for the BISHOP BIG DIG