Getting Busy in Bishop: a student’s thoughts on the Durham University excavations in Bishop Auckland 2022

Joseph Meadows

While preparing to write this blogpost, I researched quotes about digging holes to best summarise my experience working as an archaeologist, a job which requires finding where a hole needs to expertly be dug and all artefacts and features carefully recorded. Instead, I stumbled across the quote by Mr. Will Rogers, American actor and Cherokee citizen, “…when you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” I have several grievances with this quote, the first being: when you find yourself in a hole, do not stop – keep digging! Unless of course, you’re digging in the wrong spot, in which case you are not going to find what you seek; yet, sometimes you will find something else entirely that could lead to further questions.

Problem solving and exciting discoveries

While excavating a large mediaeval ditch (possibly a moat) in the penultimate week of excavation, I believed I found the natural soil until I trowelled the surface and discovered though it was indeed the natural soil, it was redeposited on top of additional layers of human activity within the trench! The process of archaeology is all very complicated and sometimes it is easy to become confused by the sheer mass of material and features buried beneath our very feet. Luckily, for people who love challenges and problem solving, archaeology is a perfect career path.

Joseph (me) rests momentarily in a context in Trench 11, southeast of the southwestern tower of Bishop Bek’s 14th century chapel. As the day was very hot, we dug like our lives depended on it. They did. (Photograph by Megan Olshefski).

Uncovering lost history

I am one of scores of archaeology students and public volunteers who have excavated and recorded the archaeological site of Bishop Auckland since 2018. From my first day on site in March 2022 to my last (at least at the time of writing) in June, the thrill of uncovering the lost history of Bishop Bek’s grand 14th century chapel never waned. I love the scientific process of archaeology, the digging, trowelling, measuring, recovering, and recording, and yet understanding the historical weight and importance of the site, the sparkling golden ages and explosive destructive periods, magnifies that warm feeling of passion for my craft.

Bishop Big Dig

I worked on three projects during my time at the excavation: Trench 11 (Bishop Bek’s Chapel), Trench 13 (located to the east of the chapel, its primary purpose is to locate the eastern-most edge of the medieval complex), and I dug test pits for the Bishop Big Dig, a community project which is ongoing until December of this year. All three projects are equally important to understanding the history and heritage of the people of County Durham and the North, however my personal favourite project was the test pits.

While the chapel yielded spectacular archaeology and artefacts (huge in situ columns, impressive engineering and foundation planning, and pre-1300s pottery and metals), the Big Dig has some of the best community outreach and heritage development and teaching I have ever seen. Reaching out and incorporating the descendants of those lives we archaeologists investigate into the archaeological process itself is perhaps the most important part about archaeology. Bishop Auckland and its hinterlands, from the pre-Roman and prehistoric sites to the industrial and coal sites, uphold the long heritage and identity of the people of the Northeast and Britain as a whole. I have found that investigating the lives and creations of these peoples as fascinating as it is enjoyable.

Within Bishop Bek’s Chapel, Brady (not me) trowels a section in the foreground in preparation for recording, while Joseph (me) digs furiously in the background in hopes of reaching the water table. (Photograph by Megan Olshefski).

Never quit digging

I shall give Will Rogers the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not referring to archaeology when he made that quote; but for me, the best part of archaeology is that whenever you find yourself in a hole, whether it be a physical trench, mental challenge, or archaeological mystery, so long as you can justify the action, you can never quit digging.

Discover more

About studying Archaeology at Durham here.

Download our latest prospectus and college guide here.

Follow our students on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.

Joseph Meadows

I am Joseph Meadows, an archaeology student at Durham.

Related Posts

Life at Cuths

Why Cuths? Before arriving at Durham, choosing my college was something of a fixation. In March of last year I attended an offer holder day

Read More »