ARCHAEOLOGICAL excavations at Auckland Castle have unearthed some exciting finds that tell the story of the site's evolution.

More than 90 archaeologists, students and volunteers from Durham University and The Auckland Project have spent the past month peeling back the centuries at Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland.

Key discoveries include the location of the original medieval chapel, a 13th century kitchen and the remains of what is believed to be the oldest defensive building unearthed at the Castle to date.

The work is part of a vase programme of conservation, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) alongside a multi-million redevelopment to turn it into a major visitor attraction.

The remnants of Auckland Castle’s original 12th century chapel had been lost beneath the Castle grounds since it was destroyed in 1646 by Sir Arthur Hazelrigg, the then Governor of Newcastle who bought the Castle at the end of the English Civil War.

In the course of the excavation, the foundation of the chapel’s southern wall was revealed and its foundation pillar stones were found split in two suggesting Hazelrigg may even have used explosives to demolish it.

Close to the castle's Wyatt Arch, archaeologists found a two to three-story rectangular defensive building, thought to predate many of the other buildings uncovered on site.

Previous digs found a pillared gatehouse and fragments of perimeter walls from the 13th or 14th century, but the latest discovery suggests Auckland Castle was an imposing castle from an even earlier period– serving as a clear demonstration of the wealth and power of the medieval Prince Bishops of Durham.

Archaeologists working around the site of Auckland Castle’s medieval Great Hall, which has served as St Peter’s Chapel since its conversion in the 17th century, also uncovered remains of a 13th century kitchen with two hearths, which would have served the Bishop’s guests.

The final days of the dig also brought a unique discovery, preserved timber from what might be a wooden tank used in the malting process for beer making.

Timber samples will be sent for laboratory analysis to reveal the age of the tank.

Smaller items such as thimbles, hawking whistles and sword pommels were also unearthed, offering a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of those living in Auckland Castle in the medieval period.

Professor Chris Gerrard, from Durham University’s department of archaeology, said: “The excavations have provided an exciting opportunity to examine the evolution a medieval bishop’s residence.

“Work on this scale has rarely been carried out anywhere in Europe and too little is known of the early development and daily life at sites like Auckland Castle.

"We hope to rectify that over the next two years and ensure that Bishop Auckland takes its proper place in the medieval and later history of northern Britain.”

The archaeological excavation, which ran from June 4 to 23, is the first in a new series of annual digs to be run by The Auckland Project and Durham University, with archaeologists set to return in 2019 and 2020 to continue their research into the early life of Auckland Castle.

John Castling, Community Archivist at The Auckland Project, said: “The findings of this excavation offer us new and valuable insight into the origins of Auckland Castle and the lives of its medieval inhabitants.

“It has been fantastic to see Durham University students working alongside The Auckland Project volunteers to make these fascinating discoveries and we look forward to continuing our work with Durham University over the next two years.”