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Bishops’ pineapples unearthed

15 August 2014

AUCKLAND CASTLE

Exotic discovery: the archaeologist Harry Beamish at the blocked up entrance to the pinery furnace room

Exotic discovery: the archaeologist Harry Beamish at the blocked up entrance to the pinery furnace room

EVIDENCE of the opulent and ostentatious lifestyle of the powerful prince-bishops of Durham has emerged during excavations at Auckland Castle, the Bishop of Durham's palace.

An archaeological dig in the walled garden has unearthed the stone base of an 18th-century pineapple pit, a forcing house for the exotic tropical fruit.

At the time, it was the rare, must-have delicacy for every wealthy household. Contemporary reports suggest that pineapples sold for the equivalent of £5000 each. Auckland Castle had space for 400 plants.

The archaeologist who discovered the pit, Harry Beamish, said: "The pineapples would have been used for decoration as well as consumption. For the bishops, it would have been the kudos of being able to successfully produce something way out of its normal climate zone that appealed."

Christopher Columbus first found the exotic fruit in the Caribbean in 1493. They were such a novelty that, in 1675, Charles II had himself painted receiving the first one cultivated in England.

The Auckland Palace pinery (as the hothouses were called) was f irst recorded in 1757. It comprised two buildings, both about 60 feet long and 18 feet widee, one nurturing young plants, and the other forcing the fruit. The potted plants were plunged into a trench filled with either manure or tanner's bark, which produced heat as it rotted. A hypocaust system beneath the pit, heated by a coal-fired furnace, raised the temperature higher.

"This is the sort of state-of the-art technology that gentry would be expected to have in their gardens," Mr Beamish said. "It was a huge investment to build the pit and an expensive process - even then, with cheap labour - to run it effectively. You would need to be a prince-bishop to keep it running - and be sitting on a coalmine somewhere on the estate to keep it fired up."

The prince-bishopric was established by William I, who combined the region's top temporal and spiritual positions into one, to run a semi-independent buffer state between England and Scotland. "The idea of a bishop of the Church of England living in such luxury was par for the course at the time" Mr Beamish said.

 

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