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Tannery discovery redraws map of Fountains Abbey

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Fountains Abbey tannery location

Bradford archaeologists make stunning discovery

Archaeologists from the University of Bradford and the National Trust have discovered the remains of a giant tannery at Fountains Abbey.

The find was made using ground penetrating radar and is of particular significance because of its size - experts said it indicated an industrial scale operation requiring hundreds of people.

Prof Chris Gaffney, Head of the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford, said: “This is a major discovery and it rewrites what we know about the site. Geophysical surveys at Fountains Abbey continue to provide us with stunning, unexpected and intriguing glimpses into life in the past. Each high-resolution dataset is of great interest in imaging the buried archaeology, but visualising these with the digital model that we have created of the upstanding remains has provided a completely new ‘view’ of the site. As the technology advances, so does our understanding of the archaeology at Fountains Abbey.”

Puzzle solved

An animated 3D flyby - available here - shows the location of the hidden ruins.

It has been described as the largest tannery yet discovered at a monastic site in Britain and reveals remarkable new evidence about the community of monks and lay brothers who lived there and their central role in spreading Cistercian worship.

Experts had always been puzzled by a long ‘bowling alley’ type extension on the east side of the Fountains Abbey precinct, close to the River Skell.

Now, ground penetrating radar, backed up with other geophysical survey methods, carried out in partnership with National Trust by the University of Bradford, Mala UK, Geoscan Research and Magnitude Surveys, has made unexpected discoveries of unknown monastic buildings filling the whole width of the valley floor of the World Heritage Site.

Industrial scale

The find reveals two substantial stone buildings, 16m wide, one of them at least 32m long and more than a single storey in height, with lined pits, tanks and other structures around them. These, along with the proximity to the river for water – a key requirement for the tanning process – has led to the conclusion that this was the tannery serving the community of Fountains Abbey.

Tanning was a vital part of the abbey economy where animal hides would be de-haired and cured to make leather for uses such as clothing, belts, bedding, book bindings and vellum or parchment for reproducing religious texts by the monastic scribes. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of this discovery, and where it is sited close to the rest of the abbey community, has surprised archaeologists.

Mark Newman, National Trust archaeologist explained: “A tannery of this size, spanning such a large area of the site, reveals an operation on an industrial scale, meeting the needs for leather and other processed animal skins for the community of hundreds of people in the growing monastic community. Its scale also reflects an aspect of the productivity of the huge herds the abbey acquired and managed.

“Also, given the noise, activity and stench that emanated from a tannery, we previously thought that it would have been sited further away from the monks and their worship. We see now that the tannery was much closer and a far cry from the idea of a quiet, tranquil abbey community.

“Fountains is today an oasis of tranquillity but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in particular, it was as busy and industrialised a piece of landscape as you would have found anywhere in Britain. The bulk of the abbey’s needs for food processing and working raw materials took place in structures set around the wider precinct. ”

Visualising heritage

Prof Gaffney said the work formed part of the School’s ongoing Visualising Heritage project, which uses drone footage, laser scanning and photography to recreate hidden or lost archeological buildings and landscapes.

He said: “Visualising heritage is geared toward recording and visualising heritage throughout the world. We have used it to recreate buildings which have been destroyed in Syria, we are using it to recreate a 3D model of Bradford city centre, we’re even doing it at the old York City FC football ground, after the football club moved to new premises.

“Ultimately, it’s about preserving history, including urban history, and enabling people to engage with that in new ways.”

The University’s School of Archaeology and Forensic Sciences is one of only two in the North of England. It was formed more than 50 years ago and its students regularly work on projects around the world. 

Find out more about our: BA Heritage and Archaeology programme and our existing UG and PG courses.

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