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Medieval tannery unearthed at Fountains Abbey is ‘missing link’ in Cistercian community’s history

05 November 2021

Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford

A close-up on the tannery GPR data, highlighting the two substantial buildings found by the side of the River Skell

A close-up on the tannery GPR data, highlighting the two substantial buildings found by the side of the River Skell

AN INDUSTRIAL-sized tannery discovered at Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire, is a “missing link” in the history of the Cistercian community who worshipped and worked there.

Archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to examine the foundations of a mystery “bowling-alley-style” building in the precinct of the World Heritage site near Ripon, which has long puzzled the experts.

The team found two large stone buildings with lined pits close to the River Skell, which runs through the abbey site. They were about 50 ft wide, and one was 100 ft long and more than one storey high. The National Trust, which manages the site, believes that the design of the structures and their proximity to the river — water is a key requirement in the tanning process — mean that it must have been used to process leather.

Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus NürnbergAn illustration of a tanner steeping the animal skins in a vat, from Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen

One of the Trust’s archaeologists, Mark Newman, said: “A tannery of this size reveals an operation on an industrial scale.” The scope of the complex, the largest yet discovered at a British monastic site, “really takes one aback”, he said. “It would have served a community of hundreds and reflected the productivity of the huge herds Fountains managed.”

He was surprised at its closeness to the abbey. “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. In the 12th and 13th centuries, in particular, it was as busy and industrialised a piece of landscape as you would have found anywhere in Britain.”

Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus NürnbergAn illustration of a tanner sorting skins after drying, from Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen

It would have played a crucial part in abbey life, providing materials for clothing, bedding, book bindings, and vellum or parchment for reproducing religious texts. It would have been operated by lay Brothers recruited to free the monks in Holy Orders from physical work so that they could concentrate on contemplation.

The director-general of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, said that the discovery provided a “missing link” in the abbey’s history, and enabled the identification of some key buildings on the site.

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