‘Industrial scale’ medieval tannery found at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire

The National Trust said that the function of a long, 'bowling alley'-type extension on the east side of the abbey precinct 'had always been a puzzle', but now two stone buildings have been located in the area, interpreted by the Trust as 'the largest tannery yet discovered at a monastic site in Britain.'

Archaeologists working at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire have identified the remains of a monastic tannery, where animal hides would have been processed in the medieval period to produce a variety of essential materials, including vellum on which scribes would have written religious texts.

Fountains Abbey is a medieval Cistercian monastery in Yorkshire. Image: National Trust

The tannery was located using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and other geophysical survey methods by a team of researchers from the University of Bradford, Mala UK, and Geoscan Research and Magnitude Surveys, working in partnership with the National Trust.

The team found two stone buildings, thought to date to the late 1150s. Both are 16m wide, and one is at least 32m long and would have been more than one storey high. The buildings were found associated with lined pits, tanks, and other structures close to the River Skell. Water is a vital ingredient in the the tanning process, so all this led the team to conclude that what they had located was the site of the abbey’s tannery.

Tanning played a central role in the abbey’s economy because animal skins were treated and reused as clothing, bedding, parchment, and book-bindings; but the archaeologists were surprised by the scale of their discovery and the tannery’s proximity to the rest of the abbey.

Stadtbibliothek Nuernberg Illustration of a man occupied in the leather producing industry, shown steeping animal skins in a tanning vat (Amb. 317.2°, f. 34r). Image: Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus Nürnberg

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.

This leather-bound volume contains a 15th-century ownership note and shelf mark of the library of
Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and has added Fountains inscriptions dated 1512. Image: British Library

‘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 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.’

Use of GPR and other imaging technologies allowed the researchers to ‘see’ the tannery, the archaeological remains of which are still below ground.

Image: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford.
Close up on the tannery GPR Data. Image: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford.

Chris Gaffney, Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford said: ‘Geophysical survey at Fountains Abbey continues to provide us with stunning, unexpected and intriguing glimpses into life in the past at the site. 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.’

Close up on the tannery GPR Data highlighting the two substantial buildings found by the side of the River Skell. Image: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford.

Mark Newman added: ‘The scale of the operations we’ve discovered here really takes one aback, but it all fits the bigger picture once you get over the initial surprise. The Cistercians – and especially the community at Fountains – were pioneering farmers and land managers on an industrial scale. They had to be, to support the enormous religious community that rapidly built up and the vast building projects they undertook, in praise of God.’

For opening times for Fountains and other information, see: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/fountains-abbey