Medieval tannery found at Fountains Abbey

Animal hides, treated in tanneries, were used to produce essential materials like vellum for religious texts and leather for book bindings

Archaeologists working at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire have located the remains of a medieval tannery, the largest site of its kind to be found in a British monastic context. This discovery has ‘redrawn the plan’ of the Cistercian house, said the National Trust, who worked in partnership with a team of researchers from the University of Bradford, Guideline Geo, Geoscan Research, and Magnitude Surveys to find the tannery using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

Photo: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford.

The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 to facilitate stricter adherence to the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict. Spiritual excellence, however, also required the order’s communities to be economically savvy. ‘The Cistercians – and especially the community at Fountains – were pioneering farmers and land managers on an industrial scale,’ said National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman. ‘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,’ he said. ‘Their wealth was originally based on wool,’ Mark added, ‘but later diversified into cattle-raising too, while the need for processed animal skins was constant throughout the abbey’s life.’

Animal hides, treated in tanneries, were used to produce essential materials like vellum for religious texts and leather for book bindings. The abbey’s lay brothers, moreover, used skins for bedding and clothing. ‘Fountains recruited hundreds of lay brothers in its early decades, all of whom needed to be equipped this way, and this tannery provided the means for that,’ Mark said. Until now, though, the tannery’s location was uncertain.

Mark told CA that archaeological understanding of Fountains was thought to be near-complete by 1900, when William St John Hope published his ‘defining’ account of the abbey in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. But the established narrative is being turned on its head, Mark said: a large monastic cemetery was rediscovered at Fountains in 2016 (see CA 323), while excavations carried out by Roy Gilyard-Beer and Glyn Coppack in the late 1970s and 1980s revealed early stone and timber buildings in the south transept and several construction phases at the c.1160 brewhouse-bakehouse – which is where story of the abbey tannery starts. ‘The layers underneath the Phase 1 brewhouse-bakehouse produced a lot of terminal phalanges [bones of the extremities], so the kind of bone material you would expect to be chucked aside from tanning. Glyn concluded, and I think correctly, that the earliest tannery on this site was replaced by the brewhouse-bakehouse,’ Mark said.

Mark and the team thought that the facility would have been relocated far away from the abbey church, but the recent surveys revealed two 16m-wide stone buildings, associated with pits, only 200m east in the precinct. One is at least 32m long and would probably have been over a storey high, and both are located by the River Skell (water was a key ingredient in the tanning process). Still, given the noise and smell produced by tanning, the buildings’ location surprised the team, though Mark suggested that there may be ‘earlier, tighter precinct boundary elements’ at Fountains. These two tannery buildings might, therefore, first have been outside the precinct, though by the mid-13th century they were certainly inside, he said.

Mark’s book, The Wonder of the North: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, a National Trust monograph, was published by Boydell Press in 2015. The team now hopes to research the possibility of a lay cemetery within the precinct.