Ground radar work by archaeologists reveals large-scale industrial leather tannery at Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire

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However, with groundbreaking technology first revealing Britain’s largest monastic tannery at Fountains Abbey, it appears the Cistercian brothers were also industrial pioneers.

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A team of archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar at the UNESCO World Heritage site to investigate an area near the River Skell. tannery to scale.

National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman at Fountains Abbey

A National Trust archaeologist, Mark Newman, said: “A tannery of this size, covering such a large area of ​​the site, reveals an operation on an industrial scale, meeting the needs of leather and other animal hides processed for the site. community of hundreds of people in the growing monastic community.

“Given the noise, activity and stench that emanated from a tannery, we previously thought it would have been located further away from the monks and their cult. However, now see that the tannery was much closer and far away from the idea of ​​a calm and quiet abbey community.

“Today Fountains Abbey is an oasis of tranquility, but in the 12th and 13th centuries in particular, it was such a busy and industrialized landscape as one would have found anywhere in Britain.

“Most of the abbey’s needs in terms of food processing and working with raw materials would have taken place in these structures. “

Ground penetrating radar was used to survey the site

Tanning was a vital part of the economy of the abbey where animal skins were shaved and dried to make leather for clothing, belts, bedding, book bindings, and vellum for reproducing texts religious.

It was already known that tanneries were often run by lay brothers, recruited for their practical skills. However, the magnitude of this find at Fountains Abbey, which remained active until the monasteries dissolved in 1539, surprised archaeologists.

Mr. Newman added: “The Cistercians – and in particular the community of Fountains – were pioneer farmers and land managers. They had to be, to support the enormous religious community which was quickly formed and the vast construction projects which they undertook, to the praise of God.

“Their wealth was originally based on wool, but the community then branched out into raising cattle, while the need for processed animal skins was constant throughout the life of the abbey. .

“Later, when the herds were mainly managed by lay tenants as part of their rent, even the skins of any dead animals had to be brought to the abbey for treatment. This means that as much as possible has been put into practice. “

The latest research at Fountains Abbey was conducted by the National Trust with assistance from the University of Bradford, Mala UK, Geoscan Research and Magnitude Surveys.

Hilary McGrady, CEO of the trust, said: “For much of the 20th century, many believed that there was no further research to be done at Fountains Abbey. The team’s work shows the opposite – there is so much more to discover.


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