The National Trust has reported archaeologists have identified the largest tannery ever discovered at a British monastery, solving a centuries-old mystery.
One of England’s most peaceful sites—the beautiful ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire—was a hubbub of industrial activity throughout the medieval period.
National Trust and University of Bradford researchers used ground-penetrating radar to locate the ruins of a tannery at the 12th-century abbey near Ripon in North Yorkshire. They later discovered evidence of a large-scale tanning business that would have required hundreds of people, in contrast to the tranquil religious activity nearby, Daily Mail reported.
According to a university statement, recent work with ground-penetrating radar has proven that the tannery formerly stretched the whole width of the valley floor around the abbey.
This “bowling alley shape” contained two large stone constructions, one of which was at least 100 feet long and more than one story tall, as well as lined pits, tanks, and other structures. The statement said that the buildings were located near the River Skell, which still runs through the valley, and would have supplied the tannery with water.
Animal hides were de-haired and cured to produce leather for uses such as clothing, belts, bedding, book bindings, and parchment for the monastery scribes to reproduce religious texts.
However, tanning was a disgusting business; hides were often delivered to the tannery covered in dirt and blood, stiff and rotting, before being soaked in human urine to remove hairs.
Archaeologists were shocked to find tanning operations so close to the rest of the abbey community.
“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,” said Mark Newman, a National Trust archaeologist.
“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.”
Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, said the discovery had “provided a ‘missing link’ and represents some key named buildings the team wanted to identify on the site.”
The tannery is considered to have stayed in operation until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 as part of his religious reformation.
Fountains Abbey is now a World Heritage Site, with tourists able to walk among the magnificent ruins.