A TEAM of archaeologists at the University of Bradford have been a part of a “miraculous” find at a Yorkshire World Heritage Site.

The largest tannery “yet discovered” at a monastic site in Britain has been discovered at Fountains Abbey in Ripon by using a ground penetrating radar method, which means the ground does not have to be dug up to reveal what is underneath.

The find reveals two substantial stone buildings, 16 metres wide, one of them at least 32m long and more than a single storey in height, with lined pits, tanks and other structures around them. These, along with the proximity to the river for water – a key requirement for the tanning process – has led to the conclusion that this was the tannery serving the community of Fountains Abbey.

Professor Chris Gaffney, Head of the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford said: “We have been working at Fountains for about six years or so and we’ve been doing training with students over that time, but we’ve just found is the tannery for the site. It was the last bit of the jigsaw puzzle to try and understand where the last big building was within the monastery.

“The students are so grateful to be able to work on such a fantastic site and have been a part of such a significant discovery so early on in their careers.
“We had no real expectation to find anything significant in this area as nobody has ever reported any buildings previously, so when we visualised this data it was quite shocking because it was so unexpected.

“We haven’t dug anything but essentially we’ve revealed what is under the ground by undertaking a ground penetrating radar survey, which is basically pumping radio waves into the ground and analysing the way they have been bounced back to the surface. And what we can see is the footprint of the building under the ground.”

Professor Gaffney explained how the “building is really important because it has massive economic implications as it looks like it’s the biggest tannery of it’s kind in Britain”.
The discovery has meant that it has given historians a better understanding of the heritage site as the tannery was so large, it has emphasised the “wealth that was craved”, and the demand for leather at that time. 

It also means that the site can be managed and preserved effectively now it is known what is underneath.

Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust said: “For much of the twentieth-century, many people believed there was no further archaeological research work to do at Fountains and that pretty much everything to be found had been found. The team’s work with University of Bradford and our other partners, shows the opposite. The site faces so many modern pressures, not least from climate change, that it has never been more crucial to map where its archaeology survives and what it looks like, so we can continue to curate and care for it.

“The discovery of the tannery buildings has provided a ‘missing link’ and represents some key named buildings the team wanted to identify on the site. But there’s plenty more to research and to fascinate visitors and supporters.”
Professor Gaffney said the discovery could encourage “even more tourism” at the site.