Fountains Abbey's archaeology: past, present and future

Published: 24 February 2021

Last update: 24 February 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Mark Newman, Archaeological Consultant Mark Newman Archaeological Consultant
The ruins of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire

Mark Newman is one of our archaeologists, based in the North of England. In this blog, Mark looks back at his work with the National Trust, and in particular, at the World Heritage Site at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden in North Yorkshire. Discover the past, present and what the future of Fountains Abbey holds, as Mark takes us on a journey through his discoveries from ancient floor tiles to monks' graves and the visitor centre.

I remember the first moment I saw Fountains Abbey. It was in 1967 and my mother had won one of the first colour televisions in a competition. The BBC was testing the system before its full launch with trade test transmission films, one of which was about the Yorkshire abbeys. At five years old, I was already certain that I wanted to be an archaeologist. I lived in Kent and my concept of Yorkshire was somewhat hazy, but Fountains Abbey mesmerised me. It still does. To coin a phrase ' you had me at cloister…'

One of the arched doorways in the chapter house arcade on the east side of the cloister at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
One of the arched doorways on the east side of the cloister at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
One of the arched doorways in the chapter house arcade on the east side of the cloister at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire

Archaeology and a new visitor centre

I saw Fountains Abbey in the flesh for the first time in 1988, just before my interview for the post of project archaeologist for the National Trust team charged with building a new visitor centre for the site. I didn't hold out much hope of getting the job and indeed it went to someone else. But then he got a better offer, and the job bounced my way. I can’t thank you enough, Vince. In September 1988, I started what has proved to be one of the longest three-year fixed term contracts in history.

At first, the work was all about the Fountains Abbey visitor centre. The Trust took over the management of the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal estate from North Yorkshire County Council in 1983. Soon it realised that the eclectic smatter of visitor facilities on the site, many unchanged since the 1920s, simply couldn’t serve the numbers, or expectations, of the visiting public of the 1980s.

The solution agreed upon was the construction of a purpose-built visitor centre, designed by architect Ted Cullinan. It would be set on an elevated site in the arc formed by the River Skell between Fountains and Studley, serving both equally important ends of the property but intruding on neither. The land in the middle, Swanley Grange Farm, itself once part of the great agricultural estate of the abbey, was duly purchased and a project team formed.

As things turned out, archaeology soon proved central to the selection of the centre’s site, finding solutions to a number of challenges encountered. With a site chosen, focus shifted on to archaeological site investigations. These included, what was then one of the biggest geophysical surveys ever completed, 30 hectares of resistivity survey (looking for buried archaeology using an electrical current without disturbing the ground).

We even trialled one of the very first electronic data loggers – a Psion Organiser – having laboriously written down each of the thousands of readings on gridded paper up, which then had to be typed into the computer, until then. After the geophysics came fieldwalking (picking up and recording objects from the ploughed surface of the fields) documentary research and evaluation trenches. When the actual construction work started it needed very little extra fieldwork, as we’d managed to design things to leave the most interesting archaeology untouched in the ground – so future generations of archaeologists can use their more advanced technologies to investigate it.

Floor tiles from midden material spread on the fields at Swanley Grange, North Yorkshire
Pieces of broken floor tiles from Swanley Grange
Floor tiles from midden material spread on the fields at Swanley Grange, North Yorkshire

But we had still revealed much more about how the monks had farmed the landscape, picking up where they had spread or not spread their midden (rubbish dump) contents on their fields for fertiliser – even pinpointing where the gates in the long-vanished hedgerows had been. These were an abbey’s middens and included lots of floor tiles flicked up by over enthusiastic sweeping.

We discovered prehistoric campsites, where finely serrated flint tools were almost finished, then snapped and the pieces dropped, a fossilised prehistoric moment, cuss, if ever there was one. We also discovered the remains of houses from a medieval village, set beside a road once referred to as the King's Highway and in what has now become Studley Park, just as completely lost and forgotten, as 18th-century improvers remade the shape of the landscape.

We even found how sewage from Ripon’s First World War barracks was also spread on the estate’s fields as manure, traced by the scatter of over 130 copper fly-buttons, first lost into the camp’s latrines. No sign, yet, though, of the war horses supposedly buried on the estate, victims of the bitter winter frosts of 1915-16.

The outside of the visitor centre at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire
The outside of the visitor centre and restaurant at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
The outside of the visitor centre at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire

A history of welcome

With the visitor centre built, we next turned to an estate-wide archaeological survey, with a special focus on unfolding the story of the great Aislabie designed landscape that spread across it and far beyond. Exploration of that tale has taken 30 years so far and continues to evolve. That’s one of the most magical things about being a National Trust archaeologist; we often have the privilege of working in places for a very long time, which means we get to know them incredibly intimately.

One of four views of the water garden at Studley Royal Water Gardens, North Yorkshire, by A Walker after Balthazar Nebot (fl 1730-62) 1758
Coloured drawing from 1758 of a view at Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire
One of four views of the water garden at Studley Royal Water Gardens, North Yorkshire, by A Walker after Balthazar Nebot (fl 1730-62) 1758

The trick to unlocking the secrets of places – even ones you think you know well – is continuing to ask them new questions. It's astonishing how many answers lie there waiting to be discovered, and what their revelations can be when you expose them.

Take the recent prompt of looking at the implications of renewing our visitor welcome at Studley Royal. It was a part of the gardens we’d not much looked at archaeologically before. When we did, we uncovered a story of 250 years of visitor reception on pretty much the same site. With that piece in place new unsuspected stages in the early history of the gardens became apparent, which in turn changed our understanding of the evolution of the whole World Heritage Site. The English landscape garden is sometimes described as this country’s unique contribution to the canon of western art, Studley being one of its exemplars. Refining our understanding of it matters.

Monks who never left

Ground-penetrating radar reveals the monks' cemetery at Fountains Abbey
Ground-penetrating radar at Fountains Abbey
Ground-penetrating radar reveals the monks' cemetery at Fountains Abbey

Another remarkable example is the work we've been doing at the abbey itself which started in 2014. We were working in partnership with the University of Bradford, Mala UK, Geoscan Research and others,where we organised a student fieldwork day to practice geophysical survey methods (technology to detect archaeology without disturbing the ground).

One exercise was looking for a Victorian drain, so that we could install new drainage without damaging any undisturbed archaeology. We found it, not where it was supposed to be, but along with it were hundreds and then thousands of graves from the monastic community. Graves are usually tricky to find using geophysical techniques, but the unusual archaeology of Fountain Abbey's graves and the use of a new prospection method, ground-penetrating radar, proved brilliantly effective.

Finding the cemetery was not news. It's been known since 1853, though it took the Victorians who found it then by surprise. What was astonishing, and moving, was how vividly and completely it revealed so many graves and in such detail. Everyone knows that monks are part of any abbey’s story, right? Well, yes, they were, but now they’ve gone. Except – it struck me so forcefully the very first time I saw the first plot – no, they haven’t.

Alan Titchmarsh using the radar equipment at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire, with National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman, right, and Doctor Chris Gaffney from University of Bradford, left
Alan Titchmarsh with two archaeologists at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
Alan Titchmarsh using the radar equipment at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, North Yorkshire, with National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman, right, and Doctor Chris Gaffney from University of Bradford, left

Their remains are still here at rest and always have been, some of them for almost 900 years. The more we research medieval ideas about death and the life hereafter, the more we realise how much was bound up in these burials, and how much they still mean.

You might think that even if you draw a plan of it, there’s not much a cemetery can tell you about history. But the more we explore the data the more it reveals, multiplying the new questions it asks. We think there are at least eight different parts to the cemetery, charting the way it expanded and how beliefs about burial changed over time.

We also now think that – incredibly – the monks first used the cemetery, then raised the ground level by about a metre, and used it again, a second set of burials precisely laid out over the first, which they must have carefully marked in some way. And when you know that, you have to rethink a lot else that you thought you knew about the whole history of the abbey’s construction.

An engraved view of the abbey from De Grey Walk, c.1860. This path had only recently been laid out, to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the ruins before arriving at them
A historic view of Fountains Abbey ruins
An engraved view of the abbey from De Grey Walk, c.1860. This path had only recently been laid out, to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the ruins before arriving at them

Protecting the abbey for the future

I was first 'borrowed' by another Yorkshire property, Treasurers’ House in York, on my third day in post, and that rather started a trend. My responsibilities grew to cover all of the old Yorkshire region, then later the East Midlands, North West, North East and Northern Ireland. I also represented the Trust in France, Guyana and the United States – but always still with Fountains Abbey in my brief. As if that were not enthralling enough, I was even given a staff flat in Fountains Hall so the abbey was my back garden for seven years. Other back gardens since, it has to be said, have been something of a disappointment.

You might well ask, having had over 30 years to think about it, have you not really rather 'done' the archaeology of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal? I'm delighted to tell you that the answer is definitely not. There'll be more secrets elsewhere on the site. We don’t know where yet but with our partners we're starting to look.

And it's never been so important to find out. Good conservation, taking the best possible care of all the special places we protect, relies on good understanding. You can't preserve what you don’t know exists; you can't prevent loss that you don’t know is happening.

Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, submerged by flood waters in June 2007
Fountains Abbey ruins in flood water
Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, submerged by flood waters in June 2007

As climate change threatens so much in our landscape – causing the Skell that runs through the abbey to flood more often, or threatening long dry summers that desiccate soils that have been moist for centuries – it's never been more urgent to map and understand the riches we're looking after, before we lose them and the secrets they guard, forever.

There should be enough here to keep us at it for a while yet.

Find out more