Technology reveals archaeological discovery

Fountains Abbey with a winter sky
Published : 13 Nov 2016 Last update : 22 Feb 2021

Back in 2016, remarkable ground-penetrating technology helped to reveal more than 500 graves of Cistercian monks and lay brothers who once lived at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Further research since then has shown there thousands of graves, with the abbey revealing more secrets.

The abbey existed in the Skell Valley from the early 12th century to its closure in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

New technology

We've been working with experts from the University of Bradford, Geoscan Research, and Mala Geoscience to research these monastic ruins, the largest in the country.

Geophysical techniques and ground-penetrating radar have formed part of a major research project at the World Heritage Site, adding new details about the life of the monastic community and their burial rituals. 

Fascinating discovery

The images have identified not only the location of the cemetery but also the formation of the graves which suggest that the monastic community believed in literal or corporeal resurrection. 

The findings, backed up by documentary sources, show a ‘bunk-bed’ formation with the bodies clearly separated by stone partitions within the same grave. This together with regular organisation of the graves, sited well away from each other, indicates the importance given to keeping the remains separate from later burials.

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

This supports the theory that the community believed in literal or corporeal resurrection whereby a person’s physical remains would rise from the grave on the Day of Judgement. If the body was damaged, the soul would be as well.  

This was unusual in medieval Christian communities which focused on the welfare of the departed’s soul rather than their mortal remains. 

Analysis of the images shows multiple burials in each grave cut, up to four in some cases, suggesting there could be up to 2000 bodies in total. This number would account for the majority of the monks and lay brethren that died at the site.

Reconnecting with the abbey monks

'Fountains Abbey in the olden time'
Fountains Abbey in the olden time, drawn in 1841 by John Richard Walbran
'Fountains Abbey in the olden time'

Our archaeologist Mark Newman says: “This work brought a startling and moving reconnection with the monks who once lived and prayed at this extraordinary site. 

“The existence of a monks’ cemetery on the site has been known for centuries. Our conclusions about the formation of the graves are supported by reports from Victorian workmen at the site who uncovered some of the graves in several tiers which had already suggested multiple burials in the same grave cut.

“However, we did not know the exact location or scale of the cemetery - we do now.” 

The images show the graves laid out in regular, curving rows running east from the abbey church, measuring approximately 80 metres by 60 metres. 

Exceptional results

Dr Chris Gaffney of University of Bradford says: “The results at Fountains were little short of remarkable. Archaeologically they are among the most complete graveyards uncovered using geophysical techniques. 

“As a general rule, burials are difficult to detect by geophysical means, so revealing the whole layout of a cemetery, in the way that we have, is exceptionally unusual.” 

Mark Newman concludes: “It’s only too easy today to think about monasteries like Fountains as just magnificent ruins; we might vaguely acknowledge that there were real people involved in the story somewhere – but it’s often hard to connect with them directly. 

“These findings were a profound and unexpected reminder that the monks have never really left Fountains Abbey. They’ve been here, at rest, some of them for almost 800 years.

“This was an incredible opportunity to work with a remarkable group of geophysics experts and we remain extremely grateful to them for their support, advice and enthusiasm. Thanks to remarkable modern technology and research, we know fascinating and hitherto unknown details of the life of the monastic community which we share with our visitors.”

The discovery of the monks’ cemetery features in our new series of podcasts ‘Bettany Hughes's Ten Places, Europe & Us’.

Bettany Hughes at Avebury for the podcast recording

Bettany Hughes's Ten Places Europe and Us podcast series 

Join historian Bettany Hughes as she travels around some of the most splendid sites in England, guided by our experts, to investigate their deep-rooted connections to Europe and the wider world.