GROUND-PENETRATING radar (GPR) has revealed the graves of up to 2000 medieval Cistercian monks and lay Brothers, buried in a fashion at odds with contemporary burial rituals and beliefs surrounding resurrection.
The graves at the National Trust’s World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, date back almost eight centuries, and are arranged in a “bunk-bed” stacking system, with up to four bodies in each grave.
Experts from the University of Bradford who are working with the commercial groups Geoscan Research and Mala Geoscience believe that the tiering arrangement, where each corpse is separated by a stone slab — and the significant distance between each grave — indicates the importance that the monks gave to keeping the remains apart.
That, they say, supports the theory that the monks believed in literal or corporeal resurrection, in which a person’s physical remains would rise from the grave on the Day of Judgement. It was believed that if the body was damaged, the soul would be, too. Most other medieval Christian communities focused on the welfare of the departed’s soul rather than their mortal remains.
The total of about 2000 burials would account for most of the monks and lay brethren that died at the abbey from its founding in the 12th century to its suppression in 1539 during the Dissolution.
The Head of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford, Dr Chris Gaffney, said: “The results at Fountains are 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.”
A National Trust archaeologist, Mark Newman, said: “This work has brought a startling and moving reconnection with the monks who once lived and prayed at this extraordinary site.
“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 are 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.
“Thanks to this remarkable modern technology and research, we now know fascinating and hitherto unknown details of the life of the monastic community which we can share with our visitors.”