In a recent post, I extended a critique of how death, burial and commemoration is sidelined and sublimtated in the heritage interpretation of monastic ruins in England, Wales and Ireland, using Tintern Abbey as a case study. Previously I’ve addressed other sites in this sense, including Much Wenlock Priory, Buildwas Abbey and Mellifont Abbey. Let’s extend the same commentary to Fountains Abbey, where historical records reveal a series of patrons’ burials and antiquarian investigations have uncovered a series of funerary monuments in the church. However, the visitor gets little sense of the complexity of mortuary and commemorative practices, as well as monastic routines and worship that constituted the story of these religious houses.
At Fountains, as with most religious houses, the focus is upon ‘monastic life’, its origins, decline, end and afterlife. Mortuary and commemorative dimension aren’t prominent in the publicly available information via the guidebook and websites.
Yet there are a range of traces of mortuary practices amidst the ruins. Yet these have limited interpretation: there are no heritage signs to explain them to those navigating the ruins, including a few unmarked slabs east of the church, and those within the abbey church.
Furthermore, the nature of the funerary traces require further comment, since they are configured around two absences. First, there are sarcophagi (stone coffins).
Second, there are inscribed slabs that have lost their brasses, one clearly to a mitred abbot of the monastery.
The contrast to awareness of the funerary component of Fountains is even starker now that we have the recent news of a major new survey revealing the extent of the monastic burial ground. Geophysical survey at Fountains by Dr Chris Gaffney of the University of Bradford, together with Geoscan Research and Mala Geoscience, has recently revealed the true scale of the Cistercian burial grave to the east of the abbey. More than 500 graves were revealed.
In summary, archaeologists and heritage professionals need to think much more carefully regarding how they bring death and memory ‘to life’ in these monastic ruins, challenging the focus on the ruins as vestiges of religious orders and their daily routines of work and prayer.