Community archaeology uncovers clues to medieval farm linked to Rievaulx Abbey


An archaeological dig in the North York Moors National Park has surprised experts with the wealth and quality of the finds discovered. They include jet rosary beads, pottery and glazed tiles, pointing to a high status, medieval farm with close links to the Cistercian monks of nearby Rievaulx Abbey.

Located four miles outside of Helmsley, the site was known to be the location of a medieval grange built shortly after Rievaulx (which was founded in 1132) and managed by the abbey until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539. Despite this established history, a recently completed dig turned up some surprising archaeological finds.  The excavation was jointly funded by the North York Moors National Park Authority, the tenant farmer and a local archaeologist.

Miles Johnson, Head of Historic Environment at the North York Moors National Park Authority, said: “Whilst it’s not surprising that we found evidence of medieval farming, the prestige and range of the uncovered artefacts points to this being a place of high economic importance that reflected the status of the Abbey.

“For the archaeologists to find a cellar and what we think are glazed roof tiles from a medieval farm of this period is almost unheard of. Some finds also relate to the process of iron smelting, which was clearly happening onsite and indeed there was also an iron hunting arrow.”

The community dig was led by archaeologist John Buglass, founder of North Yorkshire-based JB Archeology, with close involvement from Keith Emerick, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England. Sixteen volunteers took part in the dig, contributing the equivalent of 129 days across six weeks.

John Buglass said: “This is one of those unexpected digs that shows just how much we can still learn from sites we thought we understood.

“Through the hard work of volunteer archaeologists from inside and outside the National Park, we have managed to add some significant understanding to our knowledge of the monastic granges of Rievaulx.”

Keith Emerick of Historic England said:“This is a truly  remarkable discovery. Although we know where many monastic farm sites are located, relatively little is known about them. The excavation of such impressive remains and their associated finds adds a huge amount to our understanding of the medieval world.”

The excavations, which covered only a small part of the site, have now been completed, but work on analysing the finds and interpreting the materials recovered will continue over the next year.

As successful farmers, the Cistercian monks at Rievaulx Abbey had a significant impact on the landscape of the North York Moors. They developed large scale moorland grazing and stimulated the rapid growth of the wool trade that became so significant in England’s later history. The monks even diverted the course of the River Rye on more than one occasion to allow for their developments.


Sign up to receive our journal.

Download Journal