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Excavations at Thorns, Ribblesdale

Tuesday 20 June, 2017, by Hannah Kingsbury

A three-week archaeological dig has just been completed at Thorns, Ribblesdale. The excavation was under the directorship of Dr David Johnson, undertaken on behalf of the Ingleborough Dales Landscape Partnership under the Stories in Stone programme. ( The dig has been largely undertaken by volunteers from the Ingleborough Archaeology Group.
Thorns itself covers a large area, with a landscape of limestone and glacial deposits. It was first recorded as a settlement in 1190 and was connected to Furness Abbey. At the time of the Dissolution there were 6 inhabited tenements (farm units). Over the next 300 years the number of inhabitants decreased, and census records show that by the end of the 19th Century only 1 dwelling remained, but was uninhabited.
Since May last year, survey work has been undertaken in the area. This has included a geophysical survey to map the area, and a survey of the dry stone walls, among others. The walls were surveyed as part of Stories in Stone to help determine the chronology of the enclosure of the land. Some walls were found to date to the 16th Century. The remains of a network of ditches and banks, the original medieval boundaries, were found to cover the area, along with the remains of 7 trackways that converged at Thorns.
The dig focused on 3 fields, which contain a number of ruined buildings and earthworks.

The first building to be excavated was a ruined shippon (cattle shed). It remains today as mainly earthworks and rubble but there is still a small section of wall. Two trenches were excavated and turf was peeled back to expose the extent of the building, and if there was any interior divisions. A cobbled floor 85cm below current ground level was uncovered, suggesting it was for animals rather than domestic use. They also uncovered the remains of a cross wall, which might suggest a domestic purpose to the building at the east end, however this can not be definitively determined.

A house has been excavated, that is likely to be the oldest house in the settlement due to it having the thickest walls of the site (700mm). (Thickness of the walls can often indicate age.) It was probably demolished before the first edition 6” map was produced, as it does not appear on the map. Features that have been uncovered suggest that there were three bays, the first with the door and porch was the main living area, remains of a flagstone floor were found, along with a fireplace with part of the front grate still in situ and a small oven. The next bay was probably the parlour and a smaller fireplace was found there. The third bay was cobbled and was 30cm lower than the rest of the house, it has been interpreted as an outhouse. There is also an additional outshot to the rear that was the dairy. Artefacts have also been found that include part of an iron cooking cauldron, fragments of pottery and glass, and a door hinge (likely dating to the 17th Century).

The last building to be excavated was a long rectangular building, which had also been demolished at some point, however it was present on the first edition map. Artefacts found include part of a mullioned window (possibly dating to the late 18th Century), fragments of pottery and very fine glass, along with various bits of metal. The west end of the building possibly had an agricultural use.

On the site there is also the ruin of the last house to be inhabited, with a ruined privy nearby. The remains of this house and the privy are going to be consolidated at a later date as part of this project.
Public rights of way pass through the site, from which earthworks and remains of buildings can be seen. However, the site is private property and a working farm so please stick to the footpaths.

Picture of Hannah Kingsbury

Hannah Kingsbury

Hannah is the Cultural Heritage Officer for the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership scheme


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