Ingleborough Archaeology Group excavated a buried seventeenth century lime kiln as part of its Broadwood Project in 2003 which spawned further digs and formed the Group's Sow Kilns Project which came to an end in December 2006 with the publication of a detailed report, funded mainly by the Yorkshire Dales Millenium Trust. Such was the interest generated by the project that it reached the finals of English Heritage's 2006 Awards for the Presentation of Heritage Research held at Norwich University in September that year.
The initial four sites were examined in detail though at one site two adjacent kilns were looked at. Four of the five were seen on the ground as a grassed depression while the fifth was not visible at all on the surface - it was only exposed by accident when the farmer cut through it with a digger not realising there was anything there. Before excavation there was no way of knowing if any of them actually was a lime kiln but, happily, all turned out to be such.
The first site to be excavated lies right beside the road in Chapel le Dale, dug into the banks of a probably prehistoric settlement; two kilns were dug above Newby Cote on the Hagg where there are nine similar kilns in close proximity to a contemporary quarry; one was dug on Feizor Nick; while the 'accidental one' lies on a farm at Threapland near Cracoe.
The aims of the project, apart from seeing if the sites were lime kilns, were to prove that the Broadwood kiln was unique and to determine the detailed form of early lime kilns in Craven. The first and last of these were achieved as we will see below. The second aim was not achieved. Broadwood was anything but unique. When the Chapel le Dale kiln was revealed it, too, had had a stone-lined bowl. It, too, had a stone-built 'feather' or stoke-hole running across the bottom and it also had burnt stone of a size very similar to that found in the Broadwood kiln. With the first dig we had two kilns of an almost identical design, which is not what we expected to find. When we dug the two kilns on the Hagg, they also had the same basic design and size as the previous sites. This was amazing, to say the least.
The Threapland kiln, at first, seemed different but ...! This was two kilns in one. An older bowl had a smaller and later bowl within it. At some point the limeburners had abandoned the first kiln, built a smaller one inside and backfilled the space between the two bowl linings. The older bowl was virtually identical in basic form to the other kilns in the project. So far, we had five kilns all conforming to the same broad specifications. The newer bowl was narrower, cone-shaped rather than bowl-shaped, and built of well-dressed and coursed sandstone blocks.
The team then moved on to the Feizor kiln, wondering what that would look like.
The Broadwood kiln was found completely full of burnt and partly burnt limestone and lime, meaning that its operators had filled it, fired it up, and then walked away never to return. The newer kiln at Threapland was exactly the same. Why would two sets of limeburners have just abandoned their kilns? Both kilns were dated by archaeomagnetic techniques to the mid- to late seventeenth century which is meant to have been a time of economic growth in the Dales with the rebuilding of houses in stone and investment in land. It seems most odd to have two kilns given up like this at that time.
Even more staggering was the discovery in the Feizor kiln and one of the Hagg kilns of a partial horse burial.
In both cases the top of the stoke-hole had been removed and the bones placed within, very carefully in a nice neat pile of disarticulated bones from the front part of each animal. It was not a matter of someone having found a convenient hole to lose a dead animal in. They were not diseased animals thrown in to be burned. These were deliberate and careful burials of part of each horse with the same bones being laid there after the kilns had been abandoned. To have found one such burial would have been remarkable: to find two is unbelievable. There seem to be no parallels for this practice from the early modern period. Only one word comes to mind to explain these bizarre findings - ritual. The limeburners in each case had given up their kilns and, according to our theory, wanted to ensure they placated the evil spirits that their suspicious minds were afraid of upsetting. What other explanation can there be?
Note: Excavations along the new gas pipeline in 2006 found a further eight buried lime kilns all very similar to those in our project.
The full report 'The Sow Kiln Project. Excavations of Clamp Kilns in the Yorkshire Dales' is available from the Group.