Medieval Buildings Archaeology

In Hampshire over 107 medieval timber-framed buildings survive and have been successfully tree-ring dated, between AD 1250 and 1530 (Miles et al. 2007, online); 95 of which have been surveyed as part of this project. The Hampshire Dendrochronology Project has been one of the largest and most extensive thus far undertaken in the British Isles” (Miles 2003b, 220). Key events with regard to the preservation of historic buildings and the built environment that have conserved such a rich corpus of buildings are listed below. This list refers to Hampshire and the rest of the country and includes the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1944, 1947 and 1968. These acts provide various legislations for “buildings of architectural or historical interest”, in order to provide a means to mitigate further losses (Gerrard 2003, 110), by making the owners responsible for their maintenance (OSPI 2009, online). This also grew out of a desire to keep the landscape intact, in the face of rebuilding and development, following the need to re-house and expand following the wars (Gerrard 2003, 110).

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A Buildings Archaeology time line

UK map of buildings





Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) founded



Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society founded



National Trust founded



Royal Commissions on Historical Monuments for England, Wales and Scotland founded



Town and Country Planning Act

Extends provision for local authorities to set up preservation schemes to protect inhabited buildings and groups of buildings including their surroundings


National Buildings Record established


1944 & 1947

Town and Country Planning Acts

As part of a wide-ranging package of planning measures, provision made for compilation of comprehensive list of buildings worthy of preservation, the owners of which were required to give notice to the relevant authorities of their intention to alter or demolish them


The Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG) founded

Regional based studies concerned initially with classification of building types, roof construction and the study of lowland and highland variants


Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act

The Minister of State, advised by the Historic Buildings Councils, empowered to order grants for repairs and maintenance of buildings of outstanding interest and their contents


Town and Country Planning Act

Alters position so that owners of listed buildings wishing to demolish or alter them have to seek explicit permission for this, rather than serving notice of their intentions. Spot-listing introduced. Crown buildings listed for the first time



Resurvey of historic buildings for listing; interwar buildings first listed in 1970


Town and Country Planning Act

Further powers granted, including compulsory purchase


Town and Country Amenities Act

Toughens protection of Conservation Areas by requiring that demolition or radical alteration of buildings within them be sanctioned by relevant planning authority


National Heritage Memorial Act

Appoints Trustees authorised to give financial assistance for the acquisition, preservation or maintenance of land, buildings, or structures deemed important to the national heritage


English Heritage formed

They take over the role of Historic Building Councils and Ancient Monuments Boards


Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act

The basis of current law and legislation


Planning Policy Guidance note 15 (PPG15) Planning and the Historic Environment

Major Government restatement of conservation policy, including buildings

Table based on (Hunter 1996, Appendix p191-3)

A background to Buildings Archaeology

The study of medieval buildings has always sat between the disciplines of archaeology and art-history. This is due, in part, because both documentary evidence for buildings, especially those of a higher status, and the standing building itself, survive. The building, when studied in an archaeological context, can tell us as much about its architectural elements as of the social history of the people that built and lived in them; if we know how to read them properly (Morriss 2000, 10). This though, according to Richard Morriss, has only been acknowledged since the late 19th century (Ibid.). Prior to this, Morriss describes the study of ancient buildings as being one of ‘pure’ architectural history. That is to say people were more interested in the aesthetics of the building, than its social history (Ibid.). This changed in 1877 with the founding - by William Morris - of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) (Anon 2009, online). Morris promoted the “link between art and society, between style and culture, between architecture past, present, and future (Crook 1984, 555). The Victorian period (1837-1901) saw the forming of many local history and archaeological societies following in the theme set by SPAB. One such group is the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society. They were formed in 1885 and have “always been actively involved in the study of historic buildings” (Hantsweb 2009, online). The proceedings of the club have played an important role in providing research on various medieval timber-framed buildings and joints for this thesis. They claim “the Society was founded principally to forward the study and appreciation of Natural History, Archaeology and History within the County and to encourage the preservation of buildings and other historic remains of importance.”(Anon 1980, inside cover).

Vernacular architecture is defined by Brunskill as being that of a more local style, built by local craftsmen from local materials; as opposed to the politer form of national styles (Brunskill 1993, 21-4). Brunskill gives vernacular the alternative title of ‘folk’ housing and polite he classes as being ‘academic’. He suggests that whereas the former follows local tradition and needs, the latter tends to pursue “academic styles understood by a cultural few whose home is wherever an international cultural movement is accepted” (Ibid., 22). To paraphrase Brunskill, it could be said that vernacular architecture represents the working classes who build utilitarian architecture based on function. Polite, however, tends to be the preserve of the elite and powerful and is built in formal architectural styles that promote conformity, power and wealth (Ibid.). Richard Harris takes the definition further, suggesting that architecture is similar to grammar and, that although the people of England tend to speak English, there exist regional ‘vernacular’ dialects, within the umbrella of the parent language (Harris 1989, 1). He also suggests that both vernacular grammar and architecture are “cultural activities devoted to a practical end” (Ibid.). In Figure 3, Brunskill has set out a map showing what he believes are the various regions of Britain sharing vernacular traits, with area 1 representing the south east, of which Hampshire is a part (Brunskill 1993, 133). Because the aim of this thesis is to ascertain any changes in carpentry styles, between 1250 and 1530, in Hampshire, the study has drawn on evidence from both types of architecture to more fully understand how carpentry evolved, and why, over this period. Therefore, any differences between social levels could also be observed. This could help answer the question: Did the academically trained architects influence the local builder?

Late-Medieval carpenters were architects, project managers and builders

scarf joint pre 1350

Some important publications relevant to this research include the works of Nikolaus Pevsner (1951-74, and published more recently by John Newman (various dates)) and the joint works of Cyril Fox and Lord Raglan on Monmouthshire Houses (Fox and Raglan 1951, 1953, 1954). Of particular note here is Pevsner and Lloyds’ Hampshire publication, of 1967, in which they describe some of the more polite and religious buildings of Hampshire that were surveyed as part of this research (Pevsner and Lloyd 1967). In the introduction to the Hampshire book, Pevsner writes “in a county so poor in good building stone, it is odd that no major use was made of TIMBER. There are no really interesting timber-framed houses at all” (Pevsner and Lloyd 1967, 29-30). This research suggests otherwise, with several key buildings located in Hampshire including the earliest known hammerbeam roof – The Pilgrims’ Hall, Winchester (1295) – and the earliest known Wealden type house – 35 High Street, Winchester (1340) (Roberts 2003, 251 & 250 respectively). Such volumes demonstrated the value of detailed comparative studies, on a regional level, to understand the evolution of plan forms and structural techniques (Sheppard 1966). This was also the primary reason for the founding of the Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG) in 1952, to promote the study of the “lesser traditional building” (VAG 2009a, online). The group began publishing a peer reviewed journal, Vernacular Architecture, in 1970. This journal is still published annually and has proved an invaluable resource during this research project. The journal covers the whole of the British Isles and has, more recently, switched focus from general studies to a more regional one, including many articles relating to buildings of Hampshire.

One of the first academics of note to write a general review of buildings during this period, was W. G. Hoskins, in his book The Rebuilding of Rural England, 1570-1640 (Hoskins 1953). Hoskins suggested that many of the buildings of the Middle Ages were rebuilt in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, based on the decline of the open hall and the insertion of a fireplace (Hoskins 1953; Platt 1994, 229; Quiney 1994). More recently the work of Edward Roberts has shown that Hoskins’s dates of 1570 to 1640, for the demise of the open hall, is not the case in Hampshire (Roberts 2007, 17). Roberts was able to use dendrochronology, not available to Hoskins, to create a precise chronology of buildings which show the last house built in Hampshire with an open hall was in 1533 at 56-8 Winchester Street, Overton (Roberts 2003, 242). Roberts’s work clearly illustrates the need for accurate chronologies and the reinvestigation of past theories, in the light of recent advances in dendrochronology, a sub aim of this thesis.

‘The dating of timber-framed buildings was revolutionised from the early 1960s by Cecil Hewett’ (Gibson and Andrews 1998, online). Cecil Alec Hewett (1926-98) is widely regarded as the key name in joint chronology and typology and his work will form a major focus for this thesis (Gibson and Andrews 1998, online). His two major publications, The Development of Carpentry 1200-1700: an Essex study (Hewett 1969) and English Historic Carpentry (Hewett 1980a), have been the starting point for this research. As the titles suggest though, Hewett’s main area of research has been, primarily, in the South-eastern county of Essex. Even so, his work is still the main starting point for anyone undertaking research into the field of timber framed buildings; reflected in the bibliographies of those that follow him. In the introduction to both books (Ibid.) Hewett gives credit to a Frenchman, Henri Deneux (1874-1969) as being the true pioneer of joint typologies (Hewett 1980a, 1). Although Deneux’s work focused on French ecclesiastical buildings, rather than English ones, his work was really the start of such investigations (Gibson and Andrews 1998, online ; Hewett 1969, 21). Deneux published “L’Evolution des Charpentes du XIe au XVIIe Siẻcle”, in the French journal L’ Architecte, July 1927 (Deneux 1927) and, it is his attention to detail, and creation of joint typologies, that Hewitt pays homage to in the introduction to his main work (Hewett 1980a, 1). Deneux’s work was revisited, and republished, in 2002, showing its importance and relevance in today’s world (Collectif 2002). In this republished book, modern scholars have reappraised his work, in the light of dendrochronology, and recalibrated his chronologies, similar in essence to this project with regard to Hewett’s work in Essex, following the Author’s reinvestigation of some of Hewett’s key buildings, by both physical survey and desk based research. Hewett was also involved in the dating of some carpentry styles in Hampshire, including ‘King Arthurs Round Table’, from the Great Hall at Winchester, 15-16 The Abbey, Romsey and Winchester Cathedral. The results of his research will be looked at in greater depth, in subsequent Chapters, alongside the results of dendrochronology and, in the case of the round table, also Radiocarbon dating.

Hewett’s work, along with many of his contemporaries, tends to reflect the surviving ecclesiastical and high status, politer buildings of the middle ages. This is shown by some of Hewett’s other publications, English Cathedral and Monastic Carpentry (1974) and Church Carpentry (1974); what separates his work, from theirs, is his detailed study of joint types. J. T. Smith wrote a review on Hewett’s English Cathedral Carpentry (1975) which describes Hewett’s style of ‘3d’ illustration as being a great improvement over purely linear presentations (Smith 1978, 365). Hewett used a technique of hatching and shading to create the illusion of dimension, although Smith is unhappy about the lack of scaling from such techniques. Hewett’s aim however, was to illustrate chrono-typologies over individual case studies. This project has taken Hewett’s style of representing joints one stage further, by using 3d software to create computer generated models that allow the viewer to ‘see’ into the joint, to better understand its inner complexities as shown in Figure 4. Beyond this, as the models are solid entities, they can be animated to show the sequence of construction, as will be shown in later Chapters.

The dating of medieval timbers

This Section will explore dating techniques available to the buildings archaeologist, from the height of Cecil Hewett’s work on historic carpentry, the 1960s and 70s, to the present. Alongside this, the evolution of such techniques and their integration into archaeological methodologies will be explored. The ability to date buildings with a high degree of accuracy has obvious advantages within building archaeology. Key events, such as the Black Death, happen over such a short period - only 2 years - that the ability to identify a buildings date of construction, before or after such an event, can have huge ramifications. J. T. Smith suggests that inscribed dates are the “surest evidence”, though warns, “they do not exist before the sixteenth century” (Smith 1970, 239). Smith also notes that documents can be unreliable, as they often relate to a plot of land rather than the building upon it, and therefore, it is difficult to identify the actual building to which the document refers (Ibid.). Alternative methods were needed in order to date buildings before the sixteenth century.

As a result, the development of secure chronological data has always been at the forefront of archaeological theory and research, and this has led to the testing of various dating methods (Truncer and M. Pearsall 2008, 1077). These methods include, among others:

  • typological dating (by style) – see Section 2.2.1
  • Radiocarbon dating (14C) – see Section 2.2.2
  • dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) – see Section 2.2.3.

These three methods will now be examined, in detail, and their usefulness in dating timber buildings analysed. On the subject of dating Hewett wrote: “[Radiocarbon dating] is a valuable but very expensive method, and [dendrochronology] is not yet available to the extent that is desirable. How useful these methods will become has yet to be established, and typological assessments that have due regard to the technological typology herein proposed are the best method available at the present time” (Hewett 1980a, 2). It is Hewett’s typological dating method that will be examined first.


2.1.1 Typological dating

Johnson defines typological studies “as local descriptions and classifications of house types, building materials and techniques, and decorative styles, with the intention of producing controls over dating and regional variation” (Johnson 1990, 246). Within the wider definition given above subsists joint typologies – i.e. the dating of buildings based on the timber joints used to construct them. This was pioneered in England by Cecil Hewett. When Hewett published his major work, English Historic Carpentry, in 1980, 14C dating was expensive and unreliable and, dendrochronology was yet to be established, in northern Europe, as a reliable and inexpensive alternative (Hewett 1980a, 2). Because of this, scientific techniques were not widely utilised by scholars at the time and thus, dating by type and technological progression were the only reliable techniques. This assumes that an ‘archaic’ joint is replaced by a more efficient one, and so forth and, that when a new joint is created, it is immediately employed by all carpenters introduced to it (Hewett 1962, 240). On this Hewett wrote: “in many instances different forms of the same joint are seen, and these can be arranged in such orders as give them the appearance of constituting evolutionary sequences, by way of which it may be assumed the joint has attained the form in which it is most familiar in our time”(Hewett 1962, 240). Hewett’s translation of Henri Deneux, regarding the dating by type and style, reads: “by examining all these examples of frame-work we have been able to prove, despite their great variety, that each period is characterised by definite assembly-methods” (Hewett 1968, 80).

The certainty, by which Deneux, Hewett, Smith and others date buildings, purely by style, is based on 20th century human assumptions, about work carried out over four hundred years previously: the validity and, more importantly, the accuracy of which, needs reassessing where possible, by the recalibration of such chronologies with recent scientific methodologies. These methods will now be discussed.

2.1.2 Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the known decay rate of 14C (its ‘half-life’) which is known, against 12C which remains constant, following the death of an organism (Andrews and Doonan 2003, 136-7). Radiocarbon dating then measures the ratio between the known rates of decay of the 14C relative to the stable 12C; this is then used to calculate the date of death of the organism – in this case wood (Ibid.). The 14C is bombarded by 14N through cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere. The interaction with nitrogen atoms produces 14C which is radioactive –i.e. its atoms are unstable. In the atmosphere, the unstable 14C mixes with stable 12C, present in CO2 (Radiocarbon dioxide) and is finally absorbed by the living organism, through biological processes such as eating and photosynthesis, at “a fairly constant proportion” (Andrews and Doonan 2003, 136; Baillie 1982, 223). One problem is that this form of dating, without subsequent calibration, tends to give a wide date range of approximately a century. This is due to varying amounts of 14C in the atmosphere, at different times, caused by factors such as solar flares, sun spots and the earth’s magnetic fluctuations (Andrews and Doonan 2003, 137; Baillie 1982, 224). Accurate dating can also be compromised by the presence of contaminants in the sample, when examined at a laboratory; usually caused during the collection process (Kovar 1996, 427).

Willard Libby (1908-1980) pioneered the science of Radiocarbon dating, during the 1950s, earning him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, in 1960. It is one of only a few scientific processes purely developed for archaeological purposes, in contrast with many other techniques borrowed from external disciplines to fit archaeological science (Andrews and Doonan 2003, 134). Radiocarbon dating is best suited for the chronological analysis of organic materials, predominantly charcoal (Libby 1961, 609), up to c.50,000 years old and, therefore, is particularly useful to prehistorians (Baillie 1982, 223).

Godwin wrote about Libby’s work, suggesting that he was trying to seek the potential of using science to check historically, or stylistically dated, medieval timber architecture and to review “monuments of uncertain or controversial date for correct placement into chronology” (Godwin 1970, 71). He highlights problems in using this technique to date the timbers due to possible contaminates and the fact that tree-ring dates had to be used to calibrate the dates (Ibid.). The recalibration was based upon tree-ring dates obtained from bristle-cone pine chronologies (Libby 1970, 18). However, Godwin does suggest that a potential for its use did exist at the time, although dendrochronology has replaced any potential that Radiocarbon dating may have had in this field (Godwin 1970, 71-2). This is due to the greater accuracy and reliability possible with dendrochronology (Grenville 1999, 2). Conversely, by calibrating the Radiocarbon curve, using dendrochronological data from other trees, wood that cannot be dendro-dated can now be dated with greater accuracy by Radiocarbon dating (Haneca and Cufar et al. 2009, 1). Tree rings are also used “to confirm the veracity of other chronometric dating techniques, including archaeomagnetic, obsidian hydration and luminescence dates as well as chronologic sequences derived from seriation and stratigraphic analysis” (Nash 2002, 243).

Walter Horn, along with Ernest Born, used the Radiocarbon technique in Hampshire, in 1965, to try and date the original structures of the barns at Beaulieu-St. Leonards (Horn and Born 1965). Horn later published a recant of his work there by saying his results gave “cause for humility” (Horn 1970, 84). He went on to say: “Beaulieu-St. Leonard’s is only one of a considerable number of other buildings that could be cited to show what tricky problems this type of timber architecture poses to our efforts of dating” (Ibid., 86).

The tithe barn that once stood at Beaulieu-St. Leonards, is believed to have been the largest of its type in England and is thought to have stood from the first half of the 13th century, until around the second half of the 17th century (Ibid., 84-5). Other examples of Radiocarbon dates obtained from timbers in Hampshire include:

  • 9 Great Minster Street, Winchester (Keene 1985a, 588)
  • Faccombe Netherton (Goodall 1990b, 92). Originally 14C dated by the British Museum to the 12th or 13th century, the timbers are in fact late Saxon (c. AD 900).
  • King Arthur’s Round Table, from the Great Hall at Winchester (Biddle 2000)
  • Old Minster, Winchester Cathedral Green (Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle 2002)
  • Old Minster, Winchester Cathedral Green (Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle 2002)
  • Winchester Cathedral choir stalls (Tracy 1993, 194-5)
  • Winchester College shutters (Biddle 2000, 217)

The open hall house

In England, by the end of the fourteenth century, it is thought that the fully developed medieval hall arrangement had been attained. That is to say - the addition of two compartments either side of the open hall house to accommodate the service rooms and living quarters, forming a tripartite design, had become common place.

photographic archive

The archive stands at over 100 buildings dendro dated between AD1244 and 1574 with 4 dated by documents (denoted by*). The majority of the dates are available on the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory website and the Vernacular Architecture Group's website.

The black death

This paper aims to examine the effects of the black death upon english architecture. It is not aimed at being a definitive essay on the black death as a whole. Therefore, the text focusses on how architecture can teach us about how people built in response to the greatest natural disaster of the middle ages.