Late-Medieval carpenters were architects, project managers and builders
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)