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The scientific dating of standing buildings

Posted on 12. March, 2018.

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Over recent years, our understanding of building history has been transformed by the use of scientific dating techniques. This has been particularly significant for the innumerable modest buildings of Britain – houses, barns, mills, etc., that are described as ‘vernacular’.

The development of the grandest buildings, cathedrals or great houses, can generally be worked out from documentary records or traditional architectural typology, although even for such  structures, precise dating can provide striking insights. However, dating the ordinary buildings of town and countryside is much more difficult, especially for those of medieval date, since the regular use of datestones only began at the end of the 16th century. It is all too easy to create a circular argument, where the date of a particular feature or style in one house is ‘confirmed’ by other examples, which have themselves been dated by analogy with the first house. This circle has now been broken by scientific dating methods.

The principal dating technique is that of dendrochronology or tree-ring dating, with radiocarbon dating applied to a few difficult cases. Both these methods provide dates for timber-framed buildings, or for the timber components of stone or brick buildings; tree-ring dating is normally applied to oak although in principle other species can be dated. The method of thermoluminescence, which identifies the firing date of bricks, has also been applied occasionally. Thermoluminescence has been used, for example, at St Mary’s Guildhall, Boston, Lincolnshire, where it confirmed a tree-ring date of 1390–5. It is more often applied in archaeological contexts, for dating such objects as hearths and kilns.

Read the full article in Science Progress, Volume 100, Number 4, November 2017, pp. 374-399.


Author: Nathaniel Alcock
Emeritus Reader, University of Warwick, UK 

Keywords: dendrochronology, cathedral, cross-matching, crown-post roof, cruck construction, felling date, heartwood, master tree-ring chronology, medieval buildings, oak, radiocarbon dating, radiocarbon wiggle-matching, sapwood, timber-framed buildings, tree-ring dating, vernacular buildings 

Image: A well-preserved cruck-built house, built with trees felled in 1480.