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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

CHISEL: Church Building as Industry in Early Medieval Western Europe

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


At the turn of the 1st millennium, western European society was largely agricultural, but masonry building technologies were vital economic stimuli, creating a high demand, desired and shared by religious and secular patrons. To date, research on early medieval churches in Western Europe has tended to focus on the style and form of buildings and their diagnostic features, whereas industries and economies have been explored in terms of portable goods such as coinage, ivories, ceramics and glass, resulting in a neglect of the contribution of building technology to the early medieval economy.
Recent archaeological work has focused however on the materiality of these buildings and the mode of their construction, modifying traditional conceptions and thus inviting innovative research geared to exceeding traditional approaches. This project intends so to reconfigure early medieval stone building technologies as an economically significant industrial sector, by focusing on the ecclesiastical workshops responsible for producing masonry churches. The project objectives are threefold:
1. To understand the industry of construction of masonry churches in the Early Middle Ages (8th-11th centuries) through the study of building processes, technology, material and skills-based investment at a number of north-western European churches in Spain, Portugal and England.
2. To develop an understanding of the early medieval architecture as a product in its social and economic context, and to measure its contribution to the economy.
3. To develop a suitable methodology for the analysis of the construction industry in western Europe, by using the surviving stone-built churches and their hinterlands as a trans-disciplinary laboratory in which to apply and contrast methodologies.

Chosen Case Studies

The project focuses on the analysis of six early medieval masonry churches sited in Spain, Portugal and England and dated to between the late 7th and the early 11th centuries. All of them have previously had some research and recording relating to their construction which is accessible from published archaeological excavations and/or written records. We are undertaking new recording and analysis at these sites. These churches are:
1. St Peter’s Wearmouth, County of Durham (England). [Fig. 01, below]
2. St Paul’s Jarrow, County of Durham (England). [Figs. 02/03, below]
3. Sta María de Melque, Toledo (Spain). [Fig. 04, below]
4. St John’s Escomb, County of Durham (England). [Fig. 05, below]
5. S Frutuoso de Montélios, Braga (Portugal). [Fig. 06, below]
6. St Lawrence’s Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (England). [Fig. 07, below]

In order to know the origin of the construction stone material used or reused at these buildings, geological and petrological analyses along with landscape survey will be undertaken to pinpoint the quarries exploited and/or the previous archaeological sites plundered for the construction of each site. Relating sites (quarries and buildings) will enable to study the ways and means of transport of the material and to value this activity in terms of economy within the building project.

Research Activities

1. Research
Archaeology, geology, exam of primary written sources and secondary accounts, landscape survey and ethno-architectural approaches are being used in order to achieve the objectives of the project.
- Archaeology
Archaeological analysis of selected standing structures and sites is making possible to approach the construction activities, which are evident in the quarries (traces of tools, stones found on site), in the buildings (techniques, tools, putlog holes), and in the working areas (kilns, mortar-mixing basins).
To better understand Anglo-Saxon construction techniques (7th-11th c.), some churches dated to this period and other related sites (mainly Roman forts thought to be a resource for building material) are also being visited e.g. Roman forts along Roman Hadrian’s Wall: Vindoland, current Binchester; Arbeia, current South Shields and churches in County of Durham and Northumberland such as St Andrew at Aycliffe, St Cuthbert at Billingham St Nicholas at Boldon, St Peter’s at Bywell [Fig. 8, below] St Mary and St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, St Mary Magdalene at Hart, All Saints at Lanchester, St Mary the Virgin at Norton, St Mary the Virgin at Staindrop.
- Geology and origin of construction materials
The construction of a masonry building is a complex process involving the selection of a quarry and extraction, transportation and setting of material. Analysis of these tasks requires the location and examination of the origin of material (quarries and/or old buildings) and the studying of the transport networks. Landscape survey (walkovers, exam of historic maps and current quarries in use, and application of GIS and LiDAR) and geological techniques will be applied.
- Ethno-architectural approach
Visiting professional schools and learning from current skilled artisans is allowing us to explore the current experiences of stone cutting and masonry, and to evaluate and contrast production times and procedures. This work is underway with the Mason’s Yard Durham Cathedral, England [Fig. 9, below] and will also involve the Stoneyard houses at York Minster, England and the Mason’s School at Pontevedra, Spain.
- Costing the construction work
In order to explore building ‘cost’ in terms of the workforce and the days invested in every single building, results of previous activities (archaeological and geological analysis of the building process) and documentary accounts recording donations for the building of churches as well as evidence from medieval, modern and contemporary building manuals, are being used.

2. Seminars and Publications
Utrero M.ª Á., Murillo, J. I. and Martín, R. 2016: “Virtual models for archaeological research and 2.0 dissemination: The early medieval church of San Cebrián de Mazote (Spain)”, SCIRES-IT - SCIentific RESearch and Information Technology 6-2, 93-108.

CHISEL project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 702350.

CHISEL project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 702350.

[Fig. 01] St Peter’s Wearmouth, County of Durham (England)

[Fig. 02] St Paul’s Jarrow, County of Durham (England)

[Fig. 03] St Paul’s Jarrow, County of Durham (England)

[Fig. 04] Sta María de Melque, Toledo (Spain)

[Fig. 05] St John’s Escomb, County of Durham (England)

[Fig. 06] S Frutuoso de Montélios, Braga (Portugal)

[Fig. 07] St Lawrence’s Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (England)

[Fig. 8] St Peter’s at Bywell (England)

[Fig. 9] Mason’s Yard Durham Cathedral (England)


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