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29 October 2014

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Shiver those timbers!
Timbers in the roof above Salisbury Cathedral's nave
Timbers in the roof above Salisbury Cathedral's nave
Most of us take the timbers in our roof for granted but when your property is 800 years old, the chances are your kings, crowns, collars and trusses hide a few surprises, and Salisbury Cathedral is a case in point.
video See South Today's report on the Salisbury Cathedral roof timbers. (56k)

Tim Tatton Brown consultant archaeologist to Salisbury Cathedral talks to Georgie Green from BBC Radio Wiltshire. (28k)



Dan Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory explains what they're currently doing at Salisbury Cathedral. (28k)


audio Peter Marshall from English Heritage explains their support for the project. (28k)

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Salisbury Cathedral

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Tree ring dating relies on matching samples of timber with master ring sequences, usually by measuring the annual growth rings.

It is usually only possible to ascribe an exact felling date if the sapwood is complete, otherwise estimates can be made of a missing outer ring.

Although it was possible to differentiate between the Irish and English wood it was more difficult to ascribe timber to particular forests in England as documentary sources indicated that these were far apart. The scientists did, however, manage to identify groups of timber which came from the same forest source.

The Cathedral offers selective tours of the roof and tower to the public. These provide an opportunity for people to see for themselves some of these ancient timbers and to understand from our fully trained guides more about the construction of medieval cathedrals like Salisbury.

Advance booking is recommended (01722 555156) as tours are limited to 12 people at a time. There is a separate charge, in addition to the requested cathedral donation.

The dating project is the subject of an exhibition being mounted by English Heritage in the Chapter House at the cathedral for National Science Week.

The exhibition will be open from Saturday 8 March until Sunday 17 March from 09.30 GMT to 17.30 GMT (Sunday from midday). There is no admission charge but donations to the cathedral are welcome.

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Experts at the cathedral have discovered that many of the timbers in the roof come from Ireland and there are more of them than at first thought.

What's more, the numbers involved suggest there was a dispute with the local timber suppliers, which forced the cathedral authorities to look further a field in order to complete their thirty year building project on time!

Using a sophisticated tree-ring dating procedure, scientists working for English Heritage have proved to the year - and even the season - when the trees were felled.

The roofs of the eastern chapels are built from oak timber dating back to the spring of 1222 and heralding from the forests surrounding Dublin.

Peter Marshall of English Heritage's Scientific Dating Service said: "The findings are among a raft of significant results to come from research commissioned for a programme of major repairs grant aided by English Heritage and the Salisbury Cathedral Trust. They will greatly increase our understanding of major historic buildings and are likely to have a profound effect on how they are repaired in future."

Batten boards

Even the batten boards, which support the leading, date back over 700 years - surviving exposure to the weather during the civil war of the 1650s when the lead was stripped from the roof and used for musket shot.

Dan Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, who has undertaken the dating work for English Heritage suspected the boards' very early date.

"In the past boards like this would have been disregarded because they were generally thought to be replacements for the old ones thrown out when lead was stripped. Dendrochronology is beginning to show more and more detailed information about the importance of such material," he said.

Analysis of the wood in the North porch roof has revealed the earliest and one of the finest crown post roofs in the country. Here and on the east chapel roofs is evidence of the earliest known use of Arabic as well as Roman numerals to mark timbers for assembly.

Timber for the cathedral's construction is known from documents to have come from as many as 16 different forests across Wiltshire and Hampshire as well as Herefordshire. Some trees were at least 300 years old when they were felled. One tree had a first ring date of AD 908.

The dates established confirm that Salisbury, considered by many to be the epitome of Early English church architecture and the largest and most Complete 13th century masonry building in Britain, was built almost entirely to a single design. The first foundation stones were laid in AD 1220 and the whole cathedral was completed before its consecration in 1258 an astonishingly short time for such a structure.

Tim Tatton Brown, consultant archaeologist to Salisbury Cathedral who has conducted extensive research into its history and initiated the dating project, said: "This very important new series of dates from dendrochronology has given us, for the first time, an independent sequence of dates for the whole of the cathedral."

Dan Miles and Tim Tatton Brown
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