The researchers can precisely determine to the year when historic construction timber has been felled by coring a sample from the wood and comparing the annual growth pattern of the tree-rings against previously collected reference material. 

 

Prior to the modern period variations in building activity are poorly documented. However, by studying close to 50,000 precisely dated construction timbers originating from archaeological investigations of buildings, researchers have found a way to reconstruct changes in building activity. Using dendrochronological methods the precise felling year of used trees were determined. This enabled the researchers to establish a new detailed history of building activity in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.

The researchers wanted to better understand which factors influenced the level of building activity most strongly. They investigated a range of possible factors, and found that the number of plague outbreaks and food prices had the largest effect.

The project leader, Dr Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist from Stockholm University, Sweden, stresses the importance of these new findings:

– Variations in building activity reflect demographic, economic and social change during history. We found remarkably strong relationships with both the frequency of plague outbreaks and the price of food. Building activity in Europe was lower when plague was widespread or food prices higher, whereas during periods of no plague, or low food prices, building activity tended to be higher.

The researchers also found an unprecedented decline in building activity during the devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). This is a new result, but Dr Charpentier Ljungqvist says that the most important findings are from earlier periods with fewer historical sources:

– The sharp decline in building activity that we identified around 1300 strongly suggests that the so-called Late Medieval Crisis had already started by then. This means that the crisis preceded not only the Black Death (1346–1353), but also the catastrophe known as the Great Famine (1315–1322).

The precise starting point of the Late Medieval Crisis, often linked to the Black Death, has for decades been a matter of debate. The new building activity history represents an important piece of evidence in this debate due to its complete independence from written records.

– It both provides new insights into times of crisis and prosperity in the past and helps us validate the impacts of past crises recorded in written sources, concludes Dr Charpentier Ljungqvist.

Reference:

Ljungqvist, F.C., Tegel, W., Krusic, P.J., Seim, A., Gschwind, F.M., Haneca, F., Heussner, K.-U., Hofmann, J., Houbrechts, D., Kontic, R., Kyncl, T., Leuschner, H.H., Nicolussi, K., Perrault, C., Pfeifer, K., Schmidhalter, M., Seifert, M., Walder, F., Westphal, T., Büntgen, U. 2018: Linking European building activity with plague history. Journal of Archaeological Science, 98: 81–92.

For further information and interviews, please contact:
Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, Department of History, Stockholm University, Sweden, e-mail: fredrik.c.l@historia.su.se, phone +46706620728