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Church Building as Industry in Early Medieval Western Europe

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Funded by: Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 702350.

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. This project set out 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 were threefold:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The project focused 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. New recording and analysis was also undertaken at these sites.

  • St Peter’s Wearmouth, County of Durham (England)
  • St Paul’s Jarrow, County of Durham (England)
  • Sta María de Melque, Toledo (Spain)
  • St John’s Escomb, County of Durham (England)
  • S Frutuoso de Montélios, Braga (Portugal)
  • St Lawrence’s Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (England)

Archaeology, geology, examination of primary written sources and secondary accounts, landscape survey and ethno-architectural approaches were used in order to achieve the objectives of the project. The project aimed to explore 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). 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 were also applied. Visiting professional schools and learning from current skilled artisans at Durham Cathedral Mason’s Yard also facilitated the exploration of current experiences of stone cutting and masonry, allowing us to evaluate and contrast production times and procedures. The project was undertaken for just 6-months as the post-doctoral researcher gained a prestigious independent research position in Spain. Individual surveys of Escomb, Wearmouth and Jarrow are in development as publications.

Postdoctoral Researcher 

  • Maria de Los Angeles Utrero Agudo CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas-Spanish National Research Council)

A Spanish Church, Sta María de Melque, Toledo

Image above: Sta María de Melque, Toledo

St John’s medieval church, Escomb, County of Durham

Image above: St John’s medieval church, Escomb, County of Durham 


From the Department of Archaeology

  • Professor Sarah Semple
  • Dr Maria de Los Angeles Utrero-Agudo