Timber buildings, micro-histories and buildings in society: a review of two recent publications

Vernacular Buildings and Urban Social Practice: Wood and people in early modern Swedish society, by Andrine Nilsen (ISBN 978-1-78969-677-6)

‘For My Descendants and Myself, a Nice and Pleasant Abode’, Agency, Micro-History and Built Environment, Buildings in Society International BISI III, Stockholm 2017, edited by Göran Tagesson, Per Cornell, Mark Gardiner, Liz Thomas and Katherine Weikert (ISBN 978-1-78969-581-6)

This blog post is a review of two books recently published by ArchaeoPress with many interconnected themes. They are both, to some extent, slightly outside the normal scope of this blog, with a predominant focus on urban and early modern buildings. However, there is a lot in these volumes for the study of the medieval period. There is an emphasis on micro-history and agency within the built environment, both approaches are as applicable to medieval structures as they are to the early modern ones.

I shall first discuss Vernacular Buildings and Urban Social Practice by Andrine Nilsen. This is a substantial volume reflecting considerable research across Scandinavia. The work uses five primary case studies – Nya Lödöse, Gothenburg, Jönköping, Falun, and Stockholm – and draws on examples from elsewhere in Norway and Sweden. The opening chapter layout the structure and the theoretical framework for the study. There is a Scandinavian-centric approach to the theoretical framework, but there are comparisons with other parts of Europe and it is a useful overview of approaches to building studies and interpretation. A useful aspect of this study is its clear multidisciplinarity and this is clearly laid out in the introduction, this framework is a useful approach to take for any settlement research.

The second and third chapters provide an overview of the study of wooden buildings in Sweden. This begins with a discussion of why so many of these buildings have been lost over the centuries, thus providing us with a social context for the study and preservation of these structures. We also get a review of previous literature on the subject of wooden buildings; this focuses on Scandinavia but does include examples from England and elsewhere in Europe. Chapter four brings us to the buildings themselves in its discussion of wood as an everyday material and how it was used as part of urban planning, such as the construction of walls and pits. One of the most important (and interesting) aspects of these public constructions was the use of box revetments to create a dry surface on which to build the houses. Urban vernacular is the focus of the fifth chapter, with a discussion of construction techniques and extensive archaeological examples. Chapters six and seven consider the wider urban landscape, considering urban planning, peripheral areas, the issues faced by urban settlements, and the existence of multi-storeyed buildings.

Chapters eight and nine provide an overview of the case studies and bring the evidence together for an overall conclusion. The main text is followed by extensive appendices containing all the relevant evidence that has been discussed throughout. This volume is an excellent study of these urban wooden buildings, and many of the aspect (such as multiple storeys and construction techniques) are also applicable to rural buildings and settlements. This is an important study drawing attention to a building type that has been mainly lost, but this research has helped to bring it to life and enhance our understanding.

The proceedings of the third Buildings in Society International (BISI) is a very mixed volume, with a great selection of papers. Several papers focus on medieval topics and a few on more modern buildings. All papers provide an insightful view of various aspects of buildings and help us to think of them in new ways. There is also a focus on Scandinavia in this volume, mainly because the conference was held in Stockholm. The breadth of papers in this volume reminds us of the range of buildings and contexts that exist. Considering these papers side-by-side helps to deepen our understanding of buildings archaeology and consider the many aspects of the buildings we study. Architecture, construction materials, function, space, and social importance are all significant aspects of buildings that interact and to study one alone would not show us the full meaning or value of a building. Thus it is vital that conferences, such as BISI, and their proceedings exist to further our study.

Domesticity and accommodation are the focus of papers by Antoinette Huijbers, Sarah Kerr and Linda Qviström. Huijbers takes a theoretical approach to the use of domestic space in medieval buildings. Kerr presents a study of castle lodging ranges and how they created an identity amongst those how lived in them. Qviström discusses the importance of windows and light in the medieval buildings of Gotland. Building materials are discusses in papers by Jeroen Bouwmeester and Gunilla Gardelin. The development of stone buildings in the Netherlands is the subject of Bouwmeester’s paper. Similar to the previous book, Gardelin looks at the reuse of timber in buildings. There are two papers on Scandinavian stave churches. The paper by Linn Willetts Borgen discusses the use of stave churches as architectural memory while the paper by Gunnar Almevik and Jonathan Westin digitally reconstructs a stave church to understand its function and the experience of its worshipers.

Several papers in this volume provide an insight into lesser-studied topics. Per Cornell and Adriana Velázquez Morlet provide a look at household space within Maya settlement in late postclassic period Mexico. Miriam Steinborn considers the changes in urban settlements after the fall of the Roman empire and the organic development of new buildings in the previously organised spaces. Liz Thomas’ paper discusses the church of St Joseph in Belfast’s Sailortown and how it remained the symbolic heartland of a community that was dispersed when the area was redeveloped.

Both these books provide us with new insights into building histories and have the potential to inspire new directions in research. They are of value to anyone interested in medieval and early modern buildings across Europe. Even the areas that don’t discuss medieval buildings will be of relevance as the approach or theory can be adapted and applied to other subjects. As with all Archaeopress volumes, the production quality is exceptional and they are both provided with extensive colour illustrations.

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