Science reveals secrets of Peterborough Cathedral

 A pioneering study of the wood used for the ceiling panels in Peterborough Cathedral has revealed that it came from Northern Germany - over 400 miles away. The 13th century timbers are the earliest deliberate imports in England proven by dendrochronology - the study of tree-rings. The study, never used before in this country, was funded by English Heritage and carried out by scientists from the Dendrochronology Laboratory at the University of Sheffield. Previously, it was assumed that the ceiling was constructed entirely from local wood. The research has now proven that good quality oak timber supplies were dwindling far earlier than previously thought, sending the industry further eastwards in search of material suitable for such prestigious uses as panelling and altar screens. The timber used in the nave is of extremely high quality, slow grown and straight grained from majestic oaks grown in dense forest. The oak was felled in North Germany in the second quarter if the 13th century and then shipped across the North Sea to one of the major East Coast ports such as King's Lynn. The oaks used for the rest of the roof structure grew locally, dating from less than half a century earlier. The study involved comparing tree rings from Peterborough with a network of master chronologies recently made available from a European Union funded project into climate change. Peterborough's oak board matched North German timbers and not English timbers. Alex Bayliss, scientific-dating co-ordinator at English Heritage said: "This result is very exciting as it shows that population increases and expanding towns had a significant impact on our forests as early as the 13th century. To create such a magnificent cathedral as Peterborough, which in its complexity and scale exceeded the skyscrapers of today, the supply of high-quality oak was crucial. The builders were clearly willing to go to great effort and expense to get the timbers they needed to do the cathedral justice." Conservation work on the ceiling of the cathedral is approaching the half way mark and is expected to continue until 2002. Funding has been provided by grants from English Heritage, the European Commission under its RAPHAEL Programme, and a number of individuals and charities through the Peterborough Cathedral Development & Preservation Trust. The Dean of Peterborough, The Very Revd Michael Bunker said: "Our nave ceiling is one of the main features of our cathedral. There have been a number of attempts over the centuries to repair and restore it. The work now in hand is, I believe the most comprehensive and thorough thus far. When the work is completed the Ceiling will once again be seen in all its glory. But for the present appeal to raise the money for this work, this project could not have been accomplished."

Share this story