Constructing a 7th century timber church: part one

The Irish landscape is scattered with the remnants of early Christian stone churches, however the majority of churches built before 900AD in Ireland were not conventionally made from stone (Ó’Carragáin, 2010). Due to this we have very little physical evidence on their shape or form. This lack of visual representation is one of the main reasons Sonia and myself decided to create a 3D visual interpretation of how one of these 7th century timber church may have looked. I feel forming this visualisation would prove useful as most of the source material and writings on the type of church do not contain a cohesive visual display of such churches. We used Ó’Carragáin’s work as a main source for how we would construct the church.

I started by reading on how the churches were constructed from an architectural standpoint. The majority of foundations left by Irish wood churches show very little ground evidence. When approaching the church at first I assumed it would be constructed in a stave palisade manner. This would mean the wooden staves which make up the church walls would be dug into a trench holding them in place. There is very little evidence for this method however. It would appear a sill beam method was used where 4 earth-fast posts would be put in each corner. This would explain the ground markings left by Irish churches. Ó’Carragáin explains how the method used for the Haltdalen stave church is very similar to the methods used in Ireland. We took inspiration from this church for our construction. In the picture you can see the sill beam base and the round posts on each corner.

photographed by Morten Dreier
photographed by Morten Dreier

As well as Ó’Carragáin’s description we will be referencing to high crosses and their depiction of Irish wooden church roofs for the ornaments and the roof beam. As previously stated I feel the creation of a 3D model will prove beneficial as it can often be hard to bring all the descriptive components together without an aid. We are also aware however of the pitfalls such a construction can have. As displayed in Eiteljorg‘s work he describes a student project where the student attempted to construct “one of the houses from Olynthus” She started with a detailed plan, some drawings and sketches of the site but was “shocked to realise the evidence could not support the reconstruction”(Eiteljorg, 2000) I believe it would be important to display with our model that these are an interpretation rather than a definitive representation.

Eiteljorg, H. (2000) The Compelling Computer Image – A Double-Edged Sword. Internet Archaeology 8.

Ó’Carragáin, Tomás.(2010) Churches in early medieval Ireland: architecture, ritual and memory. New Haven: Yale U Press.

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