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Identifying an Abbey Stone

October 31, 2017

 

 

The purpose of HASP is to discover stones that may have come from Reading Abbey and which were previously unknown or which had not been examined. 

 

If the stone is found on, or buried in, Abbey grounds then there is a strong assumption that it may have been a part of the Abbey. However if a stone turns up in a garden some miles away how can we tell its origins?

 

 

THE PETROLOGY

 

First of all it is necessary to look at the petrology of the stone. You will see that nearly all the stone in our survey is what is known as oolitic limestone, and much of it can be traced to the Taynton area.

 

Taynton stone

 

Taynton quarry is situated west of Oxford, near Burford. (See map under the HASP section) The stone is from the middle Jurassic period, c. 145 millions years ago. 

 

The sample above is typical of its appearance.

 

Note the colour. It tends to age to a yellowish grey, with white to pale brown characteristics. Typically it is medium-to coarse-grained with moderately to highly shell-detrital ooidal grainstone. These are distinguished by lines of white material running through the stone. Locally it can show fine to very coarse graining, again with thin shell-detrital marl seams.

 

To be sure of its petrologial origins it is often sufficient to examine a section with a good magnifying lens. If there is still uncertainty then a small section of stone can be examined in the laboratory. 

 

However Taynton stone is not the only type to have been found in the Abbey area itself. This ranges from Barnack stone to Purbeck marble.

 

Barnack stone is another type of limestone from Lincolnshire dating to the same geological period as Taynton stone. It is hard and durable but difficult to dress. Though widely used in monastic buildings in the east of the country it is interesting to find examples of it in Reading. 

 

                          Above: Sample of Barnack stone

 

Barnack stone is associated with sarcophagi and burial so this could be a medieval gravestone/sarcophagus.                 (See St James' church - assorted stones).

 

This type of stone stone has been identified  from recently discovered 12/13TH century sarcophagi in Westminster Abbey (Poets’ Corner Yard) excavations.

 

Purbeck Marble

 

Part of column of Purbeck marble is situated  in the wall between St James’ and the Forbury. It is facing the footpath, on St James’ side of the Forbury wall.

 

It is of great interest, being the only example to date of use of this type of stone on the Reading Abbey site. Assuming that this is its provenance, and it must be pointed out that there are no records of its find spot, it would have been used internally.  An example may be seen in Westminster Abbey triforium, which is of black and yellow marble. The stone would have been highly polished and typical of Cluniac usage of dichromatic and polychromatic stonework, such as at Vézelay.

 

Below : The cross section of the

shaft 32cms diameter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right: Part of the triforium at Westminster Abbey with Purbeck marble shafts

 

 

 

STYLISTIC ANALYSIS

 

Once we have determined whether a stone is of the correct petrological type to be found at Reading Abbey, the next two steps are to determine whether it may indeed have originated in the Abbey and, if so, to what period it may be attributed.

 

Both these questions may be addressed by looking at its stylistic attributes.  As I say repeatedly, just because a stone may date from a time associated with Abbey does not necessarily mean that this was its place of origin.

 

However just as the 'cloister stones' in Reading Museum were not found on the Abbey site, and yet most expert opinion believes this is their origin, so too we can apply the same principles to any new stones that are discovered.

 

If the stone is clearly of high quality carving then we have to ask the question as to the likely place or places it may have originated. Reading Abbey, being the most important building in the area, must be a main contender.

 

The second attribute is the architectural style of the stone.

 

The Abbey was begun towards the end of the Romanesque period and wasn't consecrated until 1164, when the new 'first pointed' style of Gothic, or early English, architecture was being introduced. However the Abbey lasted for over 400 years. We know of at least one major change of style over this period to be found at Reading.  The Lady Chapel of 1314 was built in what is referred to as the 'decorated style'. 

 

As styles and masonry techniques evolved it is possible to give an indication as to when a stone fits into one or another of these periods.

 

However great caution must be taken not to be too dogmatic about this. It is quite possible for later buildings to follow earlier styles. Moreover as we have seen it is also possible for what is normally accepted to be a later style to appear in some form at an earlier date.

 

Overall, though, style can be a guide, if not an absolute indicator, of age. Bearing this in mind we can then look at other aspects of monastic life associated with different  times and customs. For instance styles of art, stained glass and music likewise evolved. So in discovering various types of architecture we can begin to build a picture of how life in the monastery also changed over time.

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