There were about 300 years between the end of the Roman era and the 're-invention' of stone buildings. It wasn't that the concept of erecting stone buildings had been entirely forgotten, just that the size of the task and the problems of dedicated labour to carry off the project were nearly insurmountable. On the continent in France and Germany, people were still putting up stone buildings, and still renovating the old Roman ones.
The arrival of the Vikings didn't help matters, since, just like the Saxons before them, they were a culture which used timber even for their largest buildings. It therefore lay with the ever growing clergy to push for stone structures, with the largest projects from the period obviously being the stone churches. The earliest stone churches were built in the early seventh century and continued to be built thereafter. However in the poorer parishes, wood churches still persevered. These early churches were quite modest, although by the time of Edward the Confessor massive buildings like Westminster Abbey were being built - not that you can see much of the original any more. Many of the Anglo-Saxon churches are still in use and examples can be found at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, Bradford-Upon-Avon near Bath in Wiltshire, Barton-Upon-Humber in Lincolnshire, and Earls Barton in Northamptonshire. There are many more up and down Britain, some more corrupted by later modifications than others.
Stone buildings do not appear to have been built for secular uses amongst the Saxons until the ninth - or tenth century, although in areas of Britain that were for one reason or another timber poor, stones were being used by the native peoples to build the walls of their buildings, and some cases, following the Irish tradition, even integrating the roof as well and building that of stone too. This suited the incoming Norse Vikings who also, in the more marginal areas of Norway, had a tradition of building in stone. In each of these examples, the stone had to be of a type that was found in bedded plains for ease of building, as the structures they were erecting were raised without the use of mortar, otherwise known as 'dry stone walling'. The Anglo-Saxon churches however were utilising rough stones for the bulk of their buildings, and these had to be lime mortared into position. They were not above using old Roman bricks in with the rest of the wall materials, and whilst the greater part was just ordinary stone, many decorative elements were carved out of freestone such as sandstones and limestone. Window and door surrounds, quoining, all of the pillars, friezes etc; were carved from these types of stone.
A considerable amount of Anglo-Saxon architectural stonework has survived and gives an idea of the artistic nature of the Anglo-Saxon churches. Stone sundials are features which often survive on churches from the period. Roods carved in stone (figures of Christ on the cross), many of them life-sized, have also been found at many sites, and in many places, only the lintels or supports for these quite large crosses are left as the cross was carved in wood.
Other large pieces from the period are the stone crosses found in a number of churchyards. These were always highly decorated, and, like the carvings in churches, were often painted, leaving traces of paint in the nooks and crannies of the carving which have survived all this time. Vestiges of black, blue, red, brown, orange, yellow and white pigment have been detected on such stonework. From the Danelaw and Cumbria, stone crosses include pagan as well as Christian imagery on opposite sides of the cross, possibly ensuring that no-one was left out. The crosses often preceded the actual church building and acted as focal points for the local populous.
At some ecclesiastical sites stone furniture has also been found; occasionally seats, but more often than not lecterns, elaborately carved fonts and stands for bowls. Stone grave-stones, often with a cross and an inscription; stone shrines, also decorated and highly adorned 'hog backed' tombs are regular finds. Pictorial commemorative stones are well known, mostly from Scandinavia but also in this country whilst carved rune-stones are another common Scandinavian find but are far more rare in this country.
On a more secular level, stone was used for a number of purposes, the most widespread being the manufacture of quern stones and millstones in water-mills. The type of stone for these tools was quite particular. It needed to be quite hard but with an open or gritty finish to it. Mill Stone Grit was one type that could be used and imported from northern Germany came Rhenish Lava. Stone was used for spindle-whorls, moulds for metal-casting and, occasionally, for loom weights. Shale, especially oil shales were carved into finger rings, with the rough shale pieces being exported or imported to urban sites such as London for manufacture; where at one site the remains of cow metatarsals sawn to make rings have also been excavated. Other uses for limestone were mortars for pounding food or minerals in, and chunky oil lamps from chalk. Even Roman tiles found themselves being reused and were converted to moulds for casting and trimmed as loom weights.
In Scandinavia many bowls and cooking vessels have been found carved from soapstone, or steatite, a mineral that is very heat tolerant. It is a soft, easily carved rock that was often trimmed roughly to shape on the quarry face with the soapstone hardening as it was exposed to the air as the bowl was being finished. Steatite is soft enough to be carved with wood working tools and even saws with little or no damage to the blades. These bowls were usually hemispherical, and makers and owners marks on the rim show their value. These styles of bowls could be quite large and not the sort of thing you would hang over a fire, suggesting that they were placed beside it and rotated to keep the heat spread evenly around the bowl. Other suggestions are that it was used to boil meals in by roasting stones in the fire and then dumping them into the pot. Other more complex shapes included handled vessels or rectangular forms. The soapstone was quarried in Norway and in the Shetlands and exported to the other Scandinavian countries; its many qualities also making it suitable for such things as moulds for metal casting, furnace stones for forges, oil lamps, spindle whorls, weights and line or net sinkers.
Other types of stone had specialised uses. Decorative stone pendants found in Birka were carefully selected for their beautiful colouring. Small black stones were used as touchstones to test the colour, and hence purity, of gold. Jet was also a widely used stone, the main source in Europe being Whitby in Yorkshire. It was used for making pendants, finger rings, playing counters, dice and even spindle whorls. Jet is black and shiny when polished, and was sometimes inlaid with tin, calcium carbonate or orpiment, a yellow mineral imported from France and Germany.
Rock crystal was very popular as a material, but was only suitable like today for small items and in the Late Anglo-Saxon period it was utilised as beads or other elements in jewellery. However in the pagan period, rock crystal was used to make crystals balls about 2 inches in diameter. These had a simple silver frame placed around them that joined on the upper side in an often square 'box' through which passed a fairly thick silver wire loop. There has been much speculation as to their use, but the latest theory is that they were used to magnify the suns rays to start fires with, which they can do on a sunny day. However, why would you need a fire on a sunny day...?
Stone was a basic trade item in the tenth and eleventh centuries. As well as the soapstone mentioned above, Kentish ragstone was exported to Europe for building. But to add a note of confusion, Norwegian Ragstone was also exported in this direction to London. Often it arrived in the form of ballast in the bellies of ships, which ensured that everything apart from the bilge water could be traded to maximise the trip. The most widely traded stone item however, was the whetstone. Banded slate whetstones from the Lake District, Scandinavian Gneiss from Telemark are found all over Europe and seem to have been an important part of the cargo of at least one of the Viking shipwrecks found. The stone often arrived rough, from where it went to another site to be finished into the actual hone. Larger whetstones for sharpening iron tools were an important part of everyday equipment and were widely traded, especially since varying degrees of coarseness were required to produce a finely honed edge.
Working stone was the same then as it is today with the exception of power tools. A mason used a hammer or mallet and chisel and punches to carve the stone to the required shape. Masons had by then fallen into two fairly distinct groups, those who erected buildings and those who decorated them, not that either couldn't do a little of both. Stone was moved by sea and river a lot, but far less overland, so redressing old Roman limestone to suit your purposes as it was already on site, cheap and of good quality was a logical step. There is some evidence that as templates and stencils have been found, that those who commissioned such work, probably suffered from envy and wanted theirs to be'...like that but nicer.'
Original article by Roland Williamson, 1999
Illustrations by Colin Levick