Scientists use tree rings to chart historical periods of economic prosperity and downturn

27 January 2022

Scientists have been able to reveal patterns of building activity in the late medieval and early modern era by researching tree felling dates, according to the journal Frontiers.

The Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2022) research argues that examining the felling year of timber from historical buildings can track building activity across the decades and centuries, giving a record of how economies have fared.

Dating historical building timber from the tree rings and analysing the distribution building years, says the report, allows scientists to identify different period of prosperity and downturn between 1250 and 1699, aside from any other data.

The research is similar to other methods employed to examine other topics. In the past shipwreck number have been researched to investigate trading between nations, while pollen has been studied to model agricultural production.

Report first author Dr Fredrik Ljungqvist, associate professor of both History and Physical Geography at Stockholm University, Sweden, said felling dates were a good indicator for changes in societal wellbeing and demographics.

Felling dates from 54,045 georeferenced pieces of building timber – oak, fir, pine, larch, and spruce were examined, using wood for where the outermost tree ring was preserved to allow an accurate determination of the felling year. 

They compared changes in building activity between the British Isles, the Nordic countries, France, the Benelux countries, Switzerland,

The authors found evidence for the 'Late Medieval Crisis', the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), and known economic boom periods in the late 13th century and around 1500.