Czech researcher on dating old wooden churches in Ukraine

Nyzhnia Apsha

Researchers from the Czech Republic and Ukraine have been carrying out a joint project in western Ukraine, focusing on the country’s traditional wooden churches.  Although the research has been stalled by Russia’s war on Ukraine, the data they managed to collect last year show that some of the oak buildings are over 500 years old:

Wooden church architecture in Ukraine dates back to the beginning of Christianity in the region and is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage. Today, an estimated 2,000 wooden churches, both Greek Catholic and Eastern orthodox, can be found across  Ukraine.

Last year, researchers from Brno travelled to the western part of the country in order to determine the age of some of these unique buildings. I discussed the project with Tomáš Kolář from Brno’s Mendel University, who is part of the research team:

“Our research doesn’t focus only on wooden churches, but also on other historical timber constructions, such as belfries and chapels. But the region, which includes not only Western Ukraine but also southern Poland, Eastern Slovakia and Eastern Romania, is mainly known for its wooden churches.

Tomáš Kolář | Photo: Mendel University in Brno

“The churches were built between the 15th and 19th centuries and they are not only Orthodox, but also Greek Catholic, and our team focused mainly on the latter.”

Where exactly in Ukraine have you carried out your research?

“We were located mainly in the westernmost part of Ukraine, around the cities of Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, but also on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains, near Drohobych and Ivano-Frankivsk.”

How common are these wooden churches in the area? Would you say there is one in every village?

“There really is a lot of such churches. We know from literature that there are nearly 2,000 in Ukraine, out of which some 800 should be located in western Ukraine. You won’t find a wooden church in every village, but they are really very common in the area.”

Uzhhorod | Photo: Irena Sochová,  Michal Rybníček

What do they look like? What do they have in common?

“Most of them are log churches, which means that they are constructed from horizontal wooden logs, but the log walls are panelled, so from the outside you see boards or planks.

“The churches have a specific atmosphere, because everything is made from wood. So when you are inside, it really fells very unusual.

“There are a lot of ornaments inside, most of them very colourful, which are painted directly on the wooden walls. So the interiors of the churches are very impressive.”

Maybe in contrast to the exterior, which usually seems pretty plain´…

“You are right, but we are from the Department of Wood Technology, so for us, the churches are equally impressive from the outside, because of the old wooden construction, which is really is beautiful.”

What makes these churches so unique?

“The first such church was built in the first half of the 15th century, so they really represent an exceptional example of Ukrainian folk architecture.”

“These churches are an important part of Ukrainian cultural heritage. We know that the first such church was built in the first half of the 15th century, so they really represent an exceptional example of folk architecture.

“However, in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, new churches started to be built around the country. The old wooden churches started to dilapidate and not all of them have been preserved to this day.

“What is also important to say is that you can come across these churches here in the Czech Republic. After the First World War, when the Transcarpathian Ukraine was connected to Czechoslovakia, a group of Czech artists and historians wanted to preserve these constructions by having them transported to our country.”

The churches that have been preserved to this day, what state are they in? And are they still being used as a place of worship?

Deshkovytsia | Photo: Irena Sochová,  Michal Rybníček

“I would say most of them are in quite good condition, at least the churches we visited last year. But of course the Ukrainian government planned to invest a lot of money into their reconstruction.”

You have been visiting many of these church as part of a research carried out together by the Mendel University in Brno and Global Change Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the aim of the research was to determine the exact age of these churches. What have you found out?

“I would say it is not the only goal of our research. Of course one of the goals, as you said, is to provide our Ukrainian colleagues with information on history of these buildings, specifically when they were built or reconstructed.

“However, the main aim of our research is to build oak tree-ring width chronology that will be used for dendrochronological dating of other historical material from the area, as well as for climate reconstruction and climatology.”

What did the research look like?

“When we come to a church, we divide it into several sectors, including walls, ceilings, roof and belfry, and from each of these sectors, we take roughly five samples.

“The next steps is to select suitable timber, which is timber with a so-called waney edge. It is the last tree ring which was created before the tree was felled. In some cases, even the bark is preserved. Once we have such sample, we can date the construction very precisely, with the precision of one year or even a season.

“To get the sample, we use a hollow bore. With the help of this tool, we can get the core, which is five millimetres in diameter. We then transport it to our laboratory and after careful surface preparation we measure the tree ring width. Then we determine the tree-ring width series and we compare it with chronology in order to date the construction.”

What have you found out so far? What is the age of the oldest church that you have researched?

“Once we have a sample, we can date the construction very precisely, with the precision of one year or even a season.”

“We are still at the beginning of the project. We only spent a year in Ukraine and we collected samples from more than 20 wooden buildings. The oldest church we dated comes from the end of the 16th century, but most of them were dated to the 18th century.”

What kind of trees were used for building these churches? As far as I know, your research focused on buildings built from oak and ash trees.

“We focused on oak because we want to build oak tree-ring width chronology. That’s why we asked our Ukrainian colleagues to select mainly oak churches. But of course there are also churches made of fir and ash trees.”

How can your findings be applied in practice?

“The benefit of the dating is that our Ukrainian colleagues will know how old the buildings are and they can prevent them from destruction. But we can also use it for climatology.

“In the future, we will have chronology that is good enough to be used for climate reconstruction, for instance. That means we could reconstruct climate conditions in the area in the past.”

Svaliava | Photo: Irena Sochová,  Michal Rybníček

How did the war in Ukraine affect your project?

“Of course the project was affected by the war. We wanted to continue to collect other samples this year to build our chronology. However, our troubles are negligible compared to what the Ukrainian people are going through.

Are you in touch with your Ukrainian colleagues?

“Yes, we have two colleagues in Ukraine, one is from Uzhhorod and the other from Ivano-Frankivsk. We were in touch at the beginning of the invasion and fortunately they are doing relatively fine.”

Will the project continue here in the Czech Republic?

“Yes, we collected several hundred samples, so we have to process them. As I mentioned, our main goal is to create oak chronology, and this is a never ending process, because it can always be improved. So hopefully, the process will continue some time.

“However, we are not restricted only to western Ukraine. Luckily, dendrochronology is not limited by political borders, so we can continue to collect samples in eastern Slovakia or north-eastern Hungary. So in some way, the project can still carry on.”