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From the forest to the building. A cross-disciplinary study of wooden roofs in south-eastern France (12th-19th centuries) [abridged version]

Sylvain Burri, Vincent Labbas et Philippe Bernardi
Traduction de Leila Tickner
Cet article est une traduction de :
De la forêt au bâtiment. Approche pluridisciplinaire des couvertures de bois dans le sud-est de la France (xiie-xixe siècles) [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Del bosque al edificio. Estudio pluridisciplinar de las cubiertas de madera en el Sureste de Francia (siglos XII-XIX) [artículo resumido] [es]
Vom Wald zum Gebäude. Multidisziplinäre Untersuchungen zu den Holzdächern in Südostfrankreich (12.-19. Jh.) [gekürzte Fassung] [de]


Despite the increasing interest for wooden materials in medieval and post-medieval architecture studies, their use as roofing material remains little-known. In Provence, which has traditionally been considered the “land of tiles”, wooden roofs have been long regarded as marginal and confined to mountainous areas. This paper aims at restoring these materials to their rightful place in the economy and building techniques, through a cross-disciplinary approach overlapping their viewpoints and methods from different branches, such as standing buildings archaeology, history and dendrochronology. Such a comprehensive and integrated approach provides new insights into the history of building techniques, by identifying the types of wood used and by reconstructing the operating chain from raw material acquisition to their implementation on buildings, in both urban and rural areas. This study contributes also to the knowledge renewal on southern French Alps’ economy, by analysing the integration of such roofing material within the economic markets and sociological environments.

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Notes de la rédaction

This article is a large abstract of the the french article « De la forêt au bâtiment. Approche pluridisciplinaire des couvertures de bois dans le sud-est de la France (xiie-xixe siècles) », Archéologie médiévale [Online], 49 | 2019, Online since 03 February 2020, connection on 06 July 2022. URL:; DOI:

Texte intégral

  • 1 Aumard 2008.
  • 2 Houdart 2002; Mille 2016.

1Although their significance was pointed out in the early days of medieval archaeology, roofing materials have only recently become archaeological objects1 with the development of archaeometry applied to materials. Investigations on wooden roofing remain rare, and this despite the development of wooden frameworks and half-timbering archaeology, supported by major advances in dendrochronology. The poor preservation of these materials, both in a sedimentary archaeological context and on the roofs of the buildings still standing, largely explains this state of affairs. The few studies that have been carried out mainly concern northern and western France, although the written records reveal a wide distribution over the whole of France2. Thus archaeological research does not reflect the importance of the use of wood in the roofing of buildings, both civilian and religious, in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern period.

  • 3 Bernardi and Nicolas 2003.
  • 4 Labbas 2016.

2In southern France, and particularly in the south-eastern quarter, medieval and Early modern wooden roofing materials and their use is not well known. They are still little considered by standing buildings archaeology, which has long concentrated on religious buildings to the detriment of urban and, even more so, rural civilian buildings. Similarly, historical and archaeological research has long focused on the lowlands, to the detriment of High Provence. Contrary to the neighbouring Dauphiné, settlement structures of Alpine Provence remain poorly known, and the economy of this region was principally seen through the prism of urban sources of Lower Provence. In 2003, Philippe Bernardi and Nathalie Nicolas sought to break free from the stereotype of a Provence with exclusively tiled roofs by drawing attention to wooden roofing materials which, far from being restricted to mountain housings, exports itself to Lower Provence3. Thereafter, archaeological and dendrochronological research carried out in the Mercantour mountains have renewed the knowledge on agropastoral construction in the southern Alps, by examining the chronological ties of mountain buildings, their construction methods and techniques4, and revealing the common use of wooden roofing on these buildings.

3In addition to questioning the technical know-how and chronology of the production and use of these roofing materials, this research also contributes to a better understanding of the economic relations between the mountain countryside and local and regional markets.

Corpus and methods

4The scarcity of references in written records to these materials and their mediocre archaeological preservation necessitates the undertaking of a genuine cross-disciplinary research project combining the views and methods of history, standing buildings archaeology and dendrochronology.

5The corpus of buildings studied is primarily composed of high altitude agropastoral barns, and secondarily of houses in villages and hamlets located in the departments Alpes-Maritimes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Hautes-Alpes. They are distributed in the subalpine and mountainous levels, between 1 000 and 2 000 m in altitude (fig. 1). In addition, there are a few from the Saint-Romain church in Puy-Saint-Vincent (Hautes-Alpes). Each building was subjected to a stratigraphic analysis to establish a relative chronology of the building. The number of stratigraphic units often reflects a multiplication of construction phases, reconstructions and repairs. However, in most cases, the stratigraphic analysis of the elevations, particularly in the Haute-Tinée, reveals that these buildings were built in a single phase, which may have taken place in one or two seasons. The important role of timber in mountain constructions is favourable to the development of a dendrochronological approach. Under optimal conditions, the dendrochronologist dates the death of the tree or branch to the exact year or even season. However, these conditions are uncommon in the case of archaeological wood. The degree of precision is more frequently of the order of a few years.

Fig. 1: Location of the towns and villages mentioned in the article.

Fig. 1: Location of the towns and villages mentioned in the article.

CAD S. Burri

6The corpus of wood studied consists of 53 planks (38 of which provide dates) of larch (Larix Decidua Mill.) roofing, the only species whose use in roofing has been found thus far in the region under study. The 13 planks of the church of Puy-Saint-Vincent form a continuous timeframe of 264 years between the years 923 and 1186. The Early and Late modern planks are from houses and barns located in the Mercantour mountains. They were sampled with other wooden structural elements, such as beams, taken from the same building in order to build an average chronology. The 25 dates provided by the dendrochronological analysis are located between 1656 and 1904.

7To complement the dendroarchaeological data, written records were used. In addition to the data already collected through the examination of hundreds of notary registers and accounts in southern Provence, new investigations were carried out in order to document the Mercantour National Park sector. The dating of Mercantour and Verdon Valley roofs motivated the expansion of the data collection to the 16th century. The corpus, resulting from the examination of notary registers and parish accounts in particular, is made up of around thirty deeds, mainly sale contracts and quotes (“prix-faits”).

8Despite the asynchrony of the written records and material sources, their cross-study reveals the place and the status of wooden roofing in both the Alpine production regions and in the urban centres of western Provence. Quotes do not, strictly speaking, bear witness to a reality but to projects, thus their comparison with material remains is essential: the cross-referencing of data allows to identify and characterise the different materials used. It also allows to reconstitute the operating chain, from raw material acquisition and its shaping in the forest, to their implementation in town and on mountain pastures. The dendrochronological approach sheds light on the rhythms of roofing repairs and the reuse of materials. The written records, for their part, document the social and economic aspect that escapes archaeology, such as the circulation of these products within the local and regional economic markets and the socio-economic profile of the different stakeholders (clients, producers, roofers).

The market for roofing materials

  • 5 Arnoux 2013.

9The careful study of texts and wood reveals the existence of two distinct types of wooden roofing materials: shingles, small planks that are most probably split, and large boards, sawn and ribbed (fig. 11). The boundary between these two materials is not definite, and small ribbed planks tailored to the roof are found. This may explain the sometime imprecise terminology used by notaries to refer to these two materials. In the geographical area under considerations, these materials are exclusively made of larch wood, a choice that no doubt stems from the quality of this species, its mechanical properties and its longevity (this species is not only used as roofing material but also in mountain construction in the southern Alps). The study of notarial deeds, coupled with that of the traces of tools left on the wood and the assemblies within the framework, allows reconstitution of the building techniques. If part of the production was for self-consumption, as part of the right-of-use of the wood resources, a real market began to flourish with varying degrees of intensity and with distribution areas more or less around the producing areas. In the eastern part of the southern Alps, the market is a local one, limited to the mountainous areas, without taking part in the timber regional market, exported to Nice and coasts of Provence and Liguria. In contrast, it was via a regional market, active from the 14th and 15th centuries, or even the 13th century, that the shingles from Gap and Digne-les-Bains territories reached urban buildings of western lower Provence. This market was structured around production areas which, in view of the quantities produces for export, could be described as industrial districts5, and the timber rafting routes linking the Dauphiné and Haute-Provence to the urban centres of the lower Rhône valley.

Fig. 11: The use of ribbed boards.

Fig. 11: The use of ribbed boards.

CAD V. Labbas

Uses in the urban environment

10However, in the towns of Basse-Provence, between the 14th and 16th centuries, tiles reigned, and the use of shingles is only occasional. Given what written records allow us to understand of medieval practices, the know-how remains limited to a few specialists who are sometimes sought, like the materials themselves, in mountainous areas. Wooden roofing, in this sense, remains marginal. The inhabitants of Aix, like those of Carpentras, knows it well enough to think of using it; some craftsmen in Aix seem to have made it a speciality, but without it competing with terracotta. Shingles roof a few houses, but mainly towers (Tour de l’Horloge, 1499, and Tour du Trésor, 1503, of the Palace of the counts of Aix, the staircase tower of the town’s belfry, 1510, bell tower of the cathedral of Carpentras, 1359) and buildings that can be described as monumental (the Palace of the counts of Aix and the Aix Franciscan church). In some cases, the reasons for using shingles may be of a technical nature. In this case, it may be a question of using a roofing material that is less heavy than terracotta. It may also be in response to steeper slopes, such as the towers but also some buildings of the Palace or the Franciscan church. But these criteria are not the only ones to be taken into account. Indeed, what do we know of the aesthetic rendering of these roofs, whose grey colour brings them closer to that of slate? The fact that we find them on buildings as important as that of the former Palace or the Carpentras Cathedral implies that this hypothesis should not be overlooked. We must also question the sumptuous nature of this type of roofing due to its higher relative cost than that of tiles.

The evolution of practices in rural areas

11In contrast, wooden roofs were the norm in the small town of Guillaumes and its neighbouring villages, were tiles seem completely inexistent in the 15th and 16th centuries. Wooden roofing is a common material, covering all types of buildings, from the most prestigious to the most modest: castles, churches, houses, barns, sheds, kilns. Shaping and implementing the roofing wood is part of tacit knowledge of the Alpine communities; testifying to this is the fact that is was mastered by people with profiles as varied as carpenters, blacksmiths and farmers. The location of construction sites and especially the origin of the people who possessed the know-how show that the practices were spread throughout the communities of the high valleys of the Var and Verdon. This apparent uniformity hides a more complex reality where two different materials coexist: small sized shingles (about 65 cm long) and large ribbed boards (2 m long on average). This coexistence questions the differentiated use of these two materials. This consideration comes up against the sources used. Thus, we do not know the destination of several thousands of shingles produced and sold in 1473 and in 1483. Nevertheless, quotes testify to their implementation on religious buildings, like the parish church of Guillaumes in 1482 and 1562, but also the castle in 1571. Were shingles restricted to a prestigious, ostentatious use?

12A quote from 1527 tempers this hypothesis, since at least one house is covered by shingles in Guillaumes, but the status of its owner is unknown. As for boards, according to the records, cover a wider a range of buildings. These boards sometimes competed with shingles on roofs of religious buildings, such as the parish church of Péone. The boards were also used on certain defensive structures such as the square tower of the castle of Guillaumes in 1592 and the town gabions, such as that of the Carriero drecho in 1580. The use of flammable materials to cover the defensive structures may be surprising, but it was, after all, fairly common in the Middle Ages, and can be seen in the northern Alps as well as in other regions. The boards also cover houses in Guillaumes in 1542, in the Roberts hamlet in 1564 and in Thorame-Basse in 1488. They also roof certain collective facilities, such as kilns. Outside the settlements, however modest, boards roof mountain huts and barns. In this micro-region, the use of large roofing boards seems to be more widespread than that of shingles, which for the moment are confined to the urban centre of Guillaumes. In the latter, boards and shingles coexist, and sometimes share the roofs of same buildings, such as the castle.

13The chronology of the corpus of wood studied raises questions about the place of wood roofing and its evolution in the Alpine area during the Early and Late Modern periods. It is common to read that the use of wooden roofing was the most widespread, if not exclusive, in the southern Alps in the Middle Ages, and that it is replaced by other materials (tiles, slate, flagstone) during the Early Modern period. The invoked reasons are generally the risk of fire and the lack of wood due to the increasing pressure of the demand of timber, especially for the navy. Fires in buildings, notably in wooden roofed churches, are a reality here as well as elsewhere. An ex-voto painted after the great fire in Guillaumes in 1682, shows buildings covered with two different materials: wood and tile (fig. 16). The Saint-Etienne church was, still at that time, covered in wood. The roofs of the houses were either tiled or wooden. The roof of the burning castle is not represented. This work raises questions of the diversification of the roofing materials of the Early Modern period in Guillaumes. Examination of the notaries’ registers up to 1580 never revealed the use of tiles. The absence is also noted in the community accounts throughout the 16th century, even for the castle’s roof. The few registers examined for the neighbouring communities of Entraunes, Châteauneuf-d’Entraunes and of Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes for the 1570-1580 decade are in the same vein. Thus the diversification of the roofing materials would take place during the 17th century. The 1682 ex-voto clearly shows that there is not a systematic replacement of boards by tiles, the two materials being able to coexist within the same town, the same neighbourhood. It is impossible to evaluate the share of each of these materials in the absence of a study on the 17th century and the following centuries. The use of wood as a roofing material persisted, at least for the parish church, until 1899, when it was replaced by the use of flat tiles. Similarly, the dendroarchaeological studies have shown that the use of ribbed roofing boards is still quite common for roofing houses and barns in the high valleys of the Verdon and Tinée from the 17th to the 19th century, thus attesting to the persistence of this roofing method and the associated knowledge. This diversification can have different causes depending on the period and areas: material durability, availability of plant and mineral resources in the territory, extraction and transport cost and, consequently, signs of social distinction, etc. To answer these questions, it would be necessary to open a vast historical and archaeological enterprise, dedicated to diverse roofing materials used in Provence in order to try and delimit distribution areas of each material, to call into question presuppositions, and to understand the circulation of materials and knowledge in time and in places.

Fig. 16: Wooden roofs, tile roofs in Guillaumes, according to ex-voto of 1682.

Fig. 16: Wooden roofs, tile roofs in Guillaumes, according to ex-voto of 1682.

Commune of Guillaumes; CAD V. Labbas

14Beyond its contribution to history and archaeology of roofing techniques, and more generally to construction, this study contributes to the renewal of knowledge of mountain economy that appears more and more active and diversified, while being linked to urban and rural markets of the lowlands that it dominates. Likewise, it draws attention to the necessity to take greater account of the history of roofing in the study of built heritage, which could help to define the condition to which to refer to during restoration work, and to consider the agropastoral constructions as a cultural heritage in its own right.

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Arnoux M.
2013, « Districts industriels, régions de production, marchés (Europe, xiie-xve siècle). Quelques pistes de réflexion », dans Minovez J.-M., Verna C. et Hilaire-Pérez L. (dir.), Les industries rurales dans l’Europe médiévale et moderne, Actes des XXXIIIe Journées internationales d’histoire de Flaran, 7-8 octobre 2011, Toulouse, Presses universitaires du Mirail, S. 13-28.

Aumard S.
2008, « Les “Toits de l’Europe II” (2008-2009). Mise en œuvre d’une méthodologie partagée pour l’étude, la conservation et la mise en valeur des toitures historiques », Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre | BUCEMA, no 12, 6 p. [en ligne], DOI : 10.4000/cem.7422.

Bernardi P. et Nicolas N.
2003, « Les échandoles : applications et rayonnement d’un matériau et d’un savoir-faire montagnard, à la fin du Moyen Âge », dans Ortega Santos A. et Vignet Zunz J. (dir.), Las montañas del Mediterraneo, Grenade, Diputació de Granada-Centro de investigaciones etnológicas Ángel Ganivet, S. 287-304.

Houdart T.
2002, Toits de bois en Europe : du Limousin aux Carpathes, Lamazière-Basse, Maïde.

Labbas V.
2016, Archéologie et dendrochronologie du bâti dans le massif du Mercantour durant le deuxième millénaire de notre ère, Thèse de doctorat d’Archéologie, Université d’Aix-Marseille, sous la direction de Philippe Pergola et Jean-Louis Édouard.

Mille P.
2016, « Wood Shingles of Medieval Roofs: a First Approach in France », dans Fraiture P., Charruadas P., Gautier P., Piavaux M. et Sosnowska P. (dir.), Between Carpentry and Joinery. Wood Finishing Work in European Medieval and Modern Architecture, Brussels, Royal Institute for cultural heritage, S. 128-147.

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1 Aumard 2008.

2 Houdart 2002; Mille 2016.

3 Bernardi and Nicolas 2003.

4 Labbas 2016.

5 Arnoux 2013.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Location of the towns and villages mentioned in the article.
Crédits CAD S. Burri
Fichier image/jpeg, 501k
Titre Fig. 11: The use of ribbed boards.
Crédits CAD V. Labbas
Fichier image/jpeg, 542k
Titre Fig. 16: Wooden roofs, tile roofs in Guillaumes, according to ex-voto of 1682.
Crédits Commune of Guillaumes; CAD V. Labbas
Fichier image/jpeg, 976k
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Sylvain Burri, Vincent Labbas et Philippe Bernardi, « From the forest to the building. A cross-disciplinary study of wooden roofs in south-eastern France (12th-19th centuries) [abridged version] »Archéologie médiévale [En ligne], 49 | 2019, mis en ligne le 22 juillet 2022, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sylvain Burri

Chargé de recherches CNRS, TRACES UMR 5608, CNRS, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

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Vincent Labbas

Post-doctorant, Chaire IDEX Gragson, TRACES UMR 5608, CNRS-Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

Philippe Bernardi

Directeur de recherches CNRS, LAMOP UMR 8589, CNRS, université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

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Leila Tickner

Technical translator

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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