Czech researcher on the dating of old wooden churches in Ukraine

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, about 2,000 wooden churches, Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, can be found across Ukraine.

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

“Our research does not only focus on wooden churches, but also on other historical wooden 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 best known for its wooden churches.

Tomáš Kolář |  Photo: Mendel University Brno

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

Where exactly in Ukraine did you do 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 are many such churches. We know from the literature that there are almost 2,000 in Ukraine, of which some 800 should be located in western Ukraine. You won’t find a wooden church in every village, but they are very common in the region.

Uzhhorod |  Photo: Irena Sochova, Michal Rybnicek

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

“Most of them are log churches, which means they are built from horizontal logs of wood, but the log walls are paneled, so from the outside you see planks or planks .

“Churches have a special atmosphere, because everything is made of wood. So when you’re inside, it’s really very unusual.

“There are a lot of ornaments inside, most of them very colorful, which are painted directly on the wooden walls. The interiors of the churches are therefore very impressive.

Perhaps unlike the exterior, which usually looks quite plain ‘…

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

What makes these churches so unique?

“The first such church was built in the first half of the 15th century, so it truly represents an outstanding example of Ukrainian folk architecture.”

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

“However, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, new churches began to be built all over the country. The old wooden churches began to decay, and not all of them have been preserved to this day.

“What is also important to say is that you can encounter these churches here in the Czech Republic. After World War I, when Transcarpathian Ukraine was joined with 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, in what condition are they? And are they still used as a place of worship?

Deshkovytsia |  Photo: Irena Sochova, Michal Rybnicek

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

You have visited several of these churches as part of a research conducted jointly by Mendel University in Brno and the Institute of Global Change of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the purpose of the research was to determine the exact age of these churches. What have you discovered?

“I would say that is not the only objective of our research. Of course, one of the goals, as you said, is to provide our Ukrainian colleagues with information about the history of these buildings, especially when they were built or rebuilt.

“However, the main objective of our research is to construct a chronology of oak tree-ring widths that will be used for dendrochronological dating of other historical materials in the region, as well as for climate reconstruction and climatology.”

What was the research like?

“When we arrive at a church, we divide it into several sectors, including the walls, the ceilings, the roof and the bell tower, and in each of these sectors we take about five samples.

“The next step is to select suitable wood, that is, wood with what is called a warped edge. It is the last tree ring that was created before the tree was felled. In some cases, even the bark is preserved. Once we have such a sample, we can date the construction very precisely, with an accuracy of a year or even a season.

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

What have you discovered so far? How old is the oldest church you have researched?

“Once we have a sample, we can date the build very precisely, with year or even season accuracy.”

“We are still only at the beginning of the project. We only spent a year in Ukraine and collected samples from over 20 wooden buildings. The oldest church we have dated is from the late 16th century, but most of them are from the 18th century.

What types of trees were used to build these churches? As far as I know, your research has focused on buildings constructed from oak and ash trees.

“We focused on oak because we want to establish a timeline of the width of oak rings. That is 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 advantage of dating is that our Ukrainian colleagues will know how old the buildings are and they can prevent their destruction. But it can also be used for climatology.

“In the future, we will have a timeline that is good enough to be used for climate reconstruction, for example. This means that we could reconstruct the climatic conditions of the region in the past.

Svaliyava |  Photo: Irena Sochova, Michal Rybnicek

How has the war in Ukraine affected your project?

“Of course, the project was affected by the war. We wanted to continue collecting more samples this year to build our timeline. However, our problems are negligible compared to what the Ukrainian people are going through.

Are you in contact with your Ukrainian colleagues?

“Yes, we have two colleagues in Ukraine, one from Uzhhorod and the other from Ivano-Frankivsk. We were in contact at the start of the invasion and luckily they are doing relatively well.

Will the project continue here in the Czech Republic?

“Yes, we have collected several hundred samples, so we have to process them. As I mentioned, our main goal is to create an oak timeline, and it’s a never-ending process, because it can always be improved. So I hope the process will continue for some time.

“However, we are not limited to western Ukraine. Fortunately, dendrochronology is not limited by political borders, so we can continue to collect samples in eastern Slovakia or northeastern Hungary. So, in a way, the project can still continue.

Berta D. Wells