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Department of Earth Sciences

Close up image of the building stone survey of Cambridge, with different stone types annotated on the map

A comprehensive survey of the stone used in Cambridge buildings has been made by Nigel Woodcock and Euan Furness from Cambridge Earth Sciences. The results show how stone use through time was influenced by wars, by pandemics, and by the canal and railway revolutions. The survey’s novel methodology will be useful for assessing heritage cities worldwide.

Cambridge has a remarkable millennium-long archive of building stone use. In pre-COVID times, these buildings were enjoyed by over eight million visitors each year, who learned something about their architecture but little about their geology. This deficit is partly because previous surveys of Cambridge building stone are out-of-date, incomplete and inaccessible. Now, Cambridge Earth Sciences’ geologists have published the first full survey of all significant stone in city buildings.

“As well as providing the basis for planned popular guides to Cambridge stone, our work is a valuable database for architectural and transport historians. The novel methodology of our study should also be useful for assessing stone in other heritage cities worldwide”, said Woodcock.

The results show that over two-thirds of stone is from one of the nine quarry areas in the Lincolnshire Limestone Formation, which extends northwards from Corby through Stamford nearly to Lincoln. The rest of the thirty or so Cambridge stone types are also mostly limestone, with only 6% of stone being sandstone, flint and igneous rocks. “It was particularly important to discover many new examples of stone from long-abandoned quarries: Barnack, which was worked out by about 1460, and King’s Cliffe, last used in Cambridge in 1625” said Woodcock.

Until the nineteenth century, most stone was sourced from less than 100 kilometres from Cambridge, transported along the Fenland waterways. The use of more distant stone was only economic when canal links to southwest England were established in 1815 and Cambridge was linked to the railway network in 1845. Both the volume and the variety of stone increased markedly during the nineteenth century and usage only declined after World War II.

The use of cobbles -- called 'fieldstone' because it was cleared from ploughed fields -- as building stone may also reflect the reduced populations following the Black Death. Cobble stone buildings were common as the population increased in the 11th to early 14th century, but the use of this material mostly ceased after about 1350.

“It’s possible that the huge reduction in population brought about by the Black Death (1348-9 in England) meant that no new fields were ploughed and so the supply of fieldstone dried up” said Woodcock.

Woodcock and Furness recorded the external stone, in walls or as dressings, in every building in Cambridge except for private housing. “For each historical building project, we identified the source quarry for the stone, established the date of use from documentary evidence and assessed the volume of stone used. We amassed over 900 records of stone, even without recording roofing, paving or ornamental stone”, said Woodcock.

“The timing of the survey was fortunate” said Nigel Woodcock, “Euan Furness did a pilot survey of some central colleges in summer 2017, then I did the full survey in summer 2019, little realising that the necessary access to colleges would soon be impossible due to COVID restrictions”.


Woodcock, N.H. and Furness, E.N. 2021. Quantifying the history of building stone use in a heritage city; Cambridge, UK, 1040-2020. Geoheritage, 13,

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