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Generally speaking, the older the building, the more likely it is that dating will have to be by comparison with other known and dated examples.
The traditional typologies developed by architectural historians, especially for timber framed vernacular buildings, are now being given greater precision by dendrochronology.
At one time this was regarded as almost unnecessary, but the revolution brought about by Howard Colvin's has changed the nature of post medieval architectural history.
From the first edition, published in 1954 to the thoroughly indexed third edition, published in 1995, we have been able to locate dates and architects quickly and to find the references to back them up.
Before launching straight into primary research it is sensible to see what is already known and what might be available. It should give an analysis of how a building has developed as well as a description.
More recent lists often include a bibliographical note, useful in identifying articles in or other primary sources.
In many cases an approximate date can be given after a first inspection.
There are clues in storey heights and the relation of these heights to ground level, in window spacing, in roof form and pitch, in plan and the position of chimney stacks as well as in the architectural detail.
The plan is signed by George Dance, not as architect of the building but as surveyor to the City Corporation.Although published some 20 years ago, J T Smith's guide (1992), has an excellent discussion of the difficulties which many buildings present; from the antiquarian copyist who makes his building look older than it is, to the enthusiastic revealer of the timber frame who removes most of the physical evidence of his building's history by stripping it back to the original.Historians always like to confirm a date suggested by the physical evidence against any available documentary sources.But the absence of a reference does not mean that none exists.More research now can be done via the Internet, with useful websites at the British Library, Historical Manuscripts Commission and the National Monuments Record.
When trying to establish a date from primary sources it is often easiest to work backwards.