Skip to Content.

Kent Archaeological Review extract
 

Christianity in Roman Britain -- An Archaeological Approach.
by Lt.-Col. G W Meates, F.S.A.

The first centuries of the Christian Church in Britain are shadowy indeed. Not until about AD 200 is there evidence that the Gospel was being preached in the island, and that a missionary effort was producing a fairly widespread diffusion of the Faith, resulting in a well-established Christian community. This is lighted for us in the following century by the martyrdom of St Alban, at Verulamium, and of Julius and Aaron, who are thought to have suffered at Caerleon. But of this earlier period, archaeology provides us with but one object, the word-square inscribed on a thick slab of wallplaster at Cirencester. A few other examples occur, at DuraEuropos on the Euphrates and at Pompeii, and such fragments may be sought by archaeologists among the abundant wall-plaster that Romano-British sites produce, The word-square appears as follows, with a solution to its meaning by Felix Grosser :

IMAGE: 4 lines: ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR

The word square.

IMAGE: intersection of two words: APATERNOSTERO

The interpretation.

When we advance into the fourth century, both the literary sources and the archaeological discoveries become more illuminating. The key date is AD 312 when Constantine I brought the Christian Church into peace with the secular arm. From then on, churches were openly built for public worship, tending to take the place of the house-churches of preceding years, though the latter were still being dedicated, as at the Lullingstone Romano-British villa. The small basilican building in the City of Silchester is almost certainly such a church for public worship, and without doubt many others exist. Bede tells us that "a church of wonderful workmanship" was built near Verulamium on the site of St Alban's martyrdom; and he also tells us of the coming to Kent in AD 597 of St Augustine, how he converted Ethelbert the King, and how he found and repaired churches in all places.

Such churches are usually quite recognisable even when only part of their plan is laid bare, basilican, with apse and narthex; but archaeologists should bear in mind the similar plan of some pagan temples, from which indeed the Christian church may have developed. But when we consider the house-church, we are on very different ground. Its plan must differ from villa to villa by nature of its arrangement within the house; in one house, one set of rooms may have been set aside for Christian worship, in another a different set. While the Lullingstone example is the only one recognised, and that only by the Christian paintings that adorned its walls, doubtless in many other villas in Roman Britain the inhabitants embraced the Faith and founded their house-churches; but their recognition is extremely difficult, No particlar plan is adopted; a room which may well have served as a place of Christian worship must often go unrecognised.

Symbolism, however, may help. Many objects have been found, and more are continually coming to light, that bear upon them a fish, or the Chi Rho monogram, the latter often accompanied with the Alpha and Omega, thus:

IMAGE: CHI-RO mongram with Alpha and Omega

The Chi Rho monogram.

Of the fish, a word of warning is necessary. When it is found upon a vessel, as upon a pewter dish, then we may definitely assign to it a Christian meaning; but when it appears painted upon wall-plaster, it is more likely to have provided part of the decoration of a bathing apartment.

The Chi Rho monogram, however, is definite wherever it appears, and in whatever context, be it upon a fragment of lead (from a baptismal tank), a lead seal, a silver spoon, or a finger ring. With one exception. The coins of the fourth century emperors frequently bear a representation of the monogram, especially those of Magnentius, where it sometimes fills the complete reverse of the coin. But the appearance of such coins on a site is no proof that the occupants were Christian! Fragments of the monogram may, however, be found on close examination on pottery fragments, especially upon the underside of the base, and where such are discovered on a site, together with one or two small objects which also bear it, the archaeologist can be justified in considering that here was Christianity; and with this in mind, he can reconsider the plan of the building under excavation and re-assess the significance of the fragments of painted wall-plaster. Single bands, perhaps red on a white ground, may suggest the Chi Rho and floral and fruit designs may point to the enclosing wreath. Fragments depicting birds, or grapes, or palm-branches are likely to have a Christian significance.

Such different scraps of evidence when taken together may begin to form a picture that may lead to a strong suggestion of Christianity at a site, and archaeologists cannot afford to discard this possibility when investigating any site in the Romano-British period. The more the archaeologist learns, the harder and more meticulous does his work become, but the reward is great. No aim can be higher, no satisfaction greater, than that of adding some more knowledge, however slight, to the distant past.

 
Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.