I have often posted at this site on British history during the post-Roman and Anglo-Saxon era, the time that we are absolutely not supposed to call the Dark Ages (but which they actually were). Partly, this is from my keen interest in the Christian era of that age, a time when a significant provincial church was snuffed out, and when congregations were forced to hide their liturgical treasures, which they sadly never lived to recover. I was very interested then to see a recent news headline, which actually has implications for early Christian history far beyond the British Isles.
One of the most amazing archaeological sites in Europe is Vindolanda, a Roman fortress on Hardrian’s Wall in far northern England. Excavations have been in progress there for decades, and the finds have included some jaw-dropping examples of strictly contemporary Roman writing, including such everyday items as family dinner invitations. This is exactly the sort of thing that was not supposed to survive in a horribly wet climate like this. Egypt yes, Northumberland, no.
The Vindolanda Chalice
Vindolanda continues to amaze. The latest headline announces “Hadrian’s Wall Dig Reveals Oldest Christian Graffiti On Chalice,” and I quote the account in the British Guardian:
A 5th-century chalice covered in religious iconography has been discovered in Northumberland, to the astonishment of archaeologists, who describe it as Britain’s first known example of Christian graffiti on an object. With its complex mass of crosses and chi-rhos, angels and a priestly figure, as well as fish, a whale and ships, it is believed to be without parallel in western Europe.
Do read that last phrase again.
As the excavator says,
“You’ve got crosses, a whale, fish, ships with lovely rigging and little flags, little angels, a priestly figure seemingly holding a crook with a big smiley face, ears of wheat.”
Northern Britain After Rome
Here is some context. Regular Roman forces left Britain in 410, but military installations remained occupied and defended by the successor kingdoms and statelets that followed them, and which fought off the surging attacks from various invaders – Picts, Scots, Anglo-Saxons. The story was complex ethnically, and the people defending the former “Roman” world themselves drew heavily on mercenaries from those invading hostiles. Over time, Roman organization and discipline broke down, and those military units became war-bands following chieftains or warlords, some of whom would be remembered in the historical record as kings. Some based themselves in old Roman forts, others reoccupied Iron Age hill-forts, but in each case, military needs took precedence.
Personal aside. At Cambridge back in the 1970s, I had the incredible privilege of attending the undergraduate lectures of archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor. He was a phenomenally skilled excavator who had dug key Northumbrian royal and monastic sites, but was atrocious at publishing them. His book on the royal seat of Yeavering is a total classic, but there was so much more that never emerged in print, even about key royal sites. (Yeavering is about fifty miles from Vindolanda). I therefore have a solid sense of the archaeology of the region, and more to the point, my scribbled undergraduate notes contain lots of Hope-Taylor’s passing comments, speculations, and insights, some of which are simply not available to specialists in that era. A couple of years ago, I donated those ancient notes of mine to the modern team investigating the fortress at Bamburgh.
The North in the sixth-seventh centuries was a warrior society, following “heroic” ideals, extolled by bards and poets. The kind of language and imagery they used is very well known today because one of the greatest scholars of the subject was J. R. R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily to construct the language and thought-world of Middle-Earth. Some of the great northern British bards of this era were Taliesin and Myrddin, whom later generations reimagined as Merlin.
For what it’s worth, and I wouldn’t push this, the Wall fort of Camboglanna is just eighteen miles west of Vindolanda, and that has occasionally been claimed as the site of King Arthur’s last battle of Camlann, which one famous chronicle dates to the 530s. I treat this issue with some care as I have colleagues I esteem who treat that claim more respectfully than I do.
What Happened to Christianity?
Fourth century Roman Britain was Christian, with the appropriate network of dioceses and churches. As the cities collapsed, so did traditional ecclesiastical structures. In some regions, especially the Western Celtic portions, monasteries became the primary seats of spiritual power, often connected to old shrines and martyrdom sites.
In this whole picture, Hadrian’s Wall has always been something of a mystery. We know of kingdoms that existed in the area in the post-Roman centuries, of pagan Anglo-Saxon Bernicia to the east and Christian Celtic Rheged to the west (insofar as the ethnic labels mean much). But the Wall itself? What happened to Christianity there?
So now the Vindolanda dig has produced “a significant church of the 5th or 6th century,” which would be astonishing anywhere in the islands, and the chalice adds immensely to the significance. I quote:
The foundations suggest that the church was large enough for about 60 parishioners. The structure somehow collapsed in on itself, but the chalice had been securely sealed under the rubble, perhaps in a ceremony marking the end of the church.
Here are some totally unanswerable questions. If you could miraculously interview one of the people attending the church around 540, what language(s) would they speak? Did different genders favor different languages – Germanic men married to Celtic British wives?
How would they identify themselves in terms of their ethnic identity or citizenship? What king or warlord or tribe did they acknowledge? Might they have been “Romans”? Or even the gens Vindolandae?
Or to pursue a pure fantasy that appeals to my inner historical novelist, did they claim to be the last members of a Roman legion that had actually ceased to exist 150 years earlier?
More substantially, did this particular church look to a territorial diocese? Based where?
Another great recent British find came from Tintagel in Cornwall, which is awash in legendary Arthurian links. A stone found here in 2018, and dating to the seventh century, included Greek letters as well as Latin characters, and the suggestion is that it was a teaching aid. It would be instructive to compare the new Vindolanda graffiti with the kind of scribbles produced there, not to mention the visual motifs in the VERY large corpus of inscribed early Christian memorial stones found in contemporary Wales and south-west England. Many date from these same fifth and sixth centuries.
Understanding the Lost Church
We are in the very early days of understanding the find, but I do make one point that seems to me critical, which is that this church was lost and forgotten. That is notable. Commonly, late Roman or early Celtic churches were remembered and survived in some form at least through the Middle Ages, maybe as parish churches or small monasteries, and some carried on to be taken over by later Anglo-Saxon states. Perhaps early Celtic founders were recalled as medieval saints, with the appropriate range of legends and miracles. But Vindolanda did not transition into the new Anglo-Saxon order, either as an inhabited settlement or a religious center. Why was that?
I’d love to have some sense of chronology here. Local coinage is non-existent in the fifth-sixth centuries, and the pottery is fiendishly hard to date, so how are the Vindolanda excavators offering that date? (The ordinary Northumbrian pottery of the era is horribly coarse). I am not challenging their date, but just curious. Presumably this is based on the local stratigraphy? I see that other accounts say sixth century, but seriously, who can say between 450 and 550?
By the way, the fact there was a church at Vindolanda does not necessarily mean that there was a village or town in the ghostly setting of the old fort. Perhaps some clergy or monks just set up shop here to take advantage of the strong old walls, as they did in plenty of other old Roman forts around the British Isles. The early sixth century was a very active time for such new foundations across the western portions of the British Isles, making it the “Age of Saints.”
So thoroughly was the Vindolanda church lost that the chalice was destroyed and broken up – perhaps an act of vandalism, perhaps a means of destroying it ritually so that it could not be reused improperly. There must have been other liturgical materials here, which presumably the last clergy removed – so why not the chalice? You can imagine a desperate pagan raid, or did Christianity just die out here? Or did a British-Celtic congregation flee from Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians, although at this stage these might also have been Christian themselves? Was it just too dangerous a border territory?
I just hope the excavators don’t focus so much on the sensational chalice that they lose interest in the context of that church. The media are certainly doing just that.
Lots of questions to answer. But oh my, what a find.