24 April 2016

Calleva Atrebatum and the Irish

Silchester is of interest as almost the only Roman City in Brittania which became a green field site, rather than having a medieval and modern city built over it. The Society of Antiquaries excavated it more than a hundred years ago, in the rather ruthless way people did before the advent of modern Archaeology.

Professor Fulford, more than a decade ago, chose Insula IX because the SA excavators had found ... there in the middle of England! ... an Ogham stone stuffed down a disused well. It is so remarkable to find such a piece of distinctively Irish culture in a late Roman context that for quite a time the Silchester Ogham was regarded as a forgery; a sort of epigraphical equivalent of Piltdown Person. But Tebicatos - the named individual - is now vindicated and respectable. It is his context that now remains beguilingly intriguing. During one visit, looking down at the hole in the ground where this Ogham was found, there in the middle of Roman urban culture, I felt quite disoriented. Peering at Ogham stones is something that I expected to do in the cityless Kingdom of the West, God's own blessed country the County of Kerry, with the fuchsias luxuriating in the hedgerows and the choughs complaining overhead ... or at least in the "Celtic" extremities of Cornwall. Of course, there were Irish Kingdoms in Wales - Dyfed, I believe - and one of the factors that intrigues historians is that while the Latin and Irish languages were dignified with stone inscriptions, Welsh and Cornish were apparently despised. Irishness implied, it seems, status. And so Tebicatos would not have been a peasant or a tramp. Indeed, it seems a priori unlikely that one would erect a stone inscription which could only be read by the the person who erected it ... so it appears unlikely he was the only Irishman around.

As far as I can make out, the scholarly establishment has not made any connection between Tebicatos and his stone, and the discovery by the SA excavators of a building in Silchester which, on the basis of its plan, they and subsequent writers have considered likely to have been a Christian church. And let us also take in here one of the controversies within the Irish archaeological community: was Ogham script specifically, culturally, Christian? Many think it was (I would adduce an Ogham stone in my old Irish parish of Dromod in the Diocese of Ardfert: in an ecclesiastical site on Church Island just off Beginnish Island just off Valentia Island just off the coast of Kerry, where the Ogham inscription is superimposed upon a good quality carved cross).

You see where I am going. Is Tebicatos the first named member of a Christian congregation to be identifiable from Roman Britain?

The English, God forgive our boorish arrogance, used to deride the English RC Church as the Italian Mission; until Dom Gregory Dix neatly pointed out that since the C of E claimed to have been founded by Agostino and Mellito and various other Eyeties, it ought to assert that identity for itself. Another Anglican sneer was to call it the Irish Church (nowadays, why not the Polish Church?). How diverting it would be if the Romano-British Church in Silchester also proved to have filled its pews (don't bother to write in and point out that they wouldn't have had pews) with Irish! I wonder if they had a statue of S Patrick near the door at the back (OK, they didn't have statues) on the grounds that this was the part of the church which that Saint's Sons occupied so that they could exit fast during the Last Gospel (don't bother to write in with tendentious suggestions that the Last Gospel may not be quite as early as the fifth century).

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