Evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain. The small finds

C.F. Mawer

Tempus Reparatum, 1995. British Archaeological Reports British Series 243. 24.00, ISBN 0 86054 7892.

Review by John Hawthorne

It is interesting that, while the Romanisation of Britain is a perennially trendy topic of study, the Christianisation of Roman Britain tends to be much less so. There are many reasons why this should be, but perhaps one of the more important is simply that the evidence is so ambiguous. It is this ambiguity which Mawer both addresses and side-steps.

The aims of this book might at first glance seem straightforward: basically, to review each of the 260 artefacts which have at some point been labelled Christian, and decide whether they justify such labelling. To this end, there are sections on Ritual Objects and Furniture, Vessels and Utensils, Personal Ornament, Propitiatory and Amuletic Objects and Utilitarian Objects, as well as a brief discussion on the spread of Christianity in Roman Britain. Mawer concludes that of the 260, only 70 can be considered to be definitely Christian.

It is here that the problems begin, although it should be said that, within the stated limits of her remit, Mawer does a fine job. Rather, it is the very nature of the topic which causes difficulties. For most of the time that Britain was a Roman province, to announce oneself a Christian was a positively dangerous thing and, moreover, early Christianity was a religion which did not lay great store in material display anyway. Hence, a quest for archaeological evidence for it is hamstrung from the start. The majority of artefacts used by Christians are likely to have been plain and unadorned with symbols, and it is these which Mawer has had no choice but to exclude.

A more insidious problem is that our criteria of what constitutes a Christian object comes from our examination of the artefacts which previous generations have labelled Christian. There is a clear danger of circular arguments here, which the addition of literary sources can only go so far towards breaking. It is perhaps also worth noting that the dichotomy of Christian/non-Christian is far too simple to do justice to the complexities of the time, but this is an issue which Mawer is well aware of. In this vein, the category 'Possible Christian' represents objects for which there is at present insufficient documentation for a decision to be made one way or the other, rather than being an admission of the existence of part-time Christians.

In terms of presentation, the book is good: well laid out, with an easy-to-grasp indexing system, clear pictures and lucid discussion. My only criticism is that much of the commentary, particularly that relating to inscriptions, will pass over the heads of non-specialists. This is of course unavoidable in a work of this nature, but much would have been gained by the addition of a fuller introduction synthesising recent work on Romano-British Christianity from a more general perspective.

John Hawthorne is a Ph.D student at Southampton University. Still. His research focuses on Roman things and anything else that helps the time pass, really. He is also on the committee for the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC).

John Hawthorne 1997

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