20. Basilica and churches

20. Basilica and churches in military outposts

Session Chairs: Dominic Moreau & Ivan Gargano
Affiliation: University of Lille, France
Affiliation of co-organiser: University of Lille, France

Session Abstract: In the absence of ancient texts describing the details of the process of Christianisation in the frontier regions of the Roman Empire, it is often very difficult to understand some of the archaeological finds in that matter. Among them, we can mention the Christian basilicas and other churches built in direct links with medium to small military outposts. This session will analyse, both in archaeological and historical points of view, the Christian buildings of worship found near or inside the documented forts located on the edges of the Empire. The focus will thus be on peripheral military site.

The goal is to document the topographical evolution of the spiritual life of the Roman garrisons between the fourth and the seventh century, by trying to identify the characteristics of what can call a “border Christianity”, together with the changes of the military space possibly caused by its development. The study of religious architecture in these sites is, without a doubt, the most concrete means of achieving these objectives, because data such as a more-or-less marked monumentality, the position with regard to the fort, the chronology of construction or the type of materials used can offer many factors for a deep reflection on the issue, as well as helping to understand the extent and identity of border communities linked to the military context.

Time Presenter (s) Presentation
09.00 Dominic Moreau & Ivan Gargano Introduction
09.20 Alan Rushworth Military churches, remodeled principia or fortified monasteries?
09.40 Andrew Birley Late Roman and post-Roman Christianity on Hadrian’s Wall: and the remarkable new evidence from Vindolanda

Military churches, remodelled principia or fortified monasteries? A comparative analysis of basilicas in forts of the North African frontier
Alan Rushwort, The Archaeological Practice Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne

This paper looks at the evidence for churches in military sites of the North African frontier. Our understanding of these structures is hampered by the limited extent of modern fieldwork in this frontier zone. Whilst some basilicas identified within forts have been interpreted as churches (notably at Drah Souid East and Benian-Ala Miliaria), they have also been conceived of as late imperial principia, perhaps co-axially aligned with colonnaded streets, an arrangement observed at military installations on Rome’s other frontiers. This study will attempt to advance the debate by comparing the North African sites with recently investigated examples on the  Eastern frontier (for example Qasr el-Hallabat in Arabia). Work by Arce and others on the Arabian sites has proposed a sequential site development involving transition from later Roman quadriburgia, garrisoned by regular limitanei, to monasteries under the aegis of federate Ghassanid phylarchs, and then finally to Umayyad desert palaces, all linked to overall political and military evolution of that arid frontier zone. The African case studies presented here will examine how convincing a similar transition from fort to monastery might be, in terms of the surviving structural evidence, and also how the reoccupation of frontier forts by monastic communities would fit into the late and post-imperial trajectory of this particular regional limes.

Late Roman and post-Roman Christianity on Hadrian’s Wall: and the remarkable new evidence from Vindolanda
Andrew Birley, Marta Alberti, The Vindolanda Trust

Although largely missed by antiquarian and early 20th century excavations on Hadrian’s Wall, the faint remains of late and post-Roman apsidal buildings in military outposts have now been identified and interpreted as potential church foundations at Birdoswald (Wilmott 2009: 395), Housesteads (Crow 2004:114, Rushworth 2009: 178), and South Shields (Bidwell & Speak 1994: 103-104). This growing body of evidence has been supported by more recent excavations at the site of Vindolanda. Here, between 2008 and 2019, archaeologists have uncovered evidence for church buildings and post-Roman occupation on a much more substantial scale, reigniting the debate surrounding the rise of Christianity on Roman frontiers. Set within the context of two phases of sub-Roman occupation (period IXA, circa AD 400-500, and IXB, AD 600+), three new churches have been excavated in the south-eastern and south-western quadrant at Vindolanda, adding to published evidence for a chapel within the 4th century praetorium courtyard (Birley & Birley & Blake 1999: 20-23), and a partially explored apse in the north-eastern quadrant of the last stone fort. The authors will discuss the morphology and stratigraphy of church building on Hadrian’s Wall with a focus on the site of Vindolanda and the contexts of the sub- and post-Roman occupation. Consideration will be given to the materials and techniques used for construction, outlining the emergence of two distinct types of building: an earlier ‘Basilica-like’ structure, in continuity with 4th century traditions, and a later ‘pill-shaped’ structure, breaking with the traditions of the Roman military occupation. The paper will also contextualise some of the remarkable artefacts associated with the Christian transformation of the site. These will include a unique and recently discovered lead vessel, inscribed with numerous early Christian symbols. This vessel offers a new perspective into the strength of the wider networks of early Christian communities on Roman frontiers.