20. Basilica and churches

20. Basilica and churches in military outposts

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 Robert Darby The 4th c. Church at ‘Ayn Gharandal (Arieldela) and the Emergence of Christian Architecture in the Late Roman Army of Palestine
09.20 Alan Rushworth Military churches, remodeled principia or fortified monasteries?
09.40 Andrew Poulter Location, location, location: variability on the Lower Danube in Late Antiquity
10.00 Andrew Birley Title missing


The 4th c. Church at ‘Ayn Gharandal (Arieldela) and the Emergence of Christian Architecture in the Late Roman Army of Palestine
Robert Darby, University of Tennessee

Since 2015 the ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project has been excavating the remains of a 4th c. church discovered inside the ruins of the Late Roman castellum belonging to the Cohors II Galatarum at ‘Ayn Gharandal (Arieldela) in southern Jordan. To date three seasons of exploration (2015, 2017, 2019) have brought to light the majority of a small, but well-preserved apsidal church adjacent to the fort’s principia and a complex of inter-connected rooms which some evidence suggests may have served ritual functions, specifically baptism and chrismation. This paper will discuss these discoveries and what we can infer about the lived religious experience of the Roman army on the frontier of Arabia-Palaestina and its role in the spread of Christianity in in the 4th c. The ‘Ayn Gharandal church, which appears to have been built and subsequently abandoned during the course 4th c., has few regional parallels identified at contemporary Roman military sites with the majority having been built later in the 5th-6th c.. Thus, the discovery of the ‘Ayn Gharandal church offers a particularly important benchmark for our understanding the formalization of Christian churches into the architectural landscape of the late Roman army in Palestine. The monumentality of the church, its placement in respect to the principia, and its secondary use of rooms in the fort all point to the significance awarded to the church and the emergence of a new architectural paradigm for the Roman army.

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.

Location, location, location: variability on the Lower Danube in Late Antiquity
Andrew Poulter, University of Birmingham

The location of churches, their size and their quality of construction provide valuable information on the role of the Church on the Lower Danube. In respect of this region, the Danubian riverbank and the immediate interior were interlinked; the latter provided most of the supplies for the former. The exception of Iatrus where at least 3 churches have been excavated, each replacer the other and in the same location within the fort; understandably since, once built, by law the land could never again be used for a profane function. Dating is a problem. However villas, as excavation and intensive survey have proved, were all destroyed and abandoned in the late 4th century although many already had extramural churches. This suggests that the forts had also acquired churches and no later than the middle of the 4th century. However, there are exceptions; the military supply base at Dichin produced the outline of a 6th century church but this was proceeded by a 5th century industrial building – but not by an earlier church.At Dichin, the absence of a church (which would have occupied the same location) suggests that the occupants of this fort had no need of such a building; perhaps here we are dealing with a pagan garrison? There is particular variety in the location and character of churches, ranging from sumptuous decoration (Novae received a finely carved ambo of white proconnesian marble – an imperial gift?) to simple small churches on the frontier, made from mudbrick and stone. The position of the church and its size as well as decoration also suggests differing functions and ‘status’.

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.