7 July 2010

Calleva Atrebatum and the Irish

The other day, down to Silchester, to see how the Reading University Archaeology Department are getting on with their annual excavation of Insula IX. 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. 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 expect 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 claims to have been founded by Agostino and Mellito and various other Eyeties, we ought to keep that insult for ourselves. So now we sneer at it as the Irish 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 (hoary old funny coming up) 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). Was the first pp of Silchester yet another member of the ubiquitous and admirable Fin(n)e/igan clan?

What fun, the cutting edge of History.

4 comments:

Pastor in Valle said...

• Or perhaps Fr Tebicatos, like so many others, had simply come over for the races…
• I once found a probable ogham stone standing in the middle of a field in the foothills of the Black Mountains. It seems to have been adapted for a gatepost.
• The received wisdom (in my understanding) is that the ogham alphabet was quickly replaced by the Latin within a generation of St Patrick.
• As for the Fi(n)ni/egan clan, the confusion becomes more profound when you know that we both went to the same school at nearly the same time, now teach in the same seminary, write blogs (albeit his much better than mine), and celebrate the traditional Mass.

GOR said...

Hmmm. I’m not sure where current research places St. Patrick’s birthplace (Brittany?), but it seems that in my younger days there was the suggestion that he may have come from Wales

Sir Watkin said...

Tebicatos looks more like a Brythonic than a Goidelic name, so an Irish script, but not perhaps an Irishman.

The scarcity of inscriptions in Brythonic and Old Welsh is easily explained. The British saw themselves as Roman, so they naturally used Latin in this context. The Irish did not, so they naturally used Irish. There isn't any inference to be made about status.

Latin implies Romanitas, which implies Britishness. (Britishness is distinguished very sharply from Angles, Saxons etc., and less sharply from Irishness. It later evolves into separate Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Lowland "Scottish" identities.)

Irish implies Irishness.

There's nothing more to it than that.

Thus even if Tebicatos were Irish, I doubt that one can draw any conclusions about his status.

johnreuben said...

Tebicatos must have been Irish, because the rest of the inscription is in Irish. The latest thinking seems to be that the inscription is 4th century, so very early. He was more than likely a Christian, and Silchester more than likely had a church and a martyr cult (probably having been a ciuitas,where capital cases would be tried, and therefore the site of martyrdoms). We might also remember Alban, Julius and Aaron as other British Christians known by name - from the 3rd century.