Case Study: The development of the early church

Figure 33: Reconstruction of 'Casa Ernani' at Inchmarnock in the 9th century (Lowe, 2008, 259), with depcitions of the instruction of young scholars, a cut-away view of the workshop, and the church in the background (see O'Carragáin, 2009, 1184 for a brief critique of the depiction of the church architecture). With gratitude to Headland Archaeology, Chris Lowe, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the artist David Simon for permission to reproduce

Figure 33: Reconstruction of 'Casa Ernani' at Inchmarnock in the 9th century (Lowe, 2008, 259), with depictions of the instruction of young scholars, a cut-away view of the workshop, and the church in the background (see O'Carragáin, 2009, 1184 for a brief critique of the depiction of the church architecture). With gratitude to Headland Archaeology, Chris Lowe, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the artist David Simon for permission to reproduce

The introduction and evolution of Christianity in Scotland (from the late 5th century) lies at the heart of understanding society and settlement in early medieval Scotland. This new religion results in secular authorities relinquishing control of sacred beliefs and rites of passage, such as burial or inauguration, to emerging ecclesiastical authorities with whom they develop a mature mutual dependency. The evidence for these transformative, new institutional beliefs lies in our surviving monuments, if they can only be given meaning: religious sites are places where communities, lay people, lords and kings consciously and conspicuously communicated with each other over extended periods.

The archaeological evidence – mainly carved stones, ruined and dilapidated building building foundations and earthworks in western and northern Scotland, some cropmarks in eastern and southern Scotland, and rare ecclesiastical artefacts  - is supplemented by a small number of documentary sources (notably Adomán’s Life of Columba) and scarcely tapped place-name potential (a Leverhulme-funded project commenced in 2010 to look at the commemoration of saints). Overall, good quality archaeological evidence is very scarce, although a small number of archaeological excavations over the last 25 years highlight the extraordinary quality and potential of what survives, notably at Whithorn, Hoddam, Portmahomack, Inchmarnock, Isle of May, Govan and Inchmarnock. Although relatively large in some cases, these excavations have explored only a small fraction of the total sites. 

The body of evidence for undeveloped and developed cemeteries (the latter with a church) has increased, and ongoing research by Adrian Maldonado (2011, 2013, 2016) is reviewing early burial evidence. The manifestation of saints’ cults probably holds the key, as Stephen Driscoll (2000) suggests, to recognising ancient polities. Place-name evidence is crucial, but various aspects of material culture support or have  the potential to illustrate this. There are lamentably few dated church structures, but Pictish carved stones, in particular, testify to elaborate stone fittings, wooden and stone furniture and burial architecture that certainly belonged in fine, if not stone, buildings. The eighth-century minster church at Whithorn reveals how large, complex, and sophisticated a timber church might be. The scale, complexity and diversity of ‘church’ forms and functions has been expanded, Whithorn again showing the potential for the survival of fragile and slight evidence for the division of church interiors, as well as the use of clay-bonding for what is interpreted as a mortuary chapel doubling as a gateway to the inner precinct. The corpus of sculpture possibly designed for internal spaces increases. At larger sites that have been excavated there is clear evidence for a very structured use of space, with patterns emerging of where different activities occurred, eg the location of the monastic schoolhouse at Incharmarnock, or agricultural buildings at Hoddam and Portmahomack. Much more is known about the economic and technological function of sites, whether vellum manufacture (unique so far to Portmahomack), fine metalworking, smithying, tanning of leather or corn-drying.

Overall the evidence exhibits enormous variability over time and space. In defining questions for the future, the challenge is to make these new insights methodologically possible to pursue. A fundamental question is who in society is initiating new places of burial and/or new churches, and who are the key decision makers in the rise and fall of these places over time and what motivated them? What sort of places did they create and transform? Just how extensive were these sites? What range of activities took place at them? How did ecclesiastical lordship and their estates (eg Portmahomack and the Tarbat peninsula) differ in their management and expression from secular lordship? Did they have the same ecological and environmental footprint, for instance?

Understanding regional expressions of Christianity through work on saints’ dedications and cults, sculpture, burials and landscape offers the best potential, including the potential to track networks of patronage. Through a landscape approach, it should be possible to explore the question of how regional prehistoric character (see Carver 2009a) and specific local circumstances affected local manifestations of Christian practice. It should also be possible to explore the relationship between the church and contemporary, especially lordly settlement. Looking at how early church sites are incorporated into later settlement patterns may also shed light on the nature of the early church in a place or region.


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