2 March 1998

Old Celtic practices continued to thrive in Britain during and after the 5th century AD despite Roman occupation and the introduction of Christianity, according to a new book by a University of Queensland academic.

The book Religion in Late Roman Britain: Forces of Change (Routledge, London) seeks to explain why Christianity failed to take a strong hold in Britain during the 5th century as it had in other nearby countries such as France.

To research her book, Classics and Ancient History Department head and senior lecturer Dr Dorothy Watts examined ancient temple sites and cemeteries in Britain, interviewing around 30 archaeologists and accessing their research notes from digs in the area most heavily occupied by the Romans (the south, south-east and central regions).

Pagan Celtic, Roman and Roman Christian burial practices varied greatly. Some pagan burials involved the decapitation of the deceased with the heads either buried with the body or at a different site altogether. The Romans preferred cremation so few inhumation cemeteries existed in the early part of their occupation of Britain, but from about the middle of the 3rd century AD, intact bodies again began being buried in cemeteries.

Christians had almost universally practised inhumation, and with the spread of the religion in the 4th century, Christian cemeteries also appeared in Britain. The religion had been introduced to Britain early in the 3rd century, or even late in the second and only came to flourish when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD312.

The Romans left Britain by AD410, and Christianity languished and almost disappeared.

"I wanted to know why Christianity had largely failed in Britain in this period," Dr Watts said. "I expected to find that a form of Roman paganism had taken hold. Instead, I found that the old Celtic religions had survived at sites which had been pagan long before the Romans even arrived.

"It seemed a lot of the Romanisation of Britain including Christianity around this period was quite superficial; and despite the adoption of the Christian faith by the invading Anglo-Saxons, the native people continued their pagan practices on the sly and for another 500 years or so until William the Conqueror arrived in the 11th century."

She said the Celtic Religion was far stronger than imported religions with evidence of this fact even creeping into Christian burial grounds from AD360.

"It was almost as if the people were having two-bob each way," she said.

"Inside these graves, archaeologists have found little pagan things such as good luck charms. For example, a popular pagan amulet or charm was a coin with a hole in it so it could be worn as a pendant. Other coins seem to have been secreted into the graves inside the closed hands of the dead. The Graeco-Roman pagan belief was that dead people had to 'pay the ferryman' to get across the River Styx so the coin was placed in the grave for this purpose. Other popular pagan charms were made of jet - a black stone found at Whitby, in Yorkshire. These have also been found in Christian graves around this time."

Dr Watts said Christianity survived in Britain during the period in some towns and in isolated monastic centres and was revived by Pope Gregory I who sent St Augustine to Canterbury in AD597.

Funded by two Australian Research Council Small Grants worth $23,140, a $13,000 University of Queensland Special Projects Grant and an Australian Academy of Humanities Travelling Fellowship of $2500, Dr Watts was able to arrange for accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) dating of bone found in an ancient cemetery in which decapitated bodies had been buried.

"The results showed the cemetery at Rushdon, in Northamptonshire, dated from the 9th and 10th centuries, proving pagan burial practices had continued to thrive until this time," Dr Watts said.

The ancient Celts believed the head needed to be separated from the body following death to allow the spirit to be released. Dr Watts said research showed some of the heads may have been re-buried with the bodies at a later stage. "This could have been when the people believed the person's spirit had truly been released and perhaps reborn in a grandchild," she said.

Dr Watts said political and economic change at the time had also helped to keep Celtic religious practices alive during and after the 5th century.

"With the Roman departure, there came a lack of control. There was no army to keep the people in line, and even before the complete removal of the army the incursions of the Saxons had disrupted normal life. This was also a time of economic downturn - the standard of new Christian churches and repair work to existing buildings was poor and there was a greater incidence of uncoffined burials with some people even buried in hollowed-out tree trunks. The Celtic religion did not require elaborate buildings or burials - people tended to worship at sacred places such as trees or springs. Names for gods and shrines had only been introduced by the invading Romans," she said.

Dr Watts has written one other book entitled Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain in 1991 and is currently working on a third book concerning women of the late Iron Age and Early Roman Britain. To research her latest book, she is examining the artefacts found in the graves of women including jewellery and household items as well as analysing archaeological records of the skeletal remains of a number of unpublished cemeteries.

She said television programs such as Ballykissangel and Hamish MacBeth as well as the popularity of stage shows such as Riverdance were evidence of a recent Celtic revival in Western countries.

"This revival is probably due to the fact that many people can trace Welsh, Scottish or Irish roots and the Celts are perceived as an attractive, mystical and romantic culture," Dr Watts said.

For more information, contact Dr Watts (telephone 07 3365 2650).