Reassembling the Early Church in South-West Scotland

Meeting date

Adrián Maldonado

James Williams Lecture
Meeting report

Over 60 members of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society met on 29 November to hear Dr Adrián Maldonado (Glenmorangie Research Fellow, National Museums Scotland) give the annual James Williams lecture, on the topic Reassembling the early church in south-west Scotland: the artefactual evidence.

Dr Maldonado explained how the south-west region of modern-day Scotland has seen several episodes of intensive antiquarian and archaeological interest in the evidence for early Christianity. Discoveries of Latin-inscribed stones at Whithorn (c.450 AD) and Kirkmadrine in the late 19th century led to the first controlled excavations in the mid-20th century, with further major excavations at Barhobble and Whithorn in Wigtownshire, Ardwall Isle in Kirkcudbrightshire, and Hoddom in Dumfriesshire in the later 20th century. The region thus benefits from a wealth of evidence for early church structures and burials, in contrast to most other parts of Scotland. It also allows us to see the important, early evidence for conversion to Christianity in this region, dovetailing with important distributions of late Roman material in the northern Irish Sea zone.

And yet the focus remains on sites of a supposed ‘monastic’, not to say ‘Celtic’, character, with traditional narratives focused on sites associated with famous missionary saints like Ninian. These early saints’ cults are an important part of the story but the archaeology has the potential for a much broader set of questions around settlement, food production and the economy, as elegantly expressed in the Hoddom excavations.

Previous work has not yet taken into account the wide variety of evidence for the portable material culture of the early church in Scotland, including architectural furnishings, altar plate and related sacred material. While this evidence is rarely found in situ, cumulatively it forms a unique glimpse inside the insular church from c. 700–1200. Fragments of sacred objects found in hoards and Viking graves are traditionally assigned labels such as Irish, Hiberno-Norse or Anglo-Saxon, which tend to make us look outside of Scotland for ‘influences’, despite the fact that the south-west is itself integral to Gaelic, Norse and Northumbrian politics. Stray finds from metal detecting and museum collections are poorly published, but in light of major new discoveries like the Galloway Hoard, the portable artefacts relating to the Church in the south-west provide a unique glimpse into the lived experience of Christianity. Dr Maldonado highlighted the important collections of early medieval sculpture and early Christian artefacts from the south-west, which allows us to ask new questions about liturgical practice, private devotion and the role of the Church in the changing economy of the Viking Age.