Book Chapter

"A bright crowd of chancels": whither early church archaeology in Scotland?



Foster S (2019) "A bright crowd of chancels": whither early church archaeology in Scotland?. In: Blackwell A (ed.) Scotland in Early Medieval Europe. Leiden: Sidestone Press, pp. 35-49.

First paragraph: In Thomas Clancy's translation of a poem probably written by Beccán of Rum (d. AD 677), a poet, hermit and saint associated with Iona and the Hebrides, we learn of the perceived extent of St Columba's influence in promoting Christian beliefs and converting people beyond his monastic base on Iona (Clancy and Márkus 1995: 147, 156). Today we acknowledge that a change of belief need not immediately correlate with Christianisation - a change in ritual practices - and that the lived experience of religion might often involve just small-scale and repetitive actions quite difficult for archaeologists to detect in most contexts, which extend technically anywhere (see Petts 2011). We struggle to recognise whether some structures associated with early burial places are actually early churches. Indeed, we appreciate that for the majority of people, the earliest Christian worship could have taken place in the home, and that prior to the eighth century burials rarely took place in a church graveyard (see for example, O'Brien 2003; Maldonado 2011; 2013). Yet, written while Iona was energetically developing the cult of Columba, this seventh-century poem with its reference to ‘chancels' reminds us how the presence of churches was, and still is, an important index of the spread, nature and broad impact of Christianity in early medieval Scotland. This paper offers a brief commentary on the present state of play with early church archaeology in Scotland, some of the issues, and the rationale for a future approach that on the one hand puts Scottish church archaeology on the European stage while at the same time responding to and celebrating its diversity and local idiosyncrasies.

Publication date31/12/2019
Publication date online30/04/2019
PublisherSidestone Press
Publisher URL…-medieval-europe
Place of publicationLeiden

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Professor Sally Foster
Professor Sally Foster

Professor, History

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