We sent Colchester Borough Council's Arts & Heritage Project Officer, Lois Garrod-Smith, out to the Roman ruins by Colchester's police station to try to discover their secrets.

When is a church, not a church - when it may actually be a 1,700 year old Mithraeum...

If you look past my rather unfunny joke this is a very genuine question.

Located on the doorstep of Colchester’s Police Station lie the remains of the ‘church’. It has been dubbed by some as the oldest Christian church in Britain, but this may not be the case.
The remains of Colchester's Roman Church

The building was first recorded in 1845, however, not much remains today. What remains has recently been restored and therefore it felt fitting to investigate its past and find out more about this mysterious ruin.

The traditional approach when finding a building like this one, which had an apse (a large semi-circular bay), was to assume that this was a church. Christianity came to Britain around the 4th century when Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity. So, it’s then presumed that his conversion brought in a period of widespread church building complete with their apses.

Excavations, undertaken by the Colchester Archaeological Trust in 1976-89, uncovered part of a large cemetery, 669 burials were identified. They found mainly wooden coffins, however there were some unusual coffin substitutes, for example tree trunks!

As well as the cemetery many coins have been found during the various excavations. The discovery of these suggest the construction of the church started sometime between AD 320 and 340.

Five Roman Lamps where also discovered in 1979-80. Three of them were found inside the structure.

An illustration of the Roman Church by Peter Froste

However, further research has been done since these excavations and there is now another theory that this building was built for the worship of the god Mithras.

Mithras was the Iranian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war. Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. They met in underground temples, now called Mithraea

Because of their underground meeting and the fact that Mithraism called its followers to meet in dark ‘cave-like’ places these lamps are perhaps a piece in this rather curious puzzle. If it were a Roman church windows would be expected, however glass was not found for these at the site. Also, to have 5 lamps is an unusually high number for a Roman building in Colchester at the time.

Pig and chicken bones were also found at the site. Christians did partake in funeral feasts, not too much is known about them, but it is suggested they would normally have had bread and vegetables. Pig and chicken bones are more common in Mithraea, adding another mark in the favour of this site being a Mithraeum.

This is an alternative interpretation and a very brief look into this building’s history. It is by no means a complete one, however, it highlights the very important fact that we do not know the complete history of this site and research is never complete on any heritage site.

A display of Roman Burial items at Colchester Castle

We’ll leave it up to you to visit and decide for yourself. Keep an eye out if you’re visiting the Castle also as some of the objects that were found at this site are on display.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this small insight into Colchester’s ever changing history.  Happy heritage hunting and make sure you tag us on any social media posts following your adventures!  

This blog is based on research by Dr David Walsh. The original article can be found here

Lois Garrod Smith is Colchester Borough Council's Arts & Heritage Project Officer and has previously worked with the British Museum and Museum of East Anglian Life to complete their traineeship programme, gaining a Level 3 Diploma in Cultural Heritage.

Related

Roman Church
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Remains of a Roman Church, Colchester

Dating from the 4th century AD the foundations of this church near the Police Station just off the Maldon Road roundabout is probably the earliest known Christian church in Britain.

Colchester Castle Museum
Museum
Colchester Castle

Colchester Castle is the largest Norman Keep in Europe and houses the town's main museum

1 Comments

Comments

  1. David Walsh
    Hello,

    I am the author of the article arguing for the mithraeum interpretation. Could you please provide some reference to this? You've used my research without any credit. See here:

    https://muse.jhu.edu/article/714567

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