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A Roman Chi-Rho Graffito

By 14/12/2021March 22nd, 2022finds, News

Our Roman pottery specialist Eniko has written a fascinating article on this rare and significant find, just published in Britannia.

The inscribed sherd was found during our excavations at Brandon House in Southwark and is only the second example to be found in London.

The Chi-Rho graffito – photo by Strephon Duckering and drawing by Roger Tomlin.

The site is located on what would have been the edge of the Borough Channel, north of the junction of the Roman roads Stane Street and Watling Street – an area of land reclaimed after AD50, with buildings in use until the first half of the second century. After this time the buildings were demolished and the area was sealed by a dark earth layer in which the sherd was found.

The sherd is a fragment of an Oxfordshire Red Colour-Coated type C100 mortarium, dated to AD300-400, and shows internal wear and sooting on the exterior. The graffito consists of a capital P overlain by a capital X, confirmed by Roger Tomlin as a Chi-Rho.

The Chi-Rho is the oldest Christian symbol and this graffito represents its earliest type, called the ‘Constantinian’ Chi-Rho. The letters P and X stand for the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, which means ‘the anointed one’. The emperor Constantine is said to have won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD312 under this early form of the sign, which subsequently led to widespread use among the Christian community. Although common on many objects , such as coins, dress accessories and seals, it’s rare to find it on pottery, making this a remarkable find.

Eniko suggests that position and size of this graffito, underneath the flange and therefore only visible from below, could mean it was intended for display, and as an aide for its identification when placed on a high shelf. She also notes as significant that the symbol appears on a mortarium, thought to be used for grinding foodstuffs in a communal setting, with the implication that it comes from a vessel belonging to a Christian community in Southwark for use in communal dining.

This was the only Christian find from the site, however the pottery assemblage contained several other pieces with graffiti and perforations which can be linked to ritual and religious activity. Perforated pots are commonly found as structured deposits having been ritually ‘killed’ in this way, for example at another PCA site nearby at Swan Street. Here, at least six wells or shafts produced evidence of ritual activity in the form of damaged vessels and disarticulated human and animal remains, displaying continiuty of tradition dating back to the Late Iron Age.

Our forthcoming monograph on Brandon House will discuss this in greater detail, but in the meantime if you’d like to read more of Eniko’s fabulous research, a pdf of her article is available by clicking this link: A Chi-Rho Graffito from Brandon House, Southwark