This photo of filming Craig Brisbane was taken on Menaka Munro’s mobile phone earlier. I was balanced precariously on an inflatable ball whilst I asked Craig questions about what it was like to discover the Manchester wordsquare.
In the 1970s Craig was working on a dig in the centre of Manchester when he found a piece of pottery with some letters scratched on the surface. Most of the professional archaeologists had gone off site and he had to find someone who could look at the discovery quite quickly. Dr Denise Kenyon cleaned the piece of pottery and revealed some mysterious letters. They were part of a five word word-square in Latin reading:-
Which is roughly translated as ‘Arepo the sower guides the wheels with care’. The words can be read up and down and left to right (try it and see).
This may have a meaning akin to a line from a modern nursery rhyme but the letters could be deconstructed and reassembled to form two lines reading PATERNOSTER that crossed on the letter N. This of course is ‘Our Father’ or the start of the Lord’s Prayer. The letters that are left over are A and O. These are Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In the Revelation of St John in the Bible Jesus said “I am the beginning and the end”.
This seems to be a puzzle with a hidden religious meaning. It has been suggested that this might have been used by Christians to advertise their presence to fellow believers at a time when the Church was being persecuted by the Roman authorities. And here it was in a closely-dated layer in a room of a building off the road leading into the Roman fort of Manchester. The layer dates from the 180s AD.
This is very early for Christianity in northern Britain and Craig described the sense of mounting excitement as team members tried to contact the site director, the late Prof Barri Jones, who was away at a conference. And then how they took the piece to show to the Church of the Hidden Gem in Manchester, where the priest knew what it was straightaway.
Senior members of the Church visited the site to see where the wordsquare had been found. Craig described the diggers’ embarrassment because they didn’t know how they should greet the Bishop of Salford but they followed the example of a cameraman who was filming the occasion and bent the knee and kissed the ring on the Bishop’s finger.
Craig showed us other material and kindly presented a copy of the Observatore Romana issued at the passing of Pope John Paul I which took place at the time of the discovery of the wordsquare. There in the pages amongst messages of condolence from heads of state from all around the world was a full page on the Manchester discovery with a photo of Craig himself talking to the Bishop of Salford.
It seems churlish to say that there is another interpretation which says that this is not necessarily Christian at least at the time it was deposited and it is more likely to be a kind of game or pastime. The creation of wordsquares using words with increasing numbers of letters seems to have fascinated the Romans. Later, it is argued, another, Christian meaning was teased out of the wordsquare.
We are filming short interviews with people who are contributing to the galleries or who have made exciting discoveries or who have their own collections to go in the Ancient Worlds displays that open on October 30th 2012. If you’d like to contribute do please get in touch with the Manchester Museum (firstname.lastname@example.org).