Over the last week I’ve done a number of object handling sessions for 1st year Classics students at the University. A group came over this morning with their tutor Dr Roberta Mazza, who is a Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History. I focused on the Manchester word square , the five word puzzle in which the letters PATER NOSTER and the letters A and O have been detected.
The Latin for ‘Our father’ from the Lord’s prayer and A and O for Christ’s ‘I am the beginning and I am the end’ appear to be deliberate. We discussed whether the word square should be regarded as the earliest evidence of Christianity in northern Britain or whether it is just a doodle or piece of graffiti scratched onto the side of a pot.
The word square is on display in our new Ancient Worlds displays so I got out a replica for Roberta and her students to have a closer look at. We talked about the different interpretations and explored other evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain. I mentioned how previous research had attributed the destruction of temples dedicated to the god Mithras to Christian communities. So, if what looks like a deliberately damaged Mithraic temple is found, one might infer the presence of a Christian community nearby, which is a more negative form of evidence of adherents of the religion. This can be found in Charles Thomas’ book on Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (Batsford, 1981). Early Christians found Mithraism’s similarity to Christianity too close for comfort (both have as a central figure a man who undergoes a trial or an ordeal that symbolises the wider struggle between good and evil).
By chance we happen to have a rather interesting bronze figurine (see the photo above) depicting Mithras with an inscription. Sadly we don’t know where it comes from but it was great to get out the figurine as a tangible piece of evidence of the Mithraism.
It is interesting that remains of a Mithraeum was found at Hulme in Manchester in 1821 but we don’t know enough to say whether it had been destroyed by a Christian mob or not. Perhaps if we did have that evidence – as apparently survives on Hadrian’s Wall and at the Walbrook in London – we might have another tentative piece of evidence for Christianity in Roman Manchester.
Of course if the word square is simply the result of someone with too much time on their hands, it is a huge coincidence that the words PATER NOSTER and the letter A and O can be sifted out of the 25 letters that make up the 5 word palindrome. But then an American commentator has noted that Ronald Wilson Reagan is an anagram of ‘Insane Anglo Warlord’. The letters of ‘President Clinton Of the USA’ when rearranged give you ‘ To Copulate he finds interns’! I mean, you couldn’t make this up could you?
The rearrangement of the letters that make up his name must be just coincidence. So extracting PATERNOSTER out of the word square is just another seemingly unlikely coincidence, though I suspect conspiracy theorists might beg to differ.