A Roman mystery word square

About the object

© The Manchester Wordsquare, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester
© The Manchester Wordsquare, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

A disputed interpretation

In 1978, archaeologists excavating in the centre of Manchester discovered this fragment of pottery with letters scratched on it. Similar examples from other parts of the Roman Empire are known and have been interpreted by some historians as being Christian symbols, though other historians are not convinced of this. The find is important because it can be securely dated to AD 182 and therefore could provide evidence of a very early presence of Christians in this part of Britain. However, even if it is Christian, the fragment is part of a large transport amphora and the lettering may already have been on the amphora when it was imported from the Mediterranean region.

If the word square does contain references to Christianity, its enigmatic nature would be an indication of the secrecy in which early Christians felt the need to carry out their activities. Until Christianity, along with other religions, became officially tolerated in AD 313, the refusal of its followers to participate in the worship of the emperor as a god had made them sometimes a real challenge to and sometimes convenient scapegoats for the Roman authorities.

Public and private writing

The Latin alphabet is familiar to us as the alphabet we use to write English. The same lettering was used by the Romans for all forms of public inscription, from trademark stamps on clay pots to epitaphs on tombstones and from military discharge certificates to imperial inscriptions on buildings. The many inscriptions that have survived provide us with invaluable information about a wide variety of aspects of the Roman world. This type of lettering is almost always official in some sense; even the wording on a tombstone, no matter how personal it may seem, is meant for the public domain.

However, we do have pieces of writing from the Roman world, which had little public purpose and some of which were very private. Among the most important are the Vindolanda tablets from a military settlement just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The tablets are thin strips of wood written on in ink using a pen, not in the capital letters that we recognise, but in cursive handwriting. Most of the tablets were considered so worthless that they had been thrown on rubbish heap in Roman times. They survived over the centuries because of the very wet soil conditions at Vindolanda. These writings give glimpses of very different aspects of life from those of the public inscriptions: a list of jobs being done by the soldiers, the garrison commander doing some networking, a letter to one of the soldiers from his family, a candid assessment of the Britons and a woman named Claudia Severa inviting her friend to her birthday party.

Literacy in Roman Britain

The widespread use of writing might lead us to believe that there was a high level of literacy in Roman Britain. The truth is that the ability to read and write was limited to a very narrow range of people, among whom were the educated elite, professional scribes and administrators. The birthday invitation is a microcosm of this: it was written in one hand, that of a scribe, but had a personal note in another, that of Claudia Severa. It is quite possible that the very illegibility of the great public inscriptions only contributed to their imposing effect on the general population, though, as we know from the Roman historian Tacitus, some native leaders were quick to start sending their sons to schools to learn the language of their conquerors.

More information

Video: Animated word square
A 10 second animation of the word square.

Christian perspective
An article (in PDF format) explaining the word square from the Christian perspective.

Alternative view
A counter argument to the Christian interpretation above can be found in Frances Mawer, Evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain: The Small finds, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 243, 1955

Writing in the Roman empire
A brief introduction to writing in the Roman Empire with further links to Roman Britain and the Vindolanda tablets at the British Museum.

Vindolanda tablets
Vindolanda Tablets Online: the single best website for the Vindolanda tablets with an opportunity to practise transcribing some tablets yourself: use the link to Reading the tablets.

About Vindolanda
An introduction to Vindolanda from BBC History.

Next section: A bigger picture

A Roman mystery word square