A Paper by William Burke, read at the Burgh Society, Peterborough on 20 January 2003


Who was Innocentia? If we could answer this question, we might well be able to answer another some questions about a local mystery, of international significance.

But first some background comments if I may. When I was a child, say between 10 and 13, I wanted to be, when I grew up, variously a soldier, a priest, and an archaeologist; my problem was how to combine these three. In the end, I was a soldier for the first 20 odd years of my adult life, then left the army for the priesthood. But meanwhile Archaeology, especially Romano- British archaeology, was a major pastime of mine. I was delighted, therefore, when coming to Peterborough as the parish priest at Castor, to be asked to become a member of the Research Committee of the Nene Valley Archaeological Trust (NVAT). I knew Peterborough had much of interest in this area.


            One of the things that has always struck me about the Soke of Peterborough, is that so many of its glories, its treasures are understated, even undervalued, both locally and nationally. There is the Cathedral, with one of the best-preserved Norman Naves and Transepts in the country, and a medieval roof unmatched anywhere in Europe, apart from one in Switzerland. There are ancient parish churches, with features of national importance, e.g. Barnack and Castor with their towers, featuring in the best 100 of the 1000 churches, selected from over 15000, listed in Simon Jenkin’s book. There is the huge Roman Villa, probably a Praetorium, at Castor, mostly unresearched and unexcavated and unknown. But even more than this, one of our treasures, did not even get a mention in The Times and the BBC on a series about the top ten ancient treasures of England recently, not even a contender- a treasure of European importance.


To my subject then. WHO WAS INNOCENTIA? One day in 1975, two members of the NVAT, one of then Geoffrey Darnell, were called to a small house in Longthorpe, the house of a man with a certain reputation. On going into the house, they saw on the kitchen table, wrapped in paper, some grey coloured metal. G Darnell was excited as soon as he saw it, - he knew at a glance, straightway, that this was a serious find- for at a he saw on a piece of the metal the markings of the Chi-Rho and the Alpha and Omega, early Xian symbols of Christ. The owner of the house told his visitors that he had found them while walking near the Banks of the Nene, close to the site of Durobrivae, the old Roman Market Town just East of Water Newton. In those days of course, Durobrivae, on Ermine Street –now the AI- was the nearest Roman equivalent to Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries, being the market town for the makers and exporters of Roman Castor Ware all over the N part of the Roman Empire. The fields by Castor are full of Roman Pottery kilns.


In a sentence, it transpired that this man had found the oldest Christian Mass utensils and Church plate, ever found anywhere in the world. The find consisted of nearly 30 items of silver, including cups, bowls, and votive offerings all used in the Liturgy. (Cf K Painter) (Pass round diagrams). It was definitely Roman, all silver, and even in those days would have been very valuable, expensive to buy or commission. And a number of the pieces were engraved with inscriptions, as well as the Xian symbols of the Chi-Rho and the Alpha and the Omega.


The Inscriptions:


On one cup the words “Innocentia et Viventia” – female Xian names.


On one votive plaque the words “Iaemcilla votum quod promisit complevit”. That is: Iamcila fulfilled the vow she promised.


Even more tantalising, for reasons in a moment, on the bottom of a small bowl the words: “ Publianus" and "Sanctum altare tuum, D (XP) omine, sub nixus, honoro."

I honour your holy altar, O Lord, (in the name of Christ).


There are at least five mysteries associated with this find:

Firstly: Where was it found?

Secondly: How old is it?

Thirdly: Where was it made?

Fourthly: How did it come to be there?

Fifthly: Where was it used?


Firstly: Where was it found? The man who discovered it was very cagey, and was known to be a user of a metal detector. The area was protected and digging etc forbidden. He said that he had been walking, I think with a dog, and found it part hidden a rabbit hole or similar. When the archaeologists went with him to the site, he could not remember exactly where he had found it, and the site suggested by him was unlikely. But it was certainly found near the South bank of the Nene, in or around Durobrivae, (now shown on OS maps as Three Castles.)


Secondly: How old is it? The experts decided that the Water Newton Treasure, as it came to be known, was late third, early fourth century, and before 312 AD. This date is important for not just historic reasons, but legal reasons. 312AD was the date of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a battle for the role of Emperor of Rome. The man who became Constantine the Great, the first xian Roman Emperor, won it. Constantine was born at York, when his father Constantius Chlorus was Governor of Britain. Constantine claimed to have seen in the sky the symbol of the Chi-Rho and attributed his victory to this. His mother, Helena- later known as St Helen-  was already a devout Xian. Whether she was a British princess, or a Slav stable girl is your choice, (cf E Waugh’s book) but she was certainly dumped by Constantius Chlorus, but re-instated as the Emperor’s mother, by her son Constantine the Great when he became Emperor. But the point is this. All Xian religious artefacts found and declared Treasure-Trove are deemed to be the property of the Established Church. And for legal purposes the date of that establishment is considered to be 312AD, the date on which Constantine became Emperor. If the Water Newton Treasure was given a 4th century date, then the treasure would probably have been deemed the property of the Church of England. For reasons of professional jealousy, and to avoid argument about the curation of the treasure, and possibly to avoid having to pay the grasping church commissioners an exorbitant sum, before a national museum could acquire the treasure, archaeological opinion conspired to give a date pre 312AD! So I am told anyway! But actually all people know at this stage is that it’s late Roman. Say third or fourth century.


Thirdly: Where was it made? Was it made locally? Was it imported, the style is very much early Byzantine, 4th century Eastern Roman- is it a mixture? If it was made locally, then the names on the inscriptions would be local people. - our forebears in the Soke, the earliest we know by name.


Fourthly: How did it come to be there? There’s little doubt that it was deliberately buried for safe-keeping. From the way it was stored. But when? Was it buried by an ordinary Romano-British church thief? Was it buried by a group of marauding Saxons who looted it in the 5th century from a religious site? Received opinion suggests that a xian priest or his associates likely deliberately buried it during the turbulent times of the ending of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, having removed it from a nearby Romano-British building for safe keeping.

Fifthly: Where was it used? It was clearly kept together at a Xian religious site – a very early Xian Church. The inscription on the bottom of the small bowl: "Sanctum altare tuum, D (XP) omine, sub nixus, honoro."

I honour your holy altar, O Lord, (in the name of Christ). This could be translated I honour your holy sanctuary or altar. The point is of course that it was an offering left at an altar or in a Xian Sanctuary in a Church. Where was that Church? The discovery of that site would be of huge interest to both archaeologists and church historians. Our knowledge of the early church in this country, in Roman times is very sketchy. We know however that some dioceses had been established by the end of the third century, In 314 AD three British bishops and a deacon, including the Bishops of Lincoln and London attended a church council meeting at Arles in Gaul, summoned by Constantine the Great. So we know that there would have been churches, and with cathedra for the bishops. The most scholarly opinion has proposed that the Water Newton treasure possibly came from the area of site of the Praetorium at Castor. (High status and high value). It would probably have been taken from the site by the church authorities to the relative safety of the walled market town of Durobrivae, during the barbarian invasions in the mid 5th century for safe custody, then buried outside it, for recovery during more stable times. Maybe the person or people who hid it were then slaughtered, and its location was lost for 1500 years.




Quoting K Dark: Archaeological and Historical views now believe that a number of Roman villas were occupied as monasteries from about 400AD. Supported by the relationship (cf Susan Pierce) between Middle Saxon minster sites and Roman villas they argue that these villas may have survived as monasteries in 5th and 6th centuries to become Saxon minsters or convents in 7th century. There is now convincing evidence of such a sequence. This implies that a number of sites have been in continuous use for Christian worship right through from Roman times to today.


What is tantalising for all is this: if the Water Newton Treasure (as almost certainly was the case) was made or commissioned locally then the fact is that somewhere between Castor and Water Newton, is the site of an ancient Roman Xian Church – the altar had to be housed somewhere - waiting to be discovered and excavated. Maybe even under the present ancient Saxon and Norman Church at Castor. For we now know that not only is Castor Church built in the courtyard of the huge Roman Praetorium, but that underneath it there are the foundations of a Roman building. If I could answer some of the questions I have posed, then perhaps I would know something about Innocentia and her companions. We would know the earliest recorded names of a Xian congregation in England, perhaps even people who worshipped at the site for which I am the priest today. Who was Innocentia then? Perhaps as a 3rd /4th century Roman- British Christian, she was the earliest known member of the congregation at Castor.



Definition of Treasure Trove ; an ancient law states that anyone who found treasure must prove that it had been buried intentionally, by some-one who did not intend to return for it. No proof, no treasure, no reward.