London: To the residents of the new housing estate next door, it is simply a pretty little church that happens to adjoin their freshly laid lawns.
But an archaeological dig has discovered the sacred site dates back more than 4,000 years to the late Neolithic period, making it Britain’s oldest place of worship, used when the ancient Egyptians were building the Pyramids.
Carbon dating of a post, extracted from the dig at the medieval Church of the Holy Fathers in Sutton, Shrewsbury, shocked experts, revealing it was first placed in the ground in 2033BC. The 15-inch wood post is thought to have formed part of a cursus, a processional walkway, surrounded by a stone circle. Archaeologist Janey Green, of Baskerville Archaeological Services, which carried out the dig, said: “We were blown away by the dates, having expected it to be Anglo-Saxon.
“It is well known Christians liked to build churches on pagan sites, but this goes back to the Neolithic. What makes this site different is the continuity of ritual practice in one form or another. It predates the Basilica of Rome.”
The finds correspond with earlier excavations, carried out on development land to the east of the tiny church in the 1960s and 1970s, which unearthed evidence of Bronze Age and Neolithic structures.
The 10-metre long church itself was discovered to have originally been three times longer and to have once had side transepts. Miss Green said the only other site of a Christian church known to date back to the late Neolithic period was at Cranborne Chase, Dorset, which is a Norman ruin.
“Most of these Neolithic sites have long since been abandoned, like Stonehenge,” she added. The Greek Orthodox Church bought the building from the Church of England in 1994 for the nominal sum of 50 pounds.
It has a congregation of around 75. Father Stephen Maxfield said: “From the moment we saw this building we thought it was very special. Now we know it is, and that it is quite unique.”