Christian chalice found at Vindolanda

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A lead vessel bearing early Christian iconography has been discovered at Vindolanda. It is the first cup or chalice to be found at a fort associated with Hadrian’s Wall, and the only one from this period to have been found in Britain.

Found buried in the rubble of a building that has since been identified as a 6th-century Christian church, the artefact offers a rare look at the practices of the early church in Britain. Only 14 fragmentary pieces remain, however, and all are in poor condition, as it appears the chalice was buried quite close to the surface. While the symbols are hard to see with the naked eye, specialist photography was able to reveal them with greater clarity. This showed that the markings are etched across the entire surface of the chalice, both on the inside and outside, and they appear to have been made by the same artist. The symbols used were common in the early church and include crosses and chi-rho motifs, fish, ships, a whale, angels, a bishop, members of a congregation, and letters in the Latin, Greek, and possibly Ogham alphabets.

A lead vessel recently found amid the remains of a 6th-century Christian church at Vindolanda had early Christian iconography etched across its entire surface. CREDIT: The Vindolanda Charitable Trust

Post-excavation analysis on the chalice is ongoing and is being led by post-Roman specialist Dr David Petts from Durham University. Commenting on the discovery, he said: ‘This is a really exciting find from a poorly understood period in the history of Britain. Its apparent connections with the early Christian church are incredibly important, and this curious vessel is unique in a British context. It is clear that further work on this discovery will tell us much about the development of early Christianity at the beginning of the medieval period.’

Andrew Birley, Vindolanda’s Director of Excavations and CEO, who led the excavation team, added: ‘The discovery [of the chalice] helps us appreciate how the site of Vindolanda and its community survived beyond the fall of Rome and yet remained connected to a spiritual successor in the form of Christianity, which in many ways was just as wide-reaching and transformative as what had come before it.’

The chalice is now the main display in a new exhibition at the Vindolanda museum, which highlights Christianity and its role in the last periods of occupation at the auxiliary fort.

This news article appears in issue 368 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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