A CHALICE made of lead, dating from the sixth century, is being hailed as one of the most important finds of a Christian artefact in Western Europe.
It was discovered in the remains of an early church built inside the Roman fort at Vindolanda, near Hexham, close to Hadrian’s Wall.
Broken into 14 pieces, the cup, which is about the size of a modern cereal bowl, is covered with religious grafitti. The director of Vindolanda excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, said that discovering the church was an important find, but finding the inscribed chalice was “quite incredible”. “This artefact sheds a bright light into a time that used to be known as the Dark Ages,” he said.
The marks inside and outside the cup appear to be by the same hand. They are difficult to see with the naked eye, but specialist photography revealed symbols including crosses, chi-rhos, a whale, fish, flags, angels, a smiling priestly figure holding a crook, ears of wheat, and a boat with a cross-shaped mast, believed to represent the Church as a vessel to take Christians to their eternal destination. “It’s just remarkable” Dr Birley said. “Nothing in North-Western Europe comes close from the period.”
© The Vindolanda Trust© The Vindolanda Trust
Professor David Petts, Senior Lecturer in the archaeology of northern England at the University of Durham, who is a specialist on the post-Roman period and early Christianity, said: “It is genuinely exciting. When we think of graffiti, we tend to think it’s unauthorised vandalism. But we know from many medieval churches that people would put marks and symbols on buildings. What is unique about this is finding them on a vessel.”
He believes that it was a ceremonial object, passed among the congregation, and that its symbols held meanings for them which have yet to be understood. “Its discovery helps us appreciate how the site and its community survived beyond the fall of Rome, and yet remained connected to a spiritual successor in the form of Christianity,” he said.
The church foundations suggest that the building could hold about 60 worshippers. The building appears to have collapsed on itself, but the chalice had been securely sealed under the rubble, perhaps in a ceremony marking the end of the church.
Vindolanda pre-dates Hadrian’s Wall, and has proved an archaeological treasure-house of extraordinary military and personal objects, from writing tablets and shoes to boxing gloves and rare cavalry swords.
The chalice is the centrepiece of a new exhibition in the museum at Vindolanda which highlights Christianity and the last periods of occupation on the site.