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Unexpected find of St Swithun relic in Norway proves a sensation

07 June 2024

Stavanger archaeologists discover what they believe to be the remains of the reliquary

Annette Øvrelid / X-ray: Bettina Ebert / Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger

An X-ray examination of the copper plate shows a church building with a tower and roof, columns, and windows

An X-ray examination of the copper plate shows a church building with a tower and roof, columns, and windows

THE reliquary of St Swithun of Winchester — thought to have been removed from Stavanger Cathedral in Norway, during the Reformation, and destroyed — appears to have had been spared.

Archaeologists from the University of Stavanger have discovered what they believe to be the remains of the reliquary — containing a fragment of an arm bone of St Swithun — hidden in the cellar at the base of the north tower of the cathedral. St Swithun is the patron saint of the city.

The find consists of a gilded copper panel measuring five by ten centimetres. It has small nail holes along the edges which, the archaeologists say, indicate that it has been attached to a larger, wooden object.

In connection with this, archaeologists also recovered a gilded silver medallion, decorated with an animal motif and bearing similar nail holes, and several decorative glass ornaments. All these finds may have belonged to the reliquary of St Swithun, the archaeologists report.

The conservator Bettina Ebert said: “We were very surprised when we carried out an X-ray examination of the copper plate. The image clearly reveals a church building with a tower and roof, columns, and windows.”

The excavation was carried out by a research team from the Museum of Archaeology, led by Sean Denham. He was accompanied by Ms Ebert and a senior researcher, Margareth Hana Buer.

“For the Church and the city, this find is a sensation,” Mr Denham said.

Historical sources suggest that the first Bishop of Stavanger, an Englishman named Reinald, brought the arm bone of St Swithun from England as early as the year 1112. The cathedral was dedicated to St Swithun when it was completed in about 1125. The relic was then placed on the high altar.

Ms Buer said: “The arm bone of St Swithun was valuable, and would have been carefully wrapped in beautiful cloth and then placed in a gold casket with precious stones in beautiful colours. There were several such reliquary boxes, shaped like houses, in Norway in the Middle Ages, but few have been preserved.”

On 2 July 1517, St Swithun’s Day, the last Catholic Bishop of Stavanger, Hoskuld, in the presence of witnesses, created a list of the cathedral’s relics. The results of this most recent excavation suggest that several of these treasures were hidden in the cellar in order to save them from destruction, researchers have said.

The excavation was formed after the chance discovery last year of a 700-year-old ivory figurine of Melchior, one of the three wise men, in the cellar.

Mr Denham said: “In terms of quantity and significance, the finds in the basement have exceeded all expectations, and reflect more than 1000 years of Stavanger’s history. They demonstrate the cathedral and city’s clerical wealth and contact with Rome in a way not previously seen in the archaeological material.”

Visitors will be able to view the treasures in the museum’s 2025 exhibition celebrating the cathedral’s 900th anniversary.

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