Archaeologists have uncovered the fragments of a lead Christian cup, or chalice, lightly etched with symbols of early Christian iconography, at the archaeological site of Vindolanda, an ancient Roman military fort and settlement on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, northern England.
A total of 14 fragments from the ancient vessel were found hidden in the remains of a 6th century Christian church, inside the previously occupied Roman fort of Vindolanda.
“This is a really exciting find from a poorly understood period in the history of Britain,” said lead author Dr. David Petts, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University.
“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 in beginning of the medieval period.”
Each fragment of the ancient chalice was found to be covered by lightly etched symbols, each representing different forms of Christian iconography from the time.
The marks appear to have been added, both to the outside and the inside of this cup, by the same hand or artist and although they are now difficult to see with the naked eye, with the aid of specialist photography, the symbols have been carefully recorded and work has started on a new journey of discovery to unlock their meanings.
The etchings include some well-known symbols from the early church including ships, crosses and chi-rho, fish, a whale, a happy bishop, angels, members of a congregation, letters in Latin, Greek and potentially Ogam.
“We are used to first’s and the wow factor from our impressive Roman remains at Vindolanda with artifacts such as the ink tablets, boxing gloves, boots and shoes, but to have an object like the chalice survive into the post-Roman landscape is just as significant,” said Dr. Andrew Birley, director of excavations and CEO of the Vindolanda Trust.
“Its discovery 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.”
“I am delighted that we can now start to share our news about this discovery and shed some light on an often-overlooked period of our heritage and past.”