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Archaeology mystery: Ancient chalice discovery could unlock hidden Christian truths

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The chalice, thought to hail from the 5th century, was found covered in religious iconography. Archaeologists were astonished at the find, describing it as Britain’s first known example of Christian graffiti on an object. A complex mass of crosses and chi-rhos, angels and a priestly figure, as well as fish, a whale and ships adorn the chalice.

It is believed to be unparalleled in western Europe.

Now in 14 fragments, the lead chalice was unearthed at the Vindolanda Roman fort – one of Europe’s foremost archaeological sites.

Near Hadrian’s Wall, the excavation which found the chalice also uncovered the foundations of a significant church, thought to be of the 5th or 6th century.

Dr Andrew Birley, director of Vindolanda excavations, told the Observer that finding church foundations inside the Roman stone fort was significant enough.

However, to find a vessel “smothered both inside and out with Christian iconography is quite incredible,” he said.

Dr Birler explained: “You’ve got crosses, a whale, fish, ships with lovely rigging and little flags, little angels, a priestly figure seemingly holding a crook with a big smiley face, ears of wheat.

“It’s just remarkable. Nothing in north-western Europe comes close from the period.”

Leslie Walker, an Australian care worker who joined the Vindolanda excavations as a volunteer last year, found the first fragment.

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She told the publication: “I was amazed that I had found something as important as this on my very first excavation.

“The whole experience at Vindolanda makes me want to come back and learn more.”

Dr David Petts, a Durham University specialist on the post-Roman period and early Christianity, is now researching the chalice.

He said: “It is genuinely exciting. When we think of graffiti, we tend to think it’s unauthorised vandalism.


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“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.”

The chalice would once have been the size of a modern-day cereal bowl.

Broken, each fragment bears lightly etched images.

Should the chalice be proven to be a ceremonial artefact, passed around the congregation, its symbols convey meanings that have yet to be deciphered.

Vindolanda was built by the Romans before Hadrian began constructing his 73-mile defence barrier in AD 122.

Both sites have offered a wealth of archaeological finds.

Dr Birler said: “The discovery (of the chalice) 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.”

Ground research suggests that the church was once big enough to accommodate around 60 parishioners.

Somehow, the structure collapsed in on itself.

However, the chalice had remained safely secured under rubble.

The chalice will be unveiled this week at Vindolanda’s museum, in a new exhibition that highlights Christianity and the site’s last periods of occupation, and is supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

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