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A fragment of the 5th-century chalice etched with Christian symbols, unearthed at Vindolanda in Northumberland. Credit: The Vindolanda Trust

Holy Grail of Christian Graffiti Discovered On 5th Century Chalice

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A lead chalice-cup etched with Christian iconography and letters from three languages has been discovered in remains of 5th-century church on Hadrian’s Wall in England, but what does it say?

Excavators digging at the famous the Vindolanda Roman fort in Northumberland, in northern England near Hadrians Wall, have unearthed a 5th-century chalice emblazoned with religious iconography which they are describing as Britain s first known example of Christian graffiti ever found on an artifact.

Behold: The Holy Grail of Christian Symbols

Cast in lead and found broken into 14 fragments, the prized chalice-cup was discovered near the foundations of a 5th century church and Dr Andrew Birley, director of Vindolanda excavations, told the  Observer that finding church foundations inside the Roman stone fort was significant enough, but finding the chalice  “is quite incredible”.

Why this discovery is so significant is because the artifact is “smothered inside and out” with crosses, a priest and angels, a whale and ships with flags and rigging, and this treasure from the formative days of Christianity is described by Dr Birley as being “without parallel in western Europe”. He added that nothing comes close from this period in north-western Europe.

Fragments of the 5th-century chalice found near Hadrian’s Wall. Credit: The Vindolanda Trust

Fragments of the 5 th-century chalice found near Hadrian’s Wall. Credit: The Vindolanda Trust

An Undeciphered And Symbolically Locked Ancient Treasure

Vindolanda was a fort built by the Roman army before Hadrian constructed his 73-mile defensive barrier in 122 AD, and we have published numerous articles about the many discoveries at the cavalry barracks of Vindolanda.

Most recently, I wrote about the discovery of a mouse shaped piece of leather that was regarded as the first ever “Roman prank” discovered in England, and in a 2018 article we covered the unearthing of a unique hoard of “Roman horseshoes,” and in 2017 the story broke of a “spine tingling” collection of Roman letters. But this recent discovery is different, a lot different, because the ancient chalice with the oldest Christian graffiti ever discovered it wasn’t made by a seasoned, waxed-jacketed, welly-boot wearing archaeologist, but it was found by an Australian care worker!

According to an article in The Guardian, Lesley Walker was a volunteer at the Vindolanda excavations, and talking about her remarkable find she said it was amazing to have found something as important as this on her “very first excavation.” Each of the 14 fragments recovered by the care worker were carefully cleaned and analyzed revealing Latin, Greek and possibly Ogam, an early medieval script, and regarding the meaning of the mysterious symbols Dr David Petts, a Durham University archaeologist, told The Guardian: “they have yet to be deciphered and unlocked.”

Vindolanda Fort. Credit: Carole / Adobe Stock

Vindolanda Fort. Credit: Carole / Adobe Stock

A Sentinel Artifact of The Christian Conquest Of Britain

Speculating on the practical usage of the unique chalice-cup, Dr Birley suspects it may have been passed around a congregation during a ritual, and that the discovery of the chalice illustrates how the ancient Roman site, and its community, survived beyond the fall of Rome and yet “remained connected to a spiritual successor in the form of Christianity.” And the archaeologists also said It is genuinely exciting” because Christian graffiti is almost always found at medieval churches, but in this instance, it’s carved into a scared vessel.

The ancient chalice had remained trapped in time for over 1,500 years after the ceiling of the 5th-century Roman church collapsed, and the researchers estimate the building was designed to hold about 60 worshipers. It might be no accident that the chalice was discovered where it was, for the archaeologists think that it might have been deliberately left there during a ceremony when the church was deconstructed. And because the chalice is “definitely a Christian artifact,” according to Dr Birley, its discovery and decipherment will aid in the reinterpretation of similar buildings situated along the length of Hadrian s Wall, also known as the “Picts' Wall,” having been constructed as a defensive fortification to block attacks from the not yet Christian barbarians of what is today Scotland.

And why the ancient chalice is really special is because it was a sentinel, a beacon of early Christian light positioned in one of the first post-Roman period Christian churches in Britain, located on the dangerous border of an untamed pagan land, which in the centuries to follow would dull their fire festivals and raise stone churches in honor of the new one-God, to rule them all. And the Christian waters that dampened the pagan fires in the north figuratively flowed from this cup.

Top image: A fragment of the 5 th-century chalice etched with Christian symbols, unearthed at Vindolanda in Northumberland. Credit: The Vindolanda Trust

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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