Some 1,400 years ago, individuals living near Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England, inscribed a lead chalice with images of crosses, angels and other Christian symbols. Now, reports Dalya Alberge for the Guardian, archaeologists say that this vessel—unearthed during excavation of a ruined sixth-century church—represents the oldest known example of Christian graffiti ever found in Britain.
Recovered in 14 fragments, the chalice was once the size of a cereal bowl. Inscriptions adorn every inch of its surface, covering both its interior and exterior. Per a statement, symbols seen on the cup include a chi-rho (or monogram said to represent Jesus Christ), a happy bishop, ships, a congregation, a fish and a whale. Latin, Greek and potentially Ogam letters appear alongside the drawings.
Vindolanda served as a key outpost used during construction of Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile stone barrier constructed around 122 A.D. to mark the edge of the Roman Empire. Prior discoveries at the fort, including a board game and a scrap of leather cut into the shape of a mouse, have helped reveal aspects of daily life under Roman rule.
Rome controlled Britain for 330 years, only withdrawing from the region in 410 A.D. By the time the chalice arrived on the scene, the Romans had long since abandoned Vindolanda.
Andrew Birley, the archaeologist in charge of excavations at Vindolanda, tells the Guardian, “The 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.”
Speaking with BBC News, Birley says that finding “a chalice smothered in Christian symbols” offers an opportunity for heightened understanding of Christianity’s spread across the region.
He adds, “Many potential church structures have been located from this period, but without the Christian artifacts to back that up, they could not be proven beyond doubt.”
Thanks to the inscribed vessel, researchers may be able to recontextualize potential churches from the same period that lack clear evidence of Christendom.
As Birley tells Chiara Giordano of the Independent, the inscriptions may have conveyed Christian stories at a time when Bibles were not yet widely available.
Studying the chalice, he says, could help reveal “what was important to congregations almost 1,500 years ago and just after the fall of Roman Britain.”
Remnants of the church suggest it was large enough to house up to 60 worshippers, according to the Independent. At some point, the house of worship collapsed, burying the chalice and inadvertently protecting it from both modern agriculture and thieves.
David Petts, an archaeologist at Durham University who is studying the artifact, tells the Guardian that the find “is genuinely exciting.”
He explains, “When we think of graffiti, we tend to think it’s unauthorized 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.”
The chalice’s fragments will now go on display in Vindolanda’s museum as the centerpiece of a new exhibition centered on the site’s history following the Romans’ departure.