Archaeology breakthrough: Ancient Christian chalice find rewrites UK religious history

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Pieces of the 1,400-year-old chalice make up the oldest artefact of its kind ever found in Britain. Fragments of the lead cup were found in the rubble of a 6th century church at Vindolanda Roman Fort near Hexham. The chalice pieces will be placed on display at the fort near Hadrian’s Wall from today.

Vindolanda’s Director of Excavations Dr Andrew Birtley described the discovery as the “wow factors” of rare finds.

He said the pieces were inscribed with Christian symbols, including angels and crosses.

Intense work into translating the symbols will take place over the next years in order to decipher their meaning.

Explaining that the Romans had long since left the fort at that time, he said the chalice proved how the settlement continued to thrive in Christian worship.

He said: “We are used to firsts at Vindolanda, with artefacts such as boxing gloves, boots and shoes, but to have an object like the chalice survive into the post-Roman landscape is just as significant and has the wow factor.

“It is the only surviving partial chalice from this period in Britain.”

One symbol on the chalice depicts a boat with a cross-shaped mast.

This is believed to symbolise the Church as a vessel to take Christians to their eternal destination.

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Dr Birtley said: “This artefact sheds a bright light into a time that used to be known as the Dark Ages.

“Finding a chalice smothered in Christian symbols opens up a new chapter for the 5th and 6th Centuries in northern Britain.

“Many potential church structures have been located from this period, but without the Christian artefacts to back that up, they could not be proven beyond doubt.

“It’s important for understanding the nature and spread of Christianity in the north of England.”


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The Romans stayed in Britain for 330 years.

They first arrived in 55 BC, but it took almost 100 years before they conquered Britain in 43 AD.

They eventually left in the early 5th Century, but their fort settlements remained.

Excavations of the Vindolanda site show it was under Roman occupation from roughly 85 AD to 370 AD.

The settlement was of significant strategic importance for the Romans, guarding the Stanegate – the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth.

Before the recent chalice discovery, the site was most well known for the Vindolanda tablets.

These are a set of wooden leaf tablets that were, at the time of their discovery, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, dating to around the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

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