A new display of early Christianity at Vindolanda

By Antony Lee, Durham University

The Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall is rightly famed as one of the most important archaeological sites in Britain. Perhaps best known for the discovery of its eponymous writing tablets, the first of which were uncovered in 1973, the site continues to regularly produce a wealth of finds and new information. The dedicated site museum contains a selection of the incredible finds and is notable for its regular display updates. Unlike many museums which can appear relatively static over the years, Vindolanda has always been quick to display its new discoveries and unafraid to tell its visitors that research into them is an ongoing process. It’s a laudable and extremely welcome approach to engaging the public with the realities of archaeological research.

The latest discovery to be put on display is the fragmentary remains of a unique lead chalice discovered in August 2019. Discovered in the rubble of a 6th Century church, the vessel is incised with various early Christian iconographic motifs – angels, palm branches, doves, butterflies, crosses, fish, ships, stick figures, and letters in Greek (chi, rho and tau), Latin and perhaps even Ogham. This rare and exciting find is positioned centrally in a new display looking more widely at later and post-Roman activity at Vindolanda and charting the evidence for the early progress of Christianity. At a site famous for its early Roman military history, it is good to see the often overlooked later activity and the ultimate abandonment of the site in the 9th Century put in the spotlight, and particularly interesting for this to be done through a religious lens.

The display includes four vitrines: ‘The Evidence of Writing’, ‘Tools and Industry’, ‘Personal Adornment’ and ‘Changing Religion’, which present some of the scarce later and post-Roman material culture evidence available. These are accompanied by large text panels exploring the spread of Christianity, a timeline of Vindolanda, the high-status Christian burial of a man named Brigomaglos, and the chalice itself. Large-scale photographs and plans of an early church provide a visually arresting backdrop to the display, though while they remind the visitor that the displays connect to the site outside, it remains difficult to fully contextualise the foci of early Christian activity within the fort.

The most eye-catching aspect of the display is a video projection showing the symbolism present on the chalice, neatly and attractively lifting the symbols off a drawing of the vessel and explaining their meaning. It is perhaps in the contextualising of both the growth of early Christianity and what it might have meant to be a Christian between the 4th and 6th Centuries that the display struggles a little, however. The interpretative text presents a narrative of the gradual growth of Christianity as if it were an inevitability and devoid of any human agency; setting it against a homogenised ‘Roman religion’ as if people simply moved from one to the other in increasing numbers. Although concepts of changing religiosity are a complex subject for any museum display to engage with, greater consideration of the varied religious options available to individuals in later Roman Britain and the personal and political implications of the spread of Christianity would have been welcomed. The temple to Jupiter Dolichenus at Vindolanda, for example, was burned and demolished in c.AD370, the same time that the earliest-known Christian church on the site was constructed, and the site interpretation suggests that the destruction of the temple might relate to religious tensions with a growing Christian community. No such direct connections between the various and changing religious groups at the site are made in the display, however, and this serves to disconnect the early Christian finds from their socio-religious contexts.

Site interpretation referencing the destruction of the Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus. Photograph: The author

There are, though, some fascinating references to the diversity of early Christianity, such as how the symbolism on the chalice may relate to Celtic Christian traditions which fell out of favour after the Synod of Whitby in AD664. It is suggested that these may have led to changes in the use of the chalice, which was found in the rubble of the collapsed walls of a church building. The soundtrack of monastic chanting which fills the gallery does perhaps undermine this, however, placing a powerful cultural image of Medieval Christianity in the mind of the visitor which cannot fail to influence their perceptions of the earlier material they are viewing.

Despite these academic grumbles, this is an attractive and interesting display of an under-discussed subject and a wonderfully important discovery. It will undoubtedly make visitors think more deeply about the long history of activity at Vindolanda and the varied religious practices the site has witnessed.

You can read more about the chalice on the Vindolanda Trust’s website, which will continue to be updated as research into the unique chalice, its imagery, and its liturgical function progresses.

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