Medieval Pilgrim’s Ampulla, Bacton

front and back of ampulla

A small vessel discovered in the Bacton area, which survives completely intact.

On each side of the vessel a single lug can be seen which originally would have allowed it to be suspended or worn around the neck, a feature which is missing on most ampullae discovered in ploughsoil. One side it is decorated with a moulded scallop-shell like design, which is the specific symbol ascribed to pilgrimage. The other side has a crowned letter ‘R’ underneath a palm frond or branch, probably representing the cult of Richard Caistor, a popular if not somewhat unorthodox theologian who was the vicar of St Stephen’s church in Norwich from c.1402 until his death in 1420. Miracles reportedly occurred at his tomb, and an extremely popular local cult sprang up as a result, with large numbers of pilgrims visiting his tomb until the late 15th century. Badges linked to this cult are also known, which depict Richard preaching from the pulpit in his role as a vicar.

Though the concept of travelling as a pilgrim had existed in Christianity as early as the 4th century, it was during the Medieval period that the most people began travelling to sites associated with the birth, life and death of Jesus and his disciples. The success of the First Crusade and subsequent establishment of Christian kingdoms in the Middle East encouraged visitors to Jerusalem and Bethlehem during the 12th century. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain an equally popular destination until its decline in the 16th century. However, journeying in this fashion did not necessarily have to be undertaken to foreign destinations. Pilgrims also flocked to Canterbury cathedral after the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, and Walsingham (Norfolk), following a Saxon noblewoman’s vision of the Virgin Mary in 1061.

At these places, it was commonplace for the body responsible for managing the shrine or location to sell souvenirs. These usually took the form of lead, copper-alloy or more rarely silver badges depicting the relevant subject, or alternatively lead-alloy ampullae (small flask-like vessels) containing holy water. Most of these ampullae are decorated in some form, and some can even be traced back to the places they were originally sold. Many of those depicting a crowned letter ‘W’, for example, are thought to have originated from Walsingham. Though pilgrim souvenirs could be bought and retained, the large numbers of badges recovered from the Thames and ampullae found in agricultural fields indicate that many were ‘ritually’ deposited. Indeed, it is known that ampullae specifically in the 14th-16th centuries were deposited as a way of ‘blessing’ the land with hope of a good harvest, usually being opened, their contents poured out, and the empty container itself thrown into the blessed field.

View the full record on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database

Thank you to the finder for allowing this object to be featured.

This find was recorded by the Suffolk Finds Recording Team, supported by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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