Today’s Object of the Week is one of thousands recovered from the River Wear in Durham. Underwater archaeologist Gary Bankhead explains its significance.

THIS lead pilgrim’s ampulla was recovered in May 2017 during investigations of an important multi-period submerged archaeological site in the River Wear close to the 12th century Elvet Bridge.

The cast object, which can be dated to between 1350 and 1539, is pouch-shaped with an elongated neck and has suspensory loops on either side.

The obverse features a decoration in the form of a shallow relief of a W with a crown above, while the reverse appears to have some worn relief.

It was slush-cast using a two-piece mould and although there is a slight casting flaw, it would have still served its intended function – as a container to carry holy water home. It is one of three such objects found at the site.

In England, during the late-medieval period, pilgrims visiting centres of religious importance as a means of affirming their faith, seeking divine intervention or for the forgiveness of sins would often purchase souvenirs – usually called signs. These souvenirs were indispensable proof of a completed pilgrimage.

Today, based predominantly on new archaeological evidence, there is an assertion that pilgrim signs were being deliberately thrown into a river following a pilgrim’s safe return home as thank-offerings, adherence to superstitious practices or when making a wish or prayer – much as today’s tourists throw coins into fountains.

This propitiatory offer is evidenced most clearly by the large number of signs recovered from the Rivers Thames and Stour and also the Mill stream in Salisbury – the three ‘Elvet’ ampullae help strengthen this assertion.

The decoration and find location in the River Wear, as well as parallels with other late-medieval ampullae found in England, suggest that the object is a pilgrim souvenir associated with a Marian shrine, possibly the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

The object was likely manufactured to sell to pilgrims visiting a Marian shrine, subsequently carried by a pilgrim returning to Durham, before being ritually discarded into the river while crossing Elvet Bridge or pausing at the medieval chapel of St Andrew – positioned at the east end of the bridge.

All three ‘Elvet’ pilgrim’s ampullae are currently on display at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology, Palace Green Library.

* The ampulla is one of thousands of small finds recovered from a submerged riverbed in the River Wear at Elvet, Durham, by underwater archaeologist Gary Bankhead. It has already featured in a Channel 5 documentary presented by Tony Robinson and a BBC crew are due in Durham next month to film a segment on it for an Antiques Road Trip episode.