Finds tray – St Thomas Becket ampulla

This is a medieval ampulla, made of lead alloy and probably dating to the late 12th or early 13th century. Discovered by a mudlarker along the Thames foreshore in London, it was probably originally purchased during a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and would once have been filled with holy water. While on first glance it does not look like much, on further examination the fine details can be better appreciated. The ampulla is framed with a series of suspension loops, and there is a chain of fleurs-de-lys around the sides and base. The whole ampulla is shaped like a sword chape, which is possibly a reference to Becket’s martyrdom.

On one side of the ampulla there is a depiction of a bishop, most likely representing Becket, with his right hand raised in benediction and his left hand holding a crozier, or staff, across his body. He is seated on a throne and above him is an elaborate canopy. On the reverse side are four roundels with stamens interspersed between them; they were probably modelled on the roundels found on Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, each of which depicts a miracle associated with him. Above the roundels the ampulla is quite worn, but it possibly shows a miniature of Becket giving a blessing or perhaps a stylisation of his tomb.

Photo: Surrey County Council
Text: Kathryn Krakowka

Two other examples have previously been recovered from London, as well as another with a similar design found closer to Canterbury, near Thanet in Kent (search for KENT-CAEA33 on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, www.finds.org.uk). For more information on this ampulla, see https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/1014294 or search for SUR-8124A7 on the PAS database.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is an initiative, funded by the DCMS, to encourage the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. For more information on the Scheme, and to browse its database of over 1.5 million finds, visit www.finds.org.uk. Information for this find was provided by Simon Maslin, PAS Finds Liaison Officer for Surrey and Hampshire.