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The Winchester Reliquary

Late Saxon period, ca. 800-920 AD.

Found during excavations by the Archaeological Section of the Winchester Museum Service, Sussex Street, Winchester, in 1976.

Made of thin gilded sheets of copper alloy attached to a heart of beech wood, this object is almost unique in England in that it was recovered from its archaeological context rather than preserved as a "church slab." It was found lying on top of a decomposed layer of sewage in a cesspool, a place that is difficult to explain. Since the item may have served as a portable altar in a time when the parish structure of Winchester was not yet fully formed, one might suspect such dark deeds as vandalism and theft. However, although one of the gilded plates was torn off, it was neatly folded and placed in a hole next to the main part of the site. Moreover, the relic is still inside - its presence was shown on an X-ray taken during the preservation of the site.

A careful examination of the structure revealed that the reliquary was not intended to be opened during use, so a decision was made not to break it down to examine the relic. It didn't look like a human bone and could have been a container for a small amount of hair or a tiny piece of the (presumed) One True Cross. More prosaically, there is an unburned skin sticking out of the boards of the wooden core, probably the remains of a parchment label needed to prevent confusion when several relics were stored in the same place.

The reliquary is wallet-shaped and decorated with embossed decoration: the front plate has a seated figure of Christ, and the back plate has a row of tubular tree stems - acanthus leaves that are thought to represent the tree of life. Although it predates the famous Winchester School of Late Saxon art, the style of decoration shows continental influence.