Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - October 2016

Pilgrim flasks

Pilgrim flasks

October's's Object of the Month has been chosen by our archaeology volunteer Geraldine Ashby. Pilgrimages were regarded as one of the highest achievements that a man could undertake. St Menas ampullae (or flasks) were a form of mass-produced pilgrimage souvenirs. Travellers and pilgrims brought them back home for their curing abilities. This type of flasks held primarily holy water which came from the spring of St Menas located near Alexandria in Egypt. They could also be filled with holy oil burning from the lamps situated above the tomb-shrine, or even with sanctified dust.

Two flat-sided and oval-shaped flasks with short necks and two handles (partly broken) made of moulded earthenware with identical depictions in the centre. The pilgrim flasks have been stamped on either side with a medallion which contains the figure of a Coptic Saint known as St Menas, who wears a tunic with a long chlamys (cloak). The Saint stands in the orant pose with raised arms between two kneeling camels.

“According to the legend, after his death the camel bearing his body lay down in the desert south of Alexandria and refused to move. Menas was buried at that spot. In the fourth century the house of Mena (Karm Abu Mena) was built for the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the site.” (Cromwell, J. 2015. “Camel, O Camel, come and fetch and carry: on two camels”. In The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, edited by Alice Stevenson, 98-99. London: UCL Press).

St Menas, alternatively known as Mina or Mena, was thought to have been a Roman soldier of Egyptian origin. He was martyred for his Christian faith during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284–305 AD) and was executed in 296 AD. St Mena acquired a semi-legendary status, due to the healing miracles which took place whenever animals or people visited the area surrounding his burial site. Even the local spring was believed to have acquired miraculous properties. The spring became known as “the beautiful water of St Menas that drives away pain”.

A monastery town, Abu Mena or Abu Mina, was build close to the site (28 miles south-west of Alexandria) and the flasks could be acquired there. The pilgrimage centre became popular from the late 4th century to the mid-7th century. As a result, large quantities of St Menas pilgrim souvenirs have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean world. Its fame even reached our shores as a few examples of the St Menas ampullae have been unearthed in Windsor, Wirral and close to the river Mersey in Cheshire.

The different depictions have been studied and, in some instances, the ampullae can be tentatively dated. It appears that the Tunbridge Wells Museum’s examples fall into this category: circular border of raised dots encircling the image, same depiction in the centre on both side, no text, two doted crosses on each side of the Saint’s face in place of names. These characteristics possibly points to dates around 610-650 AD, that is, during the reign of Heraclius (Flavius Heraclius Augustus - Byzantine/Eastern Roman Emperor - c.610-641 AD). The use of iconographic studies and typological systems have given us clues not only to the origin of these objects, but also to their function and their approximate dates. This was particularly important as we did not have any information regarding the two flasks.

Even today, pilgrims go to the New Monastery of St. Mina in order to receive holy oil which come in simple plastic ampullae. Abu Mena was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Geraldine says: "I chose these two pilgrim flasks as objects of the month because their research uncovered a fascinating story with an unexpected twist. It was particularly interesting to learn how they indirectly connect with the background history of Tunbridge Wells, that is, in regard with the creation of the town. Both the pilgrimage centre of Abu Mina in Egypt and Tunbridge Wells were created due to the miraculous powers of their local spring."

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