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Souvenirs from 4th century Egypt
Two ancient terracotta oil lamps and a small pottery flask were unexpected things to find in Marlow. They were donated by Mr & Mrs Rowe. They had been found by Mr Rowe’s father when he was a young man in the 1920s or ‘30s. Apparently, he was diving off the weir - not recommended! - when he found these three items in the river. Many years later in the 21st century the Rowes brought them into Marlow Museum, for which we are very grateful. The Museum consulted an archaeological finds expert and we were told that they all originated in the Western Mediterranean area in early Byzantine times, from the 4th to 7th centuries AD. They could be as much as 1,870 years old!
The little flask is properly called an ‘ampulla of St Menas’. These were mass produced in early Byzantine times, showing on both sides a picture of St Menas between two kneeling camels. So who was St Menas? He was born in Egypt in 285 AD to Coptic Christian parents. He became a soldier in the Roman army, but during the Roman persecution of Christians, he refused to give up his Christian faith. He was martyred in 309 AD. The kneeling camels on the ampulla refer to the story that the camel bearing his body back to Alexandria knelt down and refused to budge, indicating where the body should be buried. Even when the body was transferred to another camel it did the same. Once the shrine was built, the nearby spring had healing powers, so it became a pilgrimage site. St Menas became known as the Wonder Worker because so many people were healed after visiting his shrine at Abu Mena, near Alexandria.
These ampullae have been discovered in numerous places such as in Heidelberg in Germany, Milan in Italy, Dalmatia in Yugoslavia, Marseilles in France, Dengla in Sudan, and even in Jerusalem. Now we can add Marlow in England. The oil lamps may also have come from the shrine. One of them has an ancient symbol for Christ, the Greek letters Chi Rho, the first two letters of the name Christos.
- Objects in Focus 14 -
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