The legend quickly spread. A news story titled “Erebus Chalice Given to Chapel of the Snows,” published late in 1987 in Antarctic, the journal of the venerable New Zealand Antarctic Society, embraced the flattering background:
A William IV silver gilt chalice carried aboard the HMS Erebus ... a gift from Miss Betty Bird ... Miss Bird’s [forebear], Lieutenant Edward Joseph Bird, was senior lieutenant of the Erebus, which, with HMS Terror, first sighted Mt. Erebus on January 28, 1841.
Mount Erebus, the second-highest volcano in Antarctica, was named after Lieutenant Bird’s ship. It was erupting on the day of its discovery, and continues to erupt more or less continuously.
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The start of the next austral summer kicked off the annual tradition of blessing the chalice in Christchurch and sending it down to McMurdo with one handpicked chaplain. For the next two decades, the chalice made its yearly ceremonious arrival with its impeccable credentials intact—“a national heirloom” as one recent chaplain who escorted the chalice to the Chapel of the Snows put it. Very few chaplains earn the right to escort the chalice. The chaplain who brought the chalice down at the start of the current season had, despite earlier polar experience in Alaska, applied and been rejected twice before finally winning the coveted posting.
Things took a turn in 2006. Upon its end-of-season arrival back in Christchurch in February, the chalice wasn’t stowed away in Canterbury Cathedral for overwintering as usual; instead, the silver cup, showing some wear from two decades of travel and use, went to the Canterbury Museum for a simple cleaning.
A conservator at the museum, Sasha Stollman, recognized at once that the design of the cup seemed distinctly uncharacteristic of the William IV period. Confirming her suspicion simply entailed checking the chalice’s hallmarks, which are easy-to-read symbols stamped into nearly all high-quality silverwork by the manufacturer. The hallmarks proved conclusively that the cup’s date of manufacture was 1910—more than 50 years after the Erebus returned to England from the ice.
“Most silver of this quality will have hallmarks, so I was not surprised to find them,” Stollman says. But she was surprised that “no one else had thought to look before.”
A discussion then ensued among museum staff and the dean of the Canterbury Cathedral to address the “comms strategy for the ‘new’ Erebus Chalice,” as an email from the talks, provided by Daniel Doyle, a New Zealand chaplain, put it.* One problem in handling the potentially embarrassing belated revelation was that Betty Bird had died. As the official donor, only she knew the whole story behind the donation. Lacking that information, the museum and dean settled on what another email refers to as a “slightly different scenario,” in which the absence of data added an intriguing, enigmatic aura to the artifact. Chris Oldham, the Canterbury Cathedral’s chief administrator, provided the description they later settled on:
The mystery and mystique of the frozen continent has fascinated, attracted, and absorbed us ever since it was discovered. That mystery extends and envelops the Erebus Chalice ... The fact that it is now swathed in mystery perhaps makes it even more appropriately a fascinating symbol of our human relationship with and responsibility for the frozen continent.
Of course, the real mystery is what led Betty Bird to believe she’d inherited a genuine treasure—if she did in fact believe this—and why her mistake went unnoticed for so long. It’s not as if the telltale clues—the period anachronism, the hallmarks—could have been noticed only by a sleuth. Yet somehow they were missed by David Harrowfield himself, who for a time had been the Antarctic Curator at the Canterbury Museum. (Harrowfield says that he had no reason to doubt Betty’s story.) They were missed by chaplain after chaplain at the Chapel of the Snows, as well as by the archivists and clergy at the Christchurch cathedral. And by all the scientists over the years at McMurdo Station, including historians of science, who’d put their noses to the glass of the display case.