One of Antarctica's Most Celebrated Relics Isn't What It Seems

How a mundane communion cup became a legend of early Antarctic exploration

A stained-glass window looking out onto an icy landscape
An altar in Antarctica's Chapel of the Snows features a stained-glass depiction of the Eberus Chalice (Alan Light / Illustration by The Atlantic)

Every year, in anticipation of the austral summer—in October, if you’re going by the northern calendar—a silver communion cup is escorted from Christchurch, New Zealand, to one of the southernmost permanent religious edifices on Earth: the Chapel of the Snows, a small church that serves the scientists, civilians, and military personnel who populate the United States’ primary Antarctic research center.

The journey kicks off with a splash of ceremony and somber ritual. Inside Christchurch’s main Anglican cathedral, the cup, which is known as the Erebus Chalice, receives a blessing in a special service attended by international dignitaries, polar-exploration celebrities, and high-ranking U.S. military personnel. The chalice, which, by tradition, overwinters at the cathedral, stands at the center of a draped altar behind the dean of the cathedral as dignitary after dignitary comes forward to the altar and orates about the chalice’s value as a symbol of Antarctic hope and faith and the promise of cooperative international research.

At the culmination of the service, the dean hands over the chalice to a U.S. military chaplain, whose mission is to fly with the treasured artifact aboard an Air National Guard C-17 to the Antarctic research center, McMurdo Station. Upon arrival, the chaplain installs the silver cup in a lighted display case prominently situated in the Chapel of the Snows. There it stays, brought out only for the most special occasions, until its return to Christchurch. Above the chalice’s case looms the most glorious piece of stained glass on the continent, an arched window that features emblems of Antarctic life: an open prayer book, a penguin with a regally uplifted beak, and, nearly as large as the nearby depiction of the Antarctic peninsula, the silver communion cup itself.

The chalice has long been regarded as the oldest and rarest artifact on the continent, a relic of the earliest days of Antarctic exploration. Many people at McMurdo who never attend a Sunday service still visit the chapel to pay their respects. Their celebration is complicated, however, by the fact that the chalice’s history is not quite as it seems. Contrary to its legendary status, evidence over the past decade has made clear that the chalice never came anywhere near Antarctica until just a little over 20 years ago.

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The chalice entered into Antarctic tradition through the friendship of two New Zealanders: Betty Bird and David Harrowfield. Bird was an eccentric English-born woman who’d emigrated to Auckland and lived in an opulent estate. Harrowfield is a polar historian who specializes in Antarctic exploration, and is affiliated with the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.

By the early 1980s, as Harrowfield tells it, he had befriended Betty Bird and already knew a good deal about her distinguished lineage. Her great-granduncle had been Edward Joseph Bird, a lieutenant aboard the HMS Erebus, one of the two British warships under the command of Captain James Clark Ross that spent four years, 1839 to 1843, mapping the Antarctic coastline and discovering and naming many of its key geographical features. Among the crucial discoveries of the Ross Expedition was Ross Bay, where McMurdo Station now is located.

Harrowfield also knew that Betty Bird had inherited at least one historic artifact that accompanied Edward Bird aboard the Erebus: a porcelain dinner plate. A few years earlier, in 1979, the historian had been instrumental in arranging for Betty to gift the plate to the Canterbury Museum’s Antarctic collection.

It was on an evening visit to Auckland that Harrowfield, sipping a gin and tonic, first noticed the silver chalice. “It was standing in a cabinet in her lounge, and I remember asking her what it was,” he says. According to him, Betty said that it too had sailed aboard the Erebus, but it wasn’t any mere dinnerware. Voyaging into dangerous uncharted territory, the Ross expedition had brought it along as an embodiment of their trust in the workings of divine providence.

Two years later, in the fall of 1987, Harrowfield again arranged a gifting, this time to the U.S. Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation. The NSF, which oversees operations at McMurdo Station, accepted the chalice’s supposed lofty stature in the history of Antarctic exploration at face value. “There was, at the time, never any effort to verify the history,” Harrowfield says. A December 1987 letter from the agency, provided by a relative of Bird’s, assured Bird that her gift would be housed at the Chapel of the Snows “as an honored treasure in perpetuity.” (The NSF did not respond to requests for comment on the chalice.)

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.

In the 11 years since the revised history quietly became official—the Anglican Church now labels the voyaged-aboard-the-Erebus narrative “apocryphal”—the more colorful debunked version has gradually receded into the background (though it stubbornly persists as fact here and there in popular culture; the current Lonely Planet entry for the Chapel of the Snows is an example). Notably, even the “new” chalice bears the name Erebus, despite the absence of any connection to the volcano or the eponymous warship except the accident of coexisting in a disproved provenance. It’s as if the name itself lends appealing continuity to an otherwise broken tradition.

As the tradition persists, all the years of regarding the chalice as genuine have imparted a symbolic value independent of the chalice’s real origins. Continuity, in itself, seems to provide a kind of comfort. “When the chalice is handed over in the [blessing] service, it gives everyone a feeling of something special, of being a part of a very special group,” says Ursula Rack, a polar historian at the University of Canterbury who has studied the chalice’s symbolic value. “Going to the Antarctic isn’t a granted right, and many people experience real hardship—so the chalice is a sort of security, because it implies that others made it through successfully before, and a newcomer will as well.”

* This article originally misstated the name of the chaplain who provided emails about the Erebus Chalice. We regret the error.