for National Geographic News
It didn't look like much at first, just a broken, mud-caked stone mug.
But when archaeologists in Jerusalem cleaned the 2,000-year-old vessel, they discovered ten lines of mysterious script.
"These were common stone mugs that appear in all Jewish households" of the time, said lead excavator Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"But this is the first time an inscription has been found on a stone vessel" of this type.
Deciphering the writing could provide a window into daily life or religious ritual in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus Christ (interactive time line of early Christianity).
Working on historic Mount Zion—site of King David's tomb and the Last Supper—the archaeologists found the cup near a ritual pool this summer. The dig site is in what had been an elite residential area near the palace of King Herod the Great, who ruled Israel shortly before the birth of Jesus.
From the objects that surrounded it, Gibson determined that the cup dated from some time between 37 B.C. and A.D. 70, when the Romans nearly destroyed Jerusalem after a Jewish revolt.
Among the dig's other finds are ruins spanning the time of the founding of King Solomon's Temple, around 970 B.C., to the destruction of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in A.D. 1099.
Aside from the inscription, the cup—which was found in three fragments—isn't unusual, archaeologists say. Such stone mugs were popular among Jews at the time, thanks to purity rules.
Like people who keep kosher today, Jews in Jesus's day followed a complex code when it came to food and drink.
According to tradition, a pottery cup that had been contaminated by contact with a forbidden food had to be broken and discarded.
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