But "according to Jewish law, stone cannot become ritually impure," said archaeologist Jodi Magness, an expert on daily life in biblical Jerusalem.
"In the long run, if you're observing purity laws, it's cost-effective to use stone vessels," said Magness, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It was likely especially cost-effective in Jerusalem. The city was a center for the production of the stone vessels, crafted from a soft, chalky rock common to the region.
Scholars are divided on what the vessels—usually hand-carved and crude, resembling beer mugs—were used for. For one thing, they're awkward for drinking.
"Personally," study leader Gibson said, "I believe these were used for ritual purification of hands before a meal."
What sets the newfound cup apart is its inscription, which is still sharply etched but so far impossible to understand.
Similar to intentionally enigmatic writing in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the cup's script appears to be a secret code, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the two written languages used in Jerusalem at the time.
"They wrote it intending it to be cryptic," Gibson said.
In hopes the script can be deciphered, Gibson's team is sharing pictures of the cup with experts on the writing of the period. The researchers also plan to post detailed photos of the cup and its inscriptions online soon.
One thing the team is sure of, though, is that whoever inscribed the cup had something big in mind—and didn't want just anyone to know.
"They could be instructions on how to use [the cup], could have incantations or curses. But it's not going to be something mundane like a shopping list."
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