Archaeologists have uncovered an unlikely find at the site of America’s oldest Protestant church: a small silver box researchers believe is a Catholic reliquary.
The box, found in Jamestown, Virginia, contains seven fragments of bone and pieces of a lead ampulla, a type of flask used to hold holy water, CT scans revealed.
The discovery raises questions about the roots of Catholicism in the U.S. ― especially at a time in history when anti-Catholic sentiment was high among the majority-Anglican colonists.
Researchers from the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the National Museum of Natural History on Tuesday announced that the reliquary, along with the remains of four of Jamestown’s earliest leaders, had been discovered in ruins of the first American Protestant church.
Remains of the four men ― the Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Capt. William West ― were discovered in the church’s chancel, an area near the altar typically reserved for clergy. The church was built in 1608, a year after the Jamestown colony was founded.
Hunt was Jamestown’s first Anglican minister and is known to have been a peacemaker among rival colony leaders. Archer may have been hiding his Catholic faith as he sought to overthrow one-time colony leader John Smith.
Archaeologists uncovered the church ruins during an excavation in Jamestown in 2010. The discovery was remarkable for several reasons, including its substantial size for the time -- 64 feet by 24 feet -- and its history as the site where Powhatan Pocahontas married colonist John Rolfe in 1614.
“This church would be a place for Christians from all over the country to see where their roots are,” H. Wade Trump III, a Williamsburg pastor, told The New York Times in 2011. “This is really the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian faith in America.”
In the latest excavation, archaeologists discovered the mysterious Catholic box resting atop Archer's coffin. In Catholic tradition, a reliquary is a container for an artifact associated with a saint, the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, told The Huffington Post.
"It was a reminder that the saints were real people, and relics helped to connect the Catholic with the saint in a physical way," Martin said.
"It does make you wonder: What was it like for him? How secretive did he feel he needed to be, given that he’s living in a colony that is rabidly anti-Catholic. And who buried him with this relic?” Maura Jane Farrelly, an associate professor of American studies at Brandeis University, mused in an interview with The Atlantic.
Researchers acknowledged that the reliquary could have been an example of Catholic holy objects repurposed for Anglican uses during the Reformation.
William Kelso, the director of archaeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, said that other Catholic relics uncovered in Jamestown were thought to have been brought to the colony as trading goods. But he said the latest discovery draws this into question.
"Now I think about it in a whole different way," Kelso said.
"It was a real kind of ah-ha moment for a lot of us," he said. "It was, 'Oh, religion was a big deal here,' and that's often overlooked."
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