Incredible artifacts discovered in a 4th century necropolis in Autun, France

In 2020, Inrap in collaboration with the Archaeological Service of Autun (Drac Bourgogne-Franche-Comté) excavated part of a necropolis located near the former Paleochristian church of Saint-Pierre-l’Estrier.

A remarkable cage-shaped goblet or “diatretic vase” dating from the 4th century AD was recovered from the stone sarcophagus. It was donated to the Römisch-Germany Central Museum in Mayens, Germany. After restoration and study, this exceptional piece was returned to Auten.

An exceptional vase

Few of the rare known diatres have been found in an archaeological context. These Roman masterpieces of glass art, sculpted from a block of glass.

As objects of prestige, such vases were offered to prominent figures, probably those close to imperial power. This small bowl (diameter 15 cm, height 12.6 cm) is slightly tilted to the side, and its edge is not perfectly round. The central band bears the Latin inscription VIVAS FELICITER (“Live in bliss”). The foot of the vase is decorated with eight carved ovals forming a heart, with one round rosette.

An inscription consisting of large carved letters is very rare in antique contexts. All but one of them are very well preserved, and a separator in the form of a ribbed letter “V” marks the end of the phrase. The vase shows a surprising defect: the letter C seems to have been added later. The glass from which this repair was made is chemically identical, but visually different, as its surface is frosted, almost milky. The artist made a mistake when making this letter. Therefore, part of the glass was melted to replace the letter “C”, which probably caused the unusual appearance and texture of this glass.

The oldest gray amber in the world

The vase was probably displayed on a stand to ensure its stability and preserve its contents. Impregnation analysis was used to determine the composition of the contents, revealing a mixture of oils, plants and flowers, as well as gray amber. A sperm whale intestinal concretion, gray amber is commonly collected on beaches. Its origin was long debated before it was finally clarified in the 18th century.

This extremely rare and valuable material, sometimes called “sea truffle” or “whale vomit,” is used for its aromatic and medicinal properties. Aetius of Amida, a Greek physician who lived at the turn of the 5th-6th centuries AD, mentioned it as an ingredient of “nard,” the perfume used in the church. Analysis of the diatheretic vase showed that, to date, it is the earliest archaeological evidence of the use of this very rare substance.

Necropolis of the first Christians in Auten

The necropolis in which the diatretic vase was discovered functioned from the early 3rd century to the mid-5th century, with most of the graves dating back to the 4th century. Ancient texts also indicate that the first bishops of Autun were buried in this vast three-hectare maritime area. Thus, among the dead buried here were probably Christians, as well as representatives of other ancient religions.

The most beautiful piece is a diatretic vase found at the feet of one of the dead.

The largest piece of gold cloth

Although some of the deceased belonged to the early Christians of Gaul, other ancient religions seem to have been buried here as well, as evidenced by libations found in some graves – liquid offerings of wine, olive oil or wine. milk.

In November 2020, about fifteen lead coffins, six stone sarcophagi, and small prestigious furniture were discovered at Inrapa. Among these pieces of furniture, in addition to the vase, gold rings and earrings, jet bracelets and even amazing pins made of pure amber, unparalleled in the Roman world, were found. But today we can add to this list another find, almost as exceptional as the vase: it is the largest piece of gold cloth ever to have come down to us.

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