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.