Cage cup

What is it?

Photo: Hamid Azmoun, Inrap.

This cage cup, or vas diatretum, dates to the 4th century AD. The intricate, colourless glass bowl is 12.6cm tall and 15cm in diameter and has a flared rim. A Latin inscription in the central part of the vessel reads ‘vivas feliciter’ (‘live in bliss’) in large carved letters, all of which are well preserved except for the letter C. The appearance of this letter indicates a ‘hot repair’, which involved hot glass being added to a damaged letter and re-carved. The thermal stress that this would have caused may explain why most of the letter C was lost again in antiquity. Above the inscription is an ovolo (or egg-and-dart) collar, while the lower third is covered in a delicate glass network consisting of eight ovals and a circular rosette, connected to the main body of the cup by small bridges.

Where was it found, and when?

The cup was found in 2020 in Autun, France, during excavations of a necropolis near the early Christian church of Saint-Pierre l’Estrier. The necropolis, which covers around 3ha, was in use from the start of 3rd to the middle of 5th centuries AD, with most burials dating to the 4th century. The excavations, led by Inrap and the city of Autun’s Archaeology Service, uncovered several different types of burials, including 15 lead coffins and six stone sarcophagi, some of which contained luxurious grave goods. The cup was found inside one of the stone sarcophagi at the feet of the individual buried there. Following its recent restoration and analysis, it has been returned to Autun.

Why does it matter?

Vas diatreta are a relatively rare type of luxury glass vessel made in the late Roman period. Cut and carved from a thick-walled blank vessel and consisting of an inner section and an outer cage decorated with geometric patterns, inscriptions, and sometimes figural motifs, such objects would have taken an expert glassworker several months to create and were therefore luxury items belonging to only the most elite individuals. The discovery of this cup, which was broken but has now been pieced back together, is particularly significant as only ten complete examples have ever been found.

Analysis of the contents of the bowl and the adhering soil also revealed that it once contained a combination of oils, plants and flowers, and ambergris (or grey amber). Ambergris is a very rare and precious substance that comes from the intestine of the sperm whale. Sometimes called ‘sea truffle’ or ‘whale vomit’, it has been prized for its aromatic and medicinal properties for many centuries. A Greek physician called Aëtius of Amida, who lived at the turn of the 5th-6th centuries AD, referenced ambergris as an ingredient in ‘nard’, an aromatic oil used by the Church, but the cage cup from Autun represents the earliest known archaeological evidence for the material’s use.

The cage cup will be placed on display in the Musée Rolin in Autun in the future.