The Holy Grail, the legendary communal wine cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, was almost certainly not an ornate metal chalice, as described in medieval epics.

According to Stephen Pfann, director of the Centre for the Study of Early Christianity in Jerusalem, the drinking vessel used at the Last Supper was probably a clay cup.Pfann, an American Bible scholar, has reached this conclusion after studying pottery items used in ritual dinners by the Jewish sect at Qumran who produced the Dead Sea scrolls.

"They (the pottery items) are contemporary with those used probably by Jesus and his disciples, the closest thing that we have to it," he said.

Pfann said the type of pottery found in two different pantries in Qumran was "thin-sided" and often referred to as "metallic ware . . . It isn't metal, but when you click it with your finger it rings."

His research suggests that when the hero of the popular film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" was forced to choose, at risk of his life, which of the rows of goblets was the Holy Grail, he made an historically accurate choice by selecting a plain vessel and declaring: "That is the cup of a carpenter."

Pfann said that while popular historic images of the Holy Grail depicted it as an ornate metal vessel, stone chalice or a goblet, there was little evidence of wine cups being made out of such material during the period of Jesus.

Jerome Murphy-O Connor, a priest and prominent scholar at the Ecole Biblique (Bible School), a Catholic institute in Jerusalem, agreed that the famed cup was probably not made of metal.

"The stuff at Qumran is probably the stuff that Jesus would have used," he said. "I would think that since they were poor people it would be what the poor had used, namely a clay cup."

But Joe Zias, a former curator of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, disagreed. Grand tableware would have been used at a ceremonial Jewish Passover Seder (ritual) like the Last Supper, he said. A "pedestrian" clay cup would have been inappropriate for the occasion.

There are in fact several versions of the Grail legend. While the modern meaning of "Holy Grail" is associated with the communal cup said to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper, the words originally referred to an object similar to a plate. "A plate which, according to medieval tradition, Joseph of Arimathaea used to capture blood from Jesus' side as he hung upon the cross," Pfann said.

"He took it with him to Europe and the object was said to have had special healing powers. In the course of time, the term the `Holy Grail' became associated with the cup at the Last Supper and the tradition of King Arthur's court. Why, we don't fully know."

According to one medieval text, Joseph of Arimathaea brought the Grail to England and built the country's first church at Glastonbury.

In medieval poetry, the quest for the Grail became a search for mystical union with God.

Disasters that befell medieval knights were associated with the disappearance of the Grail, a symbol of grace.