August 19, 2005

Scavi tour reveals the secrets of the Vatican’s underground necropolis

By Brandon A. Evans

VATICAN CITY—Nearly 2,000 years ago, a humble fisherman was buried in a pagan cemetery on the edge of a Roman stadium.

The fisherman had been crucified upside down by the Roman Empire for his faith in Jesus Christ, and in all likelihood was removed from the instrument of his cruel death by having his feet cut off.

His body was secretly carried to the nearby cemetery for burial.

One of the most difficult to obtain tours that the Vatican has to offer is the Scavi (“excavation”) tour, which gives pilgrims the chance to visit the burial site of that humble fisherman—St. Peter.

Those lucky enough to get tickets are guided down a staircase that goes beneath the lower crypt level of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Placing her hand on a scanner that reads her handprint, a specially trained tour guide opens a crisp glass door cut to fit a stone opening.

The pagan cemetery that St. Peter was buried in was part of a hillside necropolis—a literal “city of the dead.” It was a place, fashioned to look like a city in miniature, where wealthy pagan families entombed their dead in houses.

They believed the dead continued a new life. This belief was so strong that the family would bring food to the necropolis tombs and have full family gatherings there.

When the Emperor Constantine began to support Christianity and desired to build a basilica over the known grave of St. Peter, he built it right over the necropolis, much to the anger of the pagan families whose ancestors were entombed there.

When St. Peter’s Basilica was built over the site of Constantine’s basilica about four centuries ago, the necropolis became all the more obscured.

It was only within the past century that workers discovered the top of the necropolis buildings under the floor of the basilica.

After years of work, the area was excavated, placed in a computer controlled environment and sealed with state-of-the-art glass doors all throughout.

Of course, parts of the necropolis—some of the “roads” and mausoleums—can’t be dug up because parts of the basilica could collapse.

The excitement of the tour builds as clues in the artwork and inscriptions reveal a Christian influence in the necropolis as well as speak of St. Peter.

Near the end of the tour, people can see the wall that supported the grave of St. Peter—but when it was excavated the bones were not there.

Only after years of research did archaeologists find out that when Constantine built over the site of the grave, he also built over a monument erected by second century Christians marking the spot.

Within the monument, safe and protected, were bone fragments, along with an inscription that translates to read “Peter is here.”

For fear of grave robbers, the early Christians had protected the body of the great saint.

Within the last few years, the Vatican’s Excavation Office has allowed people into the “bone room,” where they can look at the ancient monument and catch a glimpse of the bones in glass boxes.

The pieces of bones date to the time of Peter and indicate a man of sturdy build who was between 60 to 70 years old.

Perhaps most interesting, the bones contained fragments from every part of the man’s body except the feet. †


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