Deep below St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City lies the famous Necropolis—the city of the dead—and St. Peter’s tomb. Getting tickets for a Scavi Tour, a private guided tour of the Necropolis is tougher than squeezing your way blindfolded through the crowds that congest St. Peter’s square during Wednesday morning papal audiences. In our trip to Rome last week, my family and I scored tickets through my uncle who works for the US Embassy to the Holy See.
I didn’t know much about what actually lay below St. Peter’s, and as the Swiss Guard saluted us into the backstreets of Vatican City, I knew I was in for a special treat. I knew I’d get to see something that tens of thousands of Catholics flocked to Vatican City to pray above, but few people actually saw in their lifetime—the bones of St. Peter himself.
The last of the morning chill burned away by the Roman sun and we headed across the flagon stone to the Scavi Office. Our tour guide was a middle aged woman from Minnesota who had been living in Rome for the past nine years and is currently finishing her post-grad in theology. She began the tour by giving us a directional orientation of the old and new St. Peter’s Basilica based on the old and new locations of the obelisk—the tall pointy stone that now rests in the center of St. Peter’s square (the current Basilica is not the original structure).
The discovery of St. Peter’s tomb and bones is a 20th century archaeological accident. While we knew that the church was always believed to be built on St. Peter’s bones on his grave, there was never any proof, and no one ever found the grave. Until one lucky day back in the late 1930’s when a pope requested to be buried in the crypt close to the “site” of St. Peter. Since there wasn’t any more room in the crypt for his body, the burial team started digging a little deeper. They accidentally struck a wall that based on the formation of the stones was part renaissance, part Constantine, and part old Roman. They were able to tell this because stones were different sizes and shapes, and layered particular ways with respect to the time period they came from.
To an outsider, it would’ve looked like just a wall, but to the archeological team who started digging further, it was a gold mine. They never knew that other structures were buried below the basilica, and as they dug, they unearthed the Necropolis—a city of old Roman roads and houses built for the sole purpose of housing the Roman dead in urns, graves, boxes. It was filled in by Constantine in the early half of the 4th century because he built a basilica over it, to honor the bones of St. Peter, which supposedly lay there, buried in the Roman hillside. In 1939, Italy was on the brink of WWII and Vatican City was not getting along with Mussolini, the Italian dictator. He was desperate to seize any of the Vatican’s assets he could, so this discovery had to be covered up. Archeologists worked below St. Peter’s in secret, digging and digging. One myth is that they moved the tons of dirt to the Vatican gardens to “re-landscape” them. They worked in secret for years, few people knew of the project.
Finally after the war, the project and the findings were revealed to the public. Next to this Necropolis with pagan tombs and one Christian tomb, they found a grave trophy—essentially a shrine of three walls—which hindered the excavation because they protected the grave from all sides, so diggers approached the grave from below. When they finally squeezed into the tiny space expecting to find St. Peter’s bones, they found instead bits of cloth and 800 years worth of coins that originated all over Europe, proving people had been coming to this particular grave to pray and make offerings. But there were no bones. The archeologists thought this might be the grave of St. Peter because it lay in the hillside where the old Pagan graves were once located. But the fact that they didn’t find any bones troubled them.
Surely no one stole the relics of St. Peter. One further examinations of one of the walls—the graffiti wall, they called it—they realized it was hollow. This wall was added when Constantine added his renovations to the tomb, made obvious by the lavish purple marble made available only to emperors. Beyond the purple marble, in this graffiti wall that lined this grave trophy, buried several meters below the current altar that sits on the ground floor of St. Peter’s now, the archeologists found bones. These bones were taken and studied by a man for nine years, and at the end, he concluded that these bones were that of one man, who died sometime between 65 and 70 AD (which is when we think St. Peter was crucified) and interestingly enough, there were bones from every part of this man’s body except his feet or ankles. There are several bones in the feet and ankles and not one single one survived. St. Peter was crucified upside-down, famously rejecting to die the way Christ died, deeming himself unworthy. So the Roman executioners simply flipped his body upside-down, and to get him down from the cross, they would have had to cut his feet off.
There is more evidence and I’m just barely skimming the facts that our tour guide shared, but after this extensive research was put forth, the bones, now believed to be St. Peter’s were placed in nine airtight containers constructed by NASA, and placed back inside the graffiti wall of the grave.
I saw these containers. I saw these bones. And let me tell you, it was incredible. I wouldn’t say I’m overly religious by any means, but to walk in the Necropolis, through the climate controlled humid environment, to stand next to the old Roman walls, to see the altars constructed by Pope Gregory I and to climb through this city of the dead to see into St. Peter’s grave to be physically near his bones, was incredible. I can now say that I walked the streets of Rome that St. Peter and people of his time walked. I went as low as you can go, in terms of archeological discoveries. The sheer oldness of everything made me realize just how young I am. My life is just a blink in the register of Universe time, and the families buried in the Necropolis that I walked through almost 2,000 years later, were also just a blink in the register of Universe time. And so was St. Peter.