July 11, 2009

Street of the dead...

Here is a really cool virtual tour of the Scavi, the Roman necropolis under St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. (Thanks to Argent.)

The Romans liked to construct little shrine-like buildings to bury their dead in. The Vatican Fields was a sort of trashy district outside of ancient Rome, which included a "village" of such tombs, with the buildings lined up along a "main street.". A necropolis. After St Peter was martyred, Christians buried him there secretly, and would slip off to the necropolis to pray by his grave. Pretty clever, hiding a tomb among tombs!

When Christianity became the official religion under Constantine, the first St Peter's Basilica was constructed right over the site of the burial place of Peter. The sloping area had to be built up to level ground, using, as I recall, 10 million baskets of soil. The necropolis was simply buried in the process, thus preserving it for us.

It was excavated from 1939 to 1950. Now you can tour the Scavi, something we'd love to do someday. The actual bones of Peter were found there, to a high degree of certainty! The "obvious" spot turned out to have some odds and ends of human and animal bones. But close by was a chamber embedded within a wall, and lined with slabs of marble. A graffito was found on the wall that said something like "Peter here." Inside were a man's bones, minus the feet. By tradition Peter was crucified upside-down, and might well have been just cut loose at the ankles.

(There's no mystery about the way Christians would have obtained the body. A bribe to the guards would be the expected thing. People being "disappeared" only began to happen in the Industrial age, when governments could afford bureaucratic organisations of regularly paid workers.)

[Note: The virtual tour locations can be navigated not only 360 degrees around, but also up and down. I got confused because I couldn't see the arrows to go on to the next spot...but actually I was looking down towards the floor!]

Posted by John Weidner at July 11, 2009 5:04 PM
Weblog by John Weidner