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Unearthed Vatican City necropolis reveals slice of ancient Roman life

By John Thavis
October 11th, 2006
Catholic News Service (

VATICAN CITY (CNS) The partly uncovered skeleton of a small child lies in the ground where it has been buried for some 2,000 years. Next to the right hand is an egg, thought to be a symbol of rebirth.

The infant's burial place, touchingly simple, is one of more than 250 tombs discovered beneath Vatican City and now on display to visitors for the first time.

The necropolis literally a "city of the dead" was unearthed in 2003 when the Vatican began digging foundations for a parking lot. The area containing the tombs was carefully excavated, with results that surprised the experts.

"We discovered what might be called a small funerary Pompeii," said Giandomenico Spinola, who oversaw the archaeological work for the Vatican Museums.

Spinola explained to reporters Oct. 9 that many of the tombs were preserved in a mudslide that occurred on the Vatican hill in ancient times. When the tombs were excavated, they still contained the decorations, ritual furnishings, mosaics and frescoes from 2,000 years ago, he said.

"This is the type of complex that is usually lost over time. It contains the tombs of rich families, middle-class families and even some slaves," he said. Those buried at the site included noblemen, scribes and a horse trainer who worked the chariot races.

Throughout the cemetery archaeologists found a wealth of altars, urns, ceramic cups and bowls, oil lamps, statues and obituary inscriptions. One area is scattered with terra cotta tubes leading into graves; relatives of the deceased would pour ritual offerings of milk or wine for the dead through the tubes.

The tombs date from the time of Augustus in the early first century to the time of Constantine in the early fourth century.

The excavated area, located not far from the papal apartments in the northeastern corner of Vatican City, was part of the "Via Triumphalis" (Triumphal Way), a major road leading out of ancient Rome that was lined with tombs. It is unconnected with the cemetery on the other side of the Vatican hill, believed to hold the tomb of St. Peter.

As of mid-October, visitors can make an appointment to see the new necropolis, walking on a catwalk above the site where workers are still completing the excavation. The area has been walled and roofed and equipped with an air-monitoring system.

"It's a work in progress. We have tried to 'museum-ize' an archaeological site," said Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums.

One of the most intriguing new finds was in a family tomb chamber that contained five beautifully sculpted marble sarcophagi. On one wall is a frescoed peacock, and on the floor a mosaic showing an intoxicated Dionysus being held up by a young satyr.

The sarcophagi also have pagan themes. But the latest sarcophagus, that of a young Roman man who died at age 17, bears a relief of a praying woman. Vatican experts believe it is probably a Christian symbol that illustrates, within one family grave site, the growing influence of Christianity in Rome late in the third century.

Another tomb that has piqued historians' interest is that of a certain Alcimus, who worked for the Emperor Nero as the set director for the most important theater of the period, the Theater of Pompeii, located in downtown Rome.

The discovery of the necropolis meant the Vatican's covered parking lot is a little bit smaller than planned. It operates next to the archaeological site, divided by a thin wall from the ancient tombs.

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