The Bones of St. Peter
The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body
by John Evangelist Walsh
© 1982, Doubleday & Co.
(all rights reserved, this material should not be copied)
With the discovery of the two new tombs, and the strong possibility that if three stood in a row there might well be others, the work of lowering the Grotto floor was abandoned.
Though the proper excavation of two large tombs, possibly more, would be a large undertaking, there could be no thought of ignoring the finds, of simply burying them anew. Aside from the irresistible scientific lure they offered, there was the definite chance that something of significance might be learned about Peter's own death and burial. His grave under the high altar lay at about the same depth as the Caetennius tomb, and scarcely eighty feet distant.
An excavation team was now formally assembled, consisting of four eminent members of the Papal Institute for Christian Archaeology: two Jesuit priests, Antonio Ferrua and Engelbert Kirschbaum;the Vatican architect, Bruno Appolonj-Ghetti;and the leading authority in the field, Professor Enrico Josi, Inspector of the Catacombs. Nominal leader of the team, by virtue of his office, was Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, Administrator of St. Peter's Basilica. Though not an archaeologist, Kaas was a recognized scholar. German by birth, he had served in the Reichstag before the rise of the Nazis. His administrative skills, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm for the project, as his colleagues later attested, were to prove indispensable to the operations.
Permission for the enlarged excavation had readily been obtained from the new pope, Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli), who alone held the authority. He imposed only one condition: while the archaeologists might dig without hindrance under the body of the church, they were not to encroach on the area beneath the high altar. Even attuned as he was to the spirit of modern science, Pius XII was not yet ready to allow an invasion of Peter's grave, so long kept inviolate by his predecessors.
Early in 1941 several diggers began emptying the packed earth from the new tombs, while other men explored around the perimeters. A few days' probing was sufficient to establish the presence of two more tombs flanking the first three. Apparently they were intact, though also roofless and dirt-filled. With this, the excavators agreed that most of the effort should be concentrated to the west of the Caetennius tomb, in the direction leading to the high altar.
Though it proved to be much smaller than the first, the second tomb required a full three weeks to clear, and it yielded only pagan cremation burials. Bright floral paintings and graceful stucco figures decorated its walls, though not in such fine profusion as those of the Caetennius. Dominating the interior, from the top of a niche facing the door, was its sole feature of more than usual interest: a large painting portraying a master in lively converse with a steward. Sitting at a small table, the master holds an open scroll, his right hand raised in emphasis. Facing him is a diminutive white-clad adult, one hand holding a ledger, the other with fingers outstretched as if counting. Evidently a memorial to the tomb's owner, the animated scene probably recorded a lifelong devotion to professional duties. The tomb's date, as anticipated, matched that of the Caetennius, though perhaps a few years earlier.
Eagerly the team pressed on to the adjacent building, and after nearly two months of digging they were rewarded by one of the most remarkable sights that anyone had yet seen from Roman antiquity.
Belonging to a family of wealthy freedmen named Valerius, the third mausoleum contained no paintings, but built into the vibrantly colored walls were more than a dozen niches, all unusually tall and elaborate. Each niche, gracefully framed held a single full-length figure modeled in white stucco. Sculpted in high relief and fine detail, the tallest figure stood just over five feet. Both men and women were represented, as well as several gods and goddesses. From one niche, Hypnos, the bat-winged god of sleep, stared stonily. From another, Isis, the great Egyptian mother-goddess who had been adopted by Rome, cast her comforting gaze.
Most of the statues proved to be portraits, showing actual members of the Valerius family who had lived and died during a century or more, about A.D. 130 to 230. In the east wall, in a broad, roundheaded niche, stood the tomb's founder, Gaius Valerius Herma, clad in rich drapery. Occupying the place of honor in a niche facing the entrance was a stately cloaked figure, probably representing Herma's father or grandfather.
Everywhere on the walls appeared more stucco figures, all in exquisite miniature, portraying a bacchanalian festival. Leering Satyrs with tufted beards crouched expectantly. Maenads with flowing garments paraded and danced to clanging cymbals, with torches held aloft. Numerous Pans hurried in frolic to the prancing tunes of their own double pipes. So wonderfully free and flowing was the modeling of these small figures that the technique struck the excavators more as drawing than sculpture. At other points on the walls, in strange and stunning contrast to the revelers, trim-bearded men, akin to the austere figures that would adorn medieval churches, stood as silent reprovers of the wild behavior around them.
Two Christian graves were found in the Valerius tomb, one of them belonging o a man with the ringing name of Flavius Statilius Olympius, whose friends had obviously recalled him with special fondness. "He had a joke for everyone," read his inscription, "and he never quarreled."
Lying loose in the soil, three broken statue heads were turned up, of a man, a woman, and a boy. The mantled head of the woman, made of marble, was especially striking. The lift of the chin, the delicate contour of the high cheekbones, the sensitive lips, the lidded eyes, all combined to produce an expression of noble beauty, subtly overcast by an air of tender sadness. The head of the boy, a tiny stucco piece gilded over, probably portrayed the son of Herma himself. An inscription elsewhere in the tomb revealed that the boy had died at the age of four.
In its technical skill and ambitious treatment, the marvelous display of stucco art in the Valerius tomb exceeded even the best examples previously found anywhere. Here was almost a complete museum of the difficult art as practiced in ancient times. Yet it was not this unique profusion of statuary that gave the excavators their greatest reward in the Valerius tomb. That came when a workman, clearing the heaped dirt away from the curving wall of the central niche, uncovered the first mention of Peter.
Sketched in the plaster beside the right leg of the cloaked figure were two outline drawings of men's heads, one above the other. Drawn in red lead and traced over in charcoal, they were the spontaneous effort of an untutored hand, with shapes and proportions wrong, and thin lines marking eyes, nose, and mouth. The upper head was that of Christ, identifiable by the form of a phoenix - the bird of ancient myth which rose to life from its own ashes - scratched on the forehead, along with the word vibus (living). The lower head, showing an older, bald-headed man with wrinkled brow and perhaps a beard, did not carry any identification on itself, but underneath in a half dozen uneven lines of crude lettering there ran a Latin inscription. While only the first few words could be read, these were unmistakable: "Peter pray Christ Jesus for the holy …" The rest of the words trailed off, with letters faded or missing, into the confusion of the cracked and mottled plaster.
Such an overtly Christian inscription sanding openly among pagan burials was curious, to say the least. Its impulsive character and its random location were also puzzling. Though not by any means the only example of an ancient graffito invoking the apostle, it was the only one accompanied by a drawing. Was its presence here, so close to the traditional site of Peter's grave, purely an accident? The excavators felt sure that the full inscription, if only it could be deciphered, would supply information of great value: pray for the holy who or what? But after much effort, the latter half of the scrawl was grudgingly deemed unreadable.
The old belief about Peter's body resting in the midst of a formal pagan cemetery, it seemed, had not been wrong. Yet the further implications of the tradition - that Peter's actual burial had taken place within an existing pagan graveyard - were still in doubt. None of the three tombs so far dug up could be dated before the middle of the second century, some seventy or eighty years after Peter's death. Still, at least four unexcavated tombs lay on the straight line between the Valerius mausoleum and the high altar, with several others in the facing row. Dates for these had yet to be determined.
Once emptied, the next tomb in line presented an interior whose upper portions were alive with painted birds. On one wall a stately peacock, accompanied by a red-billed goose, stepped grandly through a rose-filled garden, presumably symbolizing the owner's family in the pagan paradise. High on another wall, against a purple field, two elegant snow-white swans stood poised on either side of a large silver candelabrum, a symbolism whose meaning escaped the excavators. Elsewhere, smaller birds of vaguer type perched gaily on borders and pediments. Ranged about the walls were several paintings of stories from Greek mythology, all rather faded. One, better preserved than the others, showed Hercules, with a lion skin and a club on his shoulder, leading the veiled Alcestis home from the grave.
But the tomb's rarest treasure was reserved till last. Spreading itself under the excavator's feet, to cover the entire floor, was a rare black-figure mosaic, done in semi-silhouette, on a white background. The scene depicted was a funerary favorite of the ancients, the Rape of Persephone. Driving a four-horse chariot, the god Pluto controls the reins with his right hand while his left arm grasps a fainting female figure. In front of the horses there hovers in the air the god Hermes Psychopompos, his feet winged, his right hand holding a large serpent-staff. Wrought with enviable skill, the picture was an ingenious adaptation of the legend, making it stand for the rape of the soul by death on its passage to paradise.
The next tomb, a small one, lay directly below the basilica's enormous triumphal arch, the foundations for which had destroyed much of the little structure. Only a few inscriptions remained and these identified it as a second mausoleum of the wealthy Caetennius family.
In the last thirty feet before the high altar two more tombs were unearthed. Another small one, belonging to a family named Aebutius, had also been largely destroyed by foundations sunk from above. Only its façade and a part of a side wall had been left standing. The last tomb was larger, almost matching the Valerius in size, but it yielded no surprises nor much of artistic worth beyond some delicate clusters of red and white stucco roses. It had belonged to a family named Matucius, and in one inscription the owner had proudly recorded his success as a dealer in linen.
The excavators now called a halt. Though there was still much to be done, particularly in freeing the tombs of the second row, the work had been allowed to proceed at too rapid a pace. Time was needed for study and review, and for the cleaning up and reorganizing that are a periodic necessity in every excavation. And with that, the most stirring discovery of the entire operation was made.
Between two of the excavated tombs - the second Caetennius and the Aebutius - there stretched an earth-filled passageway, less than ten feet wide. Containing no feature of interest, it had been by-passed in the digging. Now, taking advantage of the lull, the excavators decided to clear it out, starting with a small makeshift grave that blocked the way. Their concern was not with the passageway itself, but with freeing the flanks of the tow adjacent tombs. "We let the workmen dismantle and remove an unimportant and unnamed grave," Kirschbaum remembered, "loosely put together with marble slabs, and other remains hardly distinguishable from the dust of centuries. There remained only the ground slab. It was not in our way and we hesitated to get rid of it. Eventually, yielding to a sudden impulse, we had it shifted. To our astonishment, under the slab was an almost circular hole in the ground … Workmen lowered a lamp into the darkness and we could make out a small burial vault, half-filled with earth, chalk, and bones. Expectantly, we descended with one of the workmen through the narrow opening."
The chamber proved to be extremely small, only about eight feet in length and height, its width the same as that of the passageway. The dirt-fill, which took up two or three feet of the bottom, further reduced the space. But the crouching Kirschbaum, playing his lamp over the pitch-dark interior, was too entranced by what he saw to be bothered by the cramped quarters.
A mosaic facing of iridescent yellow, which gave back the lamplight in a golden shimmer, covered the whole vaulted ceiling and spread uniformly down over three of the walls to about half their height. Coursing through this glowing background was a luxuriant vine, its wide-clustering mosaic leaves done realistically in several shades of green. It circled the border of the ceiling, then trailed down over the three walls, curling round their centers to frame pictures. Each of the three scenes had been severely damaged by loss of mosaic pieces, but the underlying pattern was clear.
The first picture to greet Kirschbaum's searching light, on the east wall, showed the prophet Jonah falling from the side of a ship, and entering a whale's mouth feet first (an oddity, since Jonah was ordinarily shown being swallowed head first). The second picture, on the north wall, portrayed a fisherman standing on rocks, whose line had already hooked one fish while another swam away. The third, on the west wall, showed the familiar figure of the Good Shepherd, a sheep laid across his shoulders. All three subjects were undeniably Christian, and this fact made certain the interpretation of the fourth picture, which Kirschbaum's lamp now picked out on the ceiling's glittering center.
Part of the scene had been destroyed by the opening through which the men descended, but most of it was intact, and it clearly portrayed a chariot being drawn through the skies by two prancing white horses. In the chariot stood a bearded male figure, his cloak flying in the wind. The figure's right arm was raised while the lowered left hand held a large globe. Crowning the head was a nimbus, form behind which there emanated rays of light, shooting upward and sideways, strongly suggesting the form of a cross.
Kirschbaum, knowing he was looking at something unique, could only stare. Here was the pagan myth of Helios, the Greek sun god, adapted to one of the earliest Christian traditions, in which the rising and setting of the sun became a dramatic daily reminder of Christ's Resurrection. This symbolic link between Savior and sun had been lovingly treated by early writers, but here in the midst of a pagan cemetery was the only instance of its use in graphic art, the sole occurrence anywhere of a Christ-Helios. It was an important discovery, worthy of taking rank with those other Resurrection symbols from antiquity, Christ-phoenix and Christ-Orpheus.
After excavation of the chamber had been completed, during which three Christian burials were located under the floor, the little tomb gave up the secret of its origin. It had been built toward the end of the second century to hold the ashes of a pagan child, and its original decoration had been unassuming. About A.D. 250 the family had been converted to Christianity (or the tomb had passed to new owners), and in an outburst of spiritual affirmation it had lavishly redecorated the tomb with the golden mosaic, the vine, and the pictures.
Besides being the earliest surviving example of a mosaic with a Christian subject, and the earliest surviving use of crucifixion symbolism, it was also recognized as the most important artifact, artistically and technically, to be recovered from under St. Peter's. Further, the little tomb proved the truth of at least one of the old tales about the basilica. Undoubtedly it was the same one which in 1574, had momentarily yielded its secret to accidental intruders, except that the body on the slab was missing. How or why it had been taken away, the excavators could only guess.
Some ten months after the start of the excavations, though the work of clearing was still unfinished, the true magnitude of the discovery had become clear. In all, no less than nineteen mausoleums had been located and identified, twelve in the first line and seven in the facing row. Together they held more than a hundred recorded burials, and there were many more interments, some in random sarcophagi, placed in any convenient spot, for which no inscriptions had been provided, or for which none had survived. Most of the dead had come from Rome's freedman class, merchants and traders who had achieved financial success. In many cases, valued slaves had been given a last resting place beside their owners.
The double row of tombs, as unearthed, had an extent of some three hundred feet. But there were definite signs that the original cemetery had extended much farther, perhaps as much as a quarter of a mile. The earliest tomb was the one closest to the high altar, the Matucius, put up about A.D. 125. This tomb, however, had not held the first burials in the area. Several of the other tombs had large ossuariums (bone depositories) built onto their outside walls, a familiar feature in ancient cemeteries. These showed that the workmen in erecting the newer tombs had found it necessary to disturb many earlier graves of a simpler type. As was usual in such cases, the bones from the older earth-graves had been collected, then reinterred as a group in the ossuariums. Peter had indeed been buried in the midst of an existing cemetery, certainly pagan, though it was not the more elaborate one that began to grow up on the site some fifty years after his death.
Aside from the single, half-obliterated inscription in the Valerius tomb, no explicit reference to Peter or his grave had come to light, a grievous disappointment to the excavators. On the other hand, two extraordinary facts did emerge, which together lent dramatic support to the tradition that the apostle's grave lay under the high altar. The first concerned the story mutely told by the buried tombs themselves.
As the excavators established, the entire necropolis had been in regular use until the day, in about the year 330, when the site was taken over for the building of Constantine's basilica. The ancient architects, studying the topography, must have taken special note of one particularly troubling fact - the whole length of the two-rowed cemetery was perched along the side of a hill, up fifty yards or so from a roadway. While the slope was fairly steep from north to south (left to right of the basilica), it was much gentler east to west, in the direction of the double line of tombs. As a result, most of the buildings to the east lay on a descending path, and thus were all at a somewhat lower level than Peter's grave. The architects had made efficient use of this situation. They concluded that the lower tombs need not be demolished, but might simply be buried whole beneath the floor of the basilica. Peter's shrine could then be made to stand above the pavement over the grave, at the place of honor. In addition, if the roofs of the tombs were removed, and the interiors packed with earth, the resulting box-like network of stout walls would serve as extra foundations, helping to prevent slippage of soil on the hillside.
But this despoiling of an entire pagan cemetery involved difficulties, both social and legal, which would have given pause even to an emperor. All burials in ancient Rome, from the meanest to the grandest, were very strictly protected by law. Any deliberate "violation of sepulture" was punishable by nothing less than death, and to set aside this prohibition Constantine must have been pressed to invoke the full weight of his imperial powers - indeed, he must have exceeded them considerably. In all Roman history there is no record of any similar action by a ruler against the graves of the Roman citizenry. Even then, Constantine's decision could not have failed to provoke bitter resentment among many pagan families, who at that time in Rome for outnumbered Christians.
The second fact, discovered in the early digging and confirmed by later study, also concerned the hilly nature of the site. Parts of the original foundations of the first basilica had been unearthed, and these told vividly of formidable obstacles overcome. In order to create a broad, flat surface over the face of the sloping hill for the marble pavement of the basilica, at the level of Peter's grave, the builders had found it necessary to construct an artificial platform of prodigious size. Approximately half of it, the half to the south, rested on the natural hillside, but the other half was carried on three enormous foundation walls, running the entire length of the church.
Made of concrete faced with brick, each of the three foundation walls was no less than seven feet thick. At their highest point they rose thirty-five feet above true ground level, and into the huge cavities between them earth had been tightly packed. This earth-moving operation alone, the excavators calculated, would have required the transport of more than one million cubic feet of soil, most of it laboriously carried on the shoulders of workmen, basket by basket, from the hill above. Never suspected before because of later alterations in the terrain, this astonishing fact finally prompted the excavators to label the erection of Peter's first basilica as unquestionably one of the most stupendous construction jobs of antiquity.
With level ground available a few hundred feet to the south, invitingly free of obstruction, why had Constantine gone to such prodigious lengths, borne such great expense, taken the trouble to abrogate rigid laws, in the process alienating many Romans, just to position his basilica in one particular spot on this inconvenient hillside? No visionary, but a ruler notably hard-headed, he was not likely to commit himself solely on the basis of a vague or approximate tradition about the location of Peter's grave. He did have the cooperation o the then-reigning pope, Sylvester, who presumably could have vouched for the authenticity of the site. But it is highly probable that Constantine had also been convinced by some other means, beyond the possibility of doubt, that just here and nowhere else lay the grave into which sorrowing disciples, some 250 years before, had lowered the crucified body of the first pope (transfer of the body itself to level ground was out of the question, absolutely forbidden by the customs of the time).
Did Constantine have the grave opened, did he personally look on the body of Peter? Nothing of this is known with certainty, yet there is evidence - disputed though it may be - that he not only opened the grave but also provided a sumptuous new sarcophagus of bronze, probably lined with gold, for the remains.
Perhaps it was the heady momentum of discovery, intensifying as tomb after tomb stedily carried the excavations ever nearer to the high altar, perhaps it was Pius XII's admitted personal fascination with the question of Peter's grave (influenced, it may be, by the earlier worldwide excitement over Tutankhamen), perhaps it was only a feeling that the time had come. Whatever the precise reason for his bold decision, when the archaeologists suggested to Pius XII that they carry their investigations into the area immediately beneath the high altar, he gave his consent. The age-old tradition about St. Peter's grave was at last to be directly tested.
But the Pope made one firm stipulation: until the work was complete, and a full official report ready for publication, no breath of the results, whatever they might be, should reach the public. All must be accomplished in private and in secret. Readily accepting this condition - not unreasonable in the circumstances - Monsignor Kaas and his four colleagues set to work, never guessing that they were committing themselves to a decade of silence.