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)

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1. BURIED TOMBS

2. STREET OF THE DEAD
3. BENEATH THE HIGH ALTAR
4. PETER'S GRAVE
5. THE RED WALL COMPLEX
6. STROKE OF FATE
7. THE WOODEN BOX
8. WHAT THE GRAFFITI HID
9. THE BONES EXAMINED
10. THE PETER THEORY
11. DECISION
12. THE ANCIENT SILENCE
Appendices


4
Peter's Grave

Discouragingly, the archaeologists' initial examination of the shrine under the high altar, from all angles and at both upper and lower levels, revealed no easy or preferred way to begin penetration. Moreover, the difficulty of the task had been increased by several new requirements. There was to be no interference with the regular use of the basilica for ceremonial purposes, nor was any power equipment to be employed. The workers must rely on hand tools.

Above all, the archaeologists were not to endanger or destroy any essential parts of the monument. They might probe, breach and dismantle as they wished, but not to the extent of altering or obliterating any of the shrine's main features. When all was done, the area must continue as a vital part of the church above it. Quite ready to struggle with these additional constraints - hampering for any such operation, though in this unique case only sensible - the four set to work. To perform the heavy labor, they were assigned several of the Sampietrini, the Vatican's hereditary corps of workmen.

The small underground chapel opening off the shrine's west face had been fashioned in the sixteenth century, and had been many times redecorated. On the front wall of this chapel (the rear wall of the shrine) there hung a large nineteenth-century mosaic showing full-length, life-size portraits of Peter and Paul on a gilded background. Frame and all, this huge work was detached from its moorings and taken down. Behind it, a plain brick wall was uncovered, the upper half of which was seen to date to the seventeenth century. Surprisingly, the lower part proved to be nearly a thousand years older, dating to the reign of Gregory the Great. This was a formidable barrier and to get past it required going directly through it. After some study, one of the Sampietrini was detailed to hack out several bricks from the upper portion, at its center.

Mortar flew under the sharp chisel, carefully the bricks were worked free, and the excavators found themselves looking at a flat section of white paonazzetto marble. Running up the middle was a narrow strip of rich dark porphyry. With that, the whole outer brick wall, both older and newer portions, was deemed expendable and some days later it had been entirely removed.

The white marble backing covered an area some eight feet broad and more than ten feet high. Dividing it equally in half was the narrow strip of porphyry. At its top, the marble wall disappeared behind the bottom edge of a large altar, which the excavators soon identified as the one installed by Pope Callixtus in the twelfth century.

Since the vertical center strip provided the only way of seeing behind the marble without damaging it, this was now pried loose. Another partition was revealed, this time of mortar. Patiently chipping through the mortar, the workmen uncovered still another wall, but this one showed a plaster facing painted a bright red, now somewhat faded. Tapping gently at the bricks with a hammer, scraping lightly, the workman opened a hole through this red wall, which proved to be made of not one but several layers of brick. Behind, there was only darkness. Kirschbaum, the smallest of the four excavators, stood on a support, inserted a flashlight, and worked his head into the opening. He found himself looking up into the hollow interior of still another old altar, nestled inside that of Callixtus. It was the sixth-century altar of Gregory the Great.

These two altars, both resting at a somewhat higher level, made the excavators question whether the broad paonazzetto marble slab might not be the remains of a Constantinian altar. Of course, no altar could have been so tall, but the two marble halves flanking the porphyry strip were each of a size and shape which suggested that they could, if repositioned, have been the back and front, or top, or a normal altar. Nothing more could be done at this location without inflicting excessive damage, so the team turned to find some other means of penetrating the shrine.

The side wall of the chapel, just to the right of where the mosaic of Peter and Paul had hung, appeared to offer the best chance of reaching round the shrine, and this wall was soon breached. Behind it a narrow, curving passageway was discovered, little more than two feet wide. Kirschbaum entered, sidled his way along for some ten feet, then found himself standing in a chamber about the size of a large wardrobe closet. There in front of him was the south side of the shrine.

Here also the marble wall was topped by the same Callixtus altar, the bottom edge of which was supported on two small pilasters. But closer inspection showed that this marble section was not of the same type as the piece that hung at the front. It belonged to a much later period, probably the Middle Ages, to which the pilasters could also be dated. Kirschbaum reported his find to the others and they agreed that the medieval wall could be sacrificed.

Two of the Sampietrini entered the confined space and proceeded to remove the marble hanging, no easy task. Then, under Kirschbaum's direction, they began chipping through a series of brick walls. There were four in all, of different thicknesses, and obviously the work of different periods. The fourth wall, very roughly made and evidently very ancient, had already begun to crumble away at its right edge, so the workman discarded his chisel, picked up a knife, and started scraping at the loose mortar. A few minutes later he announced that he was uncovering still another piece of white marble, and with this Kirschbaum ordered the last brick wall to be taken down entirely. "Expectantly, we turned our attention to the right side," he recalled, "and the crisp sound of the chisel as it splintered the brickwork under repeated hammer blows echoed the tense expectation we all experienced."

What was revealed was both intriguing and puzzling. While the interior appeared to be almost completely taken up by a hard mortar-and-stone fill, several separate features were visible.

At the left could be seen a vertical strip of the red plaster, the reverse of which had been encountered on the chapel side. Here it was faced with marble, at least in its lower half. Just above the marble a thick slab of travertine extended straight out from the red wall, with its forward edge resting atop a small, graceful marble column. Clearly, some sort of deep shelf, almost four feet from front to back, had stood here as an integral part of the structure. Had it been used as an altar? Its height above the original ground, about six feet, seemed to rule that out.

6. Plan (simplified) showing the location of the red wall and the graffiti wall within the structures immediately beneath the high altar. Also shown, just to the left and right of the red wall, are the side chambers found by the excavators.

The foundation of the red wall itself went down into the soil well below the pavement around it, deeper even than the level of the Constantinian floor. Also, the wall was much thicker here than it had appeared from the chapel side, a surprising eighteen inches. Reluctant to interfere with a construction whose nature was still obscure, and which might well be linked to the fourth-century monument, the team now decided to transfer its operation to the opposite side of the shrine.

Back in the chapel, the Sampietrini proceeded to breach the left-hand wall. As anticipated, a similar small chamber was found behind it, giving access to the shrine's northern flank. Again the broad marble hanging was removed, and again a series of brick-and mortar walls confronted the workmen. Promptly they began hammering their way through each wall in turn, but then, as the face of the innermost wall was uncovered, an exciting difference showed up. It was not rough brick as on the other side of the shrine. Unexpectedly, it carried a facing of light-blue plaster, faded now to a mottled blue-white. Scratched into this plaster was a confused tangle of thin lines which, here and there, formed themselves into recognizable names.

Some hours later, with the wall completely exposed, it was seen that these crude inscriptions occupied an area about three by four feet, nearly the whole of the available space. Running in virtually all directions, there was a regular forest of scratches, pursuing, crossing, leaping over one another, long and short, thick and thin, densely covering almost every square inch of the plaster. It was a strange, patternless jumble of graffiti, and the excavators now saw that many more names were present than had at first appeared.

Crowded against and on top of one another, seemingly without any order, most of the names were legible only in part. Those that could easily be read were all in Latin: Gaudentia, Venerosa, Ursianus, Leonia, Bonifatia, Simplicius, Paulina, among others. The fact that all, or most, were names of persons already dead a the time was clear from the many funerary invocations which accompanied them, such as "vivatis in Christo" (may you live in Christ).

Interestingly, Christ's name was nowhere spelled out, but appeared in the form of the familiar monogram, the chi-rho symbol or labarum, in which the first two letters of the sacred name in Greek are entwined ( ). It was the presence of this symbol - it appeared at least thirty times and on all parts of the wall - which gave the excavators a date for the graffiti. All must have been scratched into the plaster during a twenty-year period, from A.D. 312 to about 330, when work on the basilica was begun. It was in 312 that Constantine won his final military victory in Rome, at the Milvian Bridge, giving him sole claim to the emperorship, and spreading knowledge of the monogram among Christians. His pre-battle vision of a cross in the sky, along with the words In hoc vince (In this, conquer), and his use of the monogram on the shields and helmets of his troops, was well known.

The wall itself, as the archaeologists realized, was a different matter and might easily be much older than these dates. Certain elements of the construction, in fact, placed it in the mid third century, perhaps fifty years before the first graffiti appeared on it.

The one name that the excavators hoped to find on the wall, and eagerly expected to find, was that of Peter. All the inscriptions had quite obviously been made by pilgrims to his grave, where they recorded the names of departed loved ones. That some of these visitors should have invoked the name of Peter as well as that of Christ, the usual practice at the tombs of saints and martyrs, would have been only natural. But search as they might, painstakingly tracing out lines amid all the confusion, they were forced to admit that the name of Peter never once showed up. Greatly disappointed, they still were able to find some consolation in the known fact that there existed in Rome one or two other saints' graves with this same puzzling absence of the principal name.

Lower down on this graffiti wall, about two feet from the bottom, a short strip of plaster had fallen away, leaving a ragged horizontal scar. In some curiosity, the excavators saw that no bricking showed in the aperture where, with the plaster gone, the inner wall should have been uncovered. Shining a light in, they were just able to make out what appeared to be a man-made cavity. The view through the narrow opening was constricted, but along the back there showed a straight edge, dully reflecting the flashlight, and it seemed that the space must be lined all round with marble. To gain entry, however, would mean knocking down more of the plaster, and this would destroy too much of the delicate graffiti crowding round. The team decided it would first make a more careful study at the chapel side of the shrine. They especially wanted to have another look at the red wall, a strip of which was visible at the graffiti wall's right edge.

The suspicion had now strengthened that the broad section of paonazzetto marble, hanging on the chapel side of the shrine, was indeed a part of Constantine's original monument, and even the possibility of this was enough to forestall any attempt to dislodge it. The vertical center strip, with its porphyry covering removed, still gave the only means of access, and by looking through this opening, high and low, with a good deal of squirming and straining, the team was able to establish several points.

The other side of the red wall, at is middle, was not a flat surface. Both above and below the shelf-like travertine slab, semicircular niches had been cut deeply into it, the upper niche being the wider. In the center of the top niche there was a rectangular opening running through from front to back, rather like a small window.

The red wall itself they found to be a decidedly peculiar formation. It was made of a huge rectangular block nearly eight feet high, seven feet wide, and almost two feet thick. Later, after inspecting both edges through slight gaps in the marble, they were able to conclude with certainty that the red wall as it then stood was only a remnant. Its outer corners were not well defined but consisted of an untidy mixture of mortar and brick patching. At either end, it was plain, the red wall had originally extended to unknown distances. Whether it had also once been higher could not be said, since there was no way to inspect its top short of a general dismantling of the entire shrine.

As the excavators knew, in another of Constantine's early Christian basilicas - the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem - the ancient architects had used an efficient though insensitive approach to the problem of enshrining Christ's tomb. They first pared away all the excess rock surrounding the tomb, and then encased the remaining rock in a sumptuous marble housing. No one in antiquity had objected to this violent - and as modern observers would feel, shudderingly unfortunate - truncation of Christianity's principal physical monument. Was it possible that the same heavy-handed method had been followed at St. Peter's? If so, it was indisputable that this red wall, with its two niches and its travertine table, was the object enshrined. But what relation could the curious structure bear to the apostle's grave? It was at this juncture that the archaeologists first hopefully recalled the remark of the Roman priest Gaius about the "Tropaion" which in the second century had stood on the Vatican Hill.

The Pallia Niche, directly on the other side of the chapel wall, it was thought, might offer a different viewing angle, perhaps completing the picture of the perplexing red wall. At first the team had hesitated to interfere with this main feature of the shrine, since it was so integral and living a part of the high altar complex, as well as the portion most visible to the public. Now it was decided to make at least a tentative inspection, and since nothing could be done in that area in the daytime, the team gathered in the basilica after closing on two successive nights.

Within the narrow, arched Pallia Niche, affixed to the walls on either side, were mosaic pictures encased in heavy frames. With some difficulty these were removed. Behind them were older walls, both bearing pictures of medieval saints, now almost faded away. Occupying the whole rear wall of the niche was another large mosaic, of Christ, also dating to the Middle Ages. This impressive and familiar work the excavators felt obliged to leave in place. Nothing else appeared to be detachable without damage, and the searchers had to be content with peering through a narrow gap at the right. They were just able to make out the shoulder of the top niche in the red wall, permitting some vital measurements to be made.

Also in view through the gap was the right-hand portion of the travertine slab, corresponding with the piece discovered previously on the left. The whole center portion of the shelf was missing, however, simply broken out, and into the space between the two remaining margins the present Pallia Niche had been backed. Some close observation made it certain that the travertine shelf had once been a single piece, about five feet wide by four deep. Its height from the ground, about six feet, was also confirmed.

These results, important as corroboration, still left the excavators feeling rather at a loss that the Pallia Niche had failed to resolve more fully the question of the red wall, their efforts blocked by the Pope's sensible admonition to work with all due care. But in another way the party felt itself well requited, since for the first time the four were able to experience in leisurely fashion the basilica's fabled nighttime enchantment. Outside he lone circle of light at the Pallia Niche, Kirschbaum recalled, the lofty ceiling and distant upper reaches of the immense building "merged into the darkness, and the gigantic expanse widened almost to infinity. Wherever the searchlight beam rested for a moment it swam into view, as though touched by an unearthly magic, only to sink back into darkness again. The massive form and figures of this magnificent building dissolved into a rhythm of flow and movement and effulgence, as it were into some silent chorale."

The shrine having been probed on all four sides, it was now time to delve beneath it. For this climaxing operation, eagerly anticipated, it had been concluded that an entry under the graffiti wall, below its foundations, would be best. Some days later the party returned to the small north chamber where the workmen prepared to breach the floor, pausing only long enough to take a closer look at the curious man-made cavity sunk into the graffiti wall.

Gently hammering at the edges of the blue-white plaster, a workman deftly enlarged the aperture. As the hole widened, he reported that there appeared to be nothing inside, and a sweep of a flashlight across the interior confirmed the fact. Except for a lining of marble slabs, and some bits of debris and soil scattered over the bottom, the cavity was empty.

Reaching in, the workman brushed the sparse debris into a pile which he carefully scooped up and lifted out. Spreading the pile on a board, he spotted a coin. Much worn, it was identifiable as coming from the medieval duchy of Limoges in France. Though no date could be read, the excavators agreed that the coin could have been minted no earlier than about A.D. 900, an estimate later proved correct. From the scant pile, the excavators also picked out a few pieces of metal, probably lead, they thought, and several silver threads. Three or four tiny slivers of matter, hard and blackened with dirt, when washed turned out to be splinters of bone, probably human.

The marble-lined cavity itself was larger than expected, extending all the way across the graffiti wall from one side to the other, about three and a half feet. Measuring some ten inches from front to back, it was just over a foot from the bottom slab to the rough top. Whether it was an original feature of the graffiti wall, or had been hollowed out after the wall had been some time standing, was difficult to determine.

The right extremity of the cavity where it abutted on the red wall was not bricked up, and here the red plaster could be glimpsed even fresher and more vivid than on the chapel side. There appeared to be some scratches on it, suggesting more graffiti, but this was uncertain because of the lighting angle, and there was no way to get nearer without breaking off more of the bluish outside plaster. At the moment, that made little sense, since it would only be exchanging one set of graffiti for another. The four were aware that the inscription on the red wall, if such it was, must have been scratched on while the position stood free and unencumbered, and thus would be even earlier than those on the graffiti wall. But they managed to curb their curiosity.

They agreed, however, that the marble-lined repository predated Constantine's basilica. Perhaps it had once held the venerated bones of some early pope or saint, some distinguished figure who had, like Pope Pius XI so many centuries later, been eager for burial as close as possible to Peter. For whatever reason, the cavity had probably been emptied some time in the early Middle Ages, as the presence of the Limoges coin strongly implied. How the removal had been accomplished, they could only guess, but they noted that the marble endpiece at the left-hand side was caved inward. This suggested that entry had been gained from that direction, very likely during some forgotten tenth-century alteration. Wishing to spare the graffiti wall from further harm, anxious to begin exploring beneath the shrine, they now turned their attention to the workman who stood ready with pick and shovel.

Measurements previously taken of the whole area had shown that the thick graffiti wall occupied a portion just off the shrine's center line, to the north. On the far side of this wall, therefore, and some feet belowground, should be the site of Peter's grave. The plan was to dig down beside the wall and then go under the foundations, which should run no deeper than three or four feet. At length, the marble flooring was taken up and the workman's pick was soon chunking lightly into the hard underlying soil to loosen it for shoveling.

At a depth of eighteen inches, straight down, a simple slab grave was encountered, holding a portion of a skeleton. When the grave proved to be of the fourth century, the bones were removed and the slabs cleared away. Another foot down and the foundations of the wall came into view. They were made of plain brick with a waterproof outer layer, and they rested directly atop another slab grave. To the excavators' delight, this grave proved to be of the first century. Quickly they decided they would go no deeper but would proceed to break through the exposed foundations.

Crouching at the bottom of the wide, four-foot-deep pit, a workman with hammer and chisel gently chipped away the outer plaster, then loosened brick after brick, passing each brick in turn up to his helper. Working slowly and with deliberate skill, by the end of the day the workman had pushed his way almost through to the outer side of the two-foot thickness, fashioning a rough opening. Scraping away mortar, he worked a last brick out of place and saw nothing but darkness within.

Kirschbaum, who was wearing overalls, quickly scrambled down into the pit and aimed a flashlight. Because of his nervous excitement and the sudden yellow glare, for a moment his straining eyes swam out of focus. As his vision cleared he found himself peering into an irregular little chamber, about four feet on a side with an earthen floor. It appeared to be empty. After a moment's hesitation, he turned around, stretched out on his back, and with the workman's help slowly squirmed his head and shoulders through the opening.

Looking up, he saw that the narrow ceiling, high above his head, was formed of a rectangular slab of marble, on which an inscription was neatly cut. The words were all run together, but he was just able to make out a name, Aelius Isidorus. Along with the additional words, the name made it clear that the slab was not an original part of the grave. Apparently it had once served as the title inscription for some nearby tomb. In its center, cutting through the inscription, was a small, square hole. Kirschbaum shone his light into it and saw the bottom of a shaft lined with green porphyry - the same shaft, undoubtedly, whose top had been investigated fifty years before by Grisar.

Turning his head to the right, Kirschbaum was surprised to see that there was no east wall, only the side of another grave, the marble slab of which closed the chamber at a slant. Turning to the left, he saw the foundations of the red wall, with still another niche cut into it, though a much rougher one than the two above. On the north side of the chamber, the side by which he had entered, there was nothing but the reverse of the graffiti wall, its lower portion faced with grayish marble.

7. Side view beneath the high altar showing the relation of the red wall and the Tropaion to the remaining portion of Peter's grave. To the left is the present underground chapel, to the right is the open area.

Using some effort, Kirschbaum managed to twist his shoulders round and was able to see the wall behind his head. At its bottom was a layer of ancient brick, above this was a wide strip of packed earth, and this in turn was surmounted by another layer of antique brickwork. These were the remnants of two low walls, he tentatively concluded, put up at different times. Though both remnants abutted on the red wall, it was evident that they had once extended farther. Most likely they had been cut off, shortened, when the red wall was erected. It was also apparent that they did not run at right angles to the red wall, as might have been expected. They slanted away markedly, at least ten degrees out of plumb. Looking up at the Isidorus slab, Kirschbaum noted something he had missed before. The slab was also twisted awry. It did not sit square to the wall as it should have, but showed the same curious slant as the little walls below.

Trailing his light around, he gradually became aware that the chamber held an air of disarray. The rough niche in the red wall, especially, and the heavy sill above it that supported the closure slab, had both suffered extensive breakage at their right extremities. It was as if they had been purposely hacked away. Did this explain the entire absence of a chamber wall on the north side, where the graffiti wall sat? With a sigh, Kirschbaum wondered if he was looking at some of the "unspeakable iniquities" committed by the Saracen horde a thousand years before. Then he saw something else, adding to that impression. At one corner of the Isidorus slab overhead, the lower part of a small marble column hung askew, reaching nearly halfway down into the chamber. Here, certainly, was the twin of the left-hand column seen aboveground, on which rested the travertine shelf in the red wall. What manner of violence had been used to drive it down this way?

A sudden gleam of reflected light from high up behind the little column caught Kirschbaum's eye. He reached up and his fingers encountered a sharp metallic edge. Taking a firm grip, he pulled. Down on his face came a fine shower of mortar, but in his hand he held a thin, rectangular plate of gold, measuring about two by three inches. Embossed on its shining surface was a pair of open eyes, and between them a cross. Kirschbaum had seen such objects before and he recognized the plate as a votive offering almost certainly given for the healing of an eye. He judged that it could be as early as the fifth or sixth century. After a moment's study he passed the plate out to the waiting workmen for the others to see.

Now his light picked out, lying here and there on ledges and projections, a scattering of coins, most of them darkened with age. Under his head and back, he suddenly realized, many more coins littered the chamber floor. Picking up a few, he held them to the light but was unable to read any of the inscriptions. Some contained the heads of what appeared to be Roman emperors.

As the light continued slowly to search into cracks and crevasses, Kirschbaum spotted another feature he had missed. At the bottom of the niche in the red wall foundations, where they disappeared into the dirt floor, there was a small opening. He inserted an exploratory hand but felt nothing. Then he scraped away some of the dirt. The space was not just an opening, it was a large gap in the structure of the wall itself, shaped like an inverted V, apparently a rise and fall in the foundations.

Running his hand over the dirt that almost filled the gap, he felt his fingers brush something hard embedded in the earth. He scraped around the object, then gently pulled it free. Holding it up, he saw that it was a bone, about five inches long. He turned it around and over, finally deciding that it might easily be from a human arm or leg - momentarily his hand trembled at the thought that he could be holding a part of the body of St. Peter. Rolling over on his side, he aimed his flashlight under the wall. More bones, deeply embedded, were piled in and around the same spot. Carefully, he replaced the bone, then called to be pulled out of the chamber. Within seconds he was excitedly reporting his find to the others.

It was now evening, not far from the basilica's closing time, but one of the excavators immediately hurried off to inform Pius XII of the discovery. At the same time, workmen were sent to procure some of the special lead-lined boxes that had been prepared for holding any random bones turned up in the digging.

Within ten minutes, the white-cassocked Pope arrived on the scene, his sharp intellectual features drawn, the piercing eyes alert behind the round glasses. Kirschbaum explained the situation to him, pointing out that the bones did not lie spread along the surface but were more or less all heaped together, without covering or protection, about a foot down in the bare earth. Little could be done with them, he said, while they lay in so difficult a position.

Some sober discussion among the Pope and the four archaeologists followed, and at length the Pope gave permission for the bones to be unearthed. A chair was placed on the marble pavement just above the pit and the Pope sat down. Kirschbaum armed with a trowel and brush, squirmed his way back into the chamber.

During the next several hours, bone after bone was gingerly passed out, some broken or reduced by decay, many more only fragments, and all were carefully deposited in the boxes at the Pope's feet. Most were small, many even tiny, representing various vertebrae, parts of fingers and toes, and parts of shattered ribs, as well as some bit and pieces that were not immediately identifiable. A good many were large, however, and apparently intact, and though none of the excavators had any real medical knowledge, it seemed certain that whole bones, or nearly whole, were present from both the arms and the legs. There was also a large segment of the breastbone, and part of a shoulder blade.

At the finish, a total of at least 250 pieces, large and small, had been extracted. To the onlookers, gazing in wonder at the three boxes, each holding in its bottom a single layer of bones, it appeared that there must be almost enough to make an entire skeleton.

The one part of the body which all were waiting to see was the skull, but this did not appear, nor could any of the fragments be identified as belonging to it. Far from feeling disappointment, however, the Pope and the others regarded this absence of a skull as a singularly positive sign. Among the many precious relics preserved in the numerous churches of Rome, one of the most precious was claimed to be precisely the head of Peter. Since at least the ninth century it had lain in a reliquary above the altar in the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. No one could guarantee its authenticity, no one knew exactly where it had come from, or how it had reached the Lateran (speculation suggested an effort to save it from the barbarian invaders who twice sacked Rome in the fourth century, though the danger might equally have come from the Saracens). But the mere fact of the claim now assumed some relevance.

The absence of a skull among the bones beneath the shrine, and the presence of a head in the Lateran, accepted for a millennium as Peter's, were points dovetailing too neatly to be ignored. Only once in modern times had the Lateran reliquary been opened, in 1804, and that inspection had confirmed at least the nature of the contents. Still remaining were a portion of the cranium, a part of the jawbone with some teeth, a few vertebrae, and much dust.

The feeling that this strange cache of bones from under the red wall comprised the earthly remains of St. Peter - the first pope, the Rock on whom the church was founded, the man who in the Gospels walks so humanly at the right hand of Jesus - took strong hold of all those connected with the excavation, including Pius XII. Yet even in their mood of quiet exultation none went so far as to voice anything like certainty. The circumstances were simply too vague for that, and nothing additional had been found under the red wall to aid identification.

All that could be concluded, and then only as probable, was that at some unknown time, for obscure reasons, the bones had been deliberately piled together and pushed below the triangular rise in the foundations. It was an act that might or might not have been connected with the Saracen threat, or with some other less well remembered time of danger. In any case, they were human bones and they had been found in what was unquestionably Peter's own grave. They had definitely lain there untouched for at least a thousand years. In the absence of contrary evidence, it was easy to believe that they had been in the grave, reverently tended as it had always been, from the very start.

Expressing his gratitude to the four archaeologists, and the Sampietrini, the Pope directed that the lead boxes be locked and sealed, and taken to his private apartment in the Vatican. There, during the ensuing months, a minute examination was performed on the bones by the Pope's personal physician, Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi,and several medical experts. Their report to the Pope stated that, without doubt, the bones were those of a man, powerfully built, who had been perhaps sixty-five or seventy years old at death. These facts fitted well with the tradition regarding Peter. Beyond that, nothing could be said.

No word of this discovery had yet reached the public, nor would it for eight years. The public, in any case, might not at that time have stopped to listen. World War II had erupted in earnest.

 

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