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)
It was like walking down a narrow, deserted side street in old Rome, some silent midnight, when the mingled voices and the hurrying tread of many sandals had all faded away, the inhabitants sunk at last to blessed sleep. Nestled under the wide-spreading mantle of the basilica's marble floor, a tiny portion of the ancient city had emerged ghost-like from its interminable sepulture.
Each of the nineteen tombs beneath the body of the basilica had now been cleared, inside and out, of its clogging deposit of earth. Running between the two rows, the little street lay open all the way to the area beneath the high altar, where it wound into the alley behind the red wall. Along the right side of the street there stretched an even row of handsome brick facades, rising trimly to varying heights of twelve or fifteen feet, their ragged tops lost in shadow. Opposite, along the left, there ran the rear walls of the second row, the reddish brickwork with the interstices picked out in white looking remarkable fresh after sixteen centuries in the earth.
Though somewhat damaged here and there, many of the neat facades on the right still supported tasteful terracotta figurines and marble nameplates. The open doorways, all of them framed by slabs of travertine, allowed elongated patches of murky light from newly installed electric bulbs to drape at intervals across the street. It was the spring of 1952 and this rediscovered Roman city of the dead was being readied to stand on permanent exhibition
Requests to visit the site had flooded in, from professional and amateur archaeologists, classical scholars, historians, journalists, students, and the curious, but very few outsiders had as yet gained entry. As so often with archaeologists, from the start the excavators had jealously guarded their treasure, strictly excluding even professional visitors until the final urn had been identified, the last brick measured.
Those who did manage to obtain special consideration had all come on urgent scientific errands, eager to see and study some particular rarity. Among the first of the early visitors (granted the privilege by Pius XII himself) was a member of the faculty of the University of Rome, a professor of Greek epigraphy, Dr. Margherita Guarducci. She arrived on the scene in May 1952, anxious to study the tantalizing, still only partially deciphered Peter graffito in the Valerius tomb.
Just fifty years old, Dr. Guarducci brought with her a background of experience that few could equal. The many thousands of hours she had spent peering at ancient epigraphs of all sorts - words incised on worn marble or scratched on stone now crumbling, epitaphs chiseled on moldering graves and monuments, mottoes embossed on medals, plate, old coins, and every other sort of durable material - had marvelously sharpened both her searching eye and her intuitive perception. Especially in the arduous task of unraveling graffiti of a more haphazard kind, doubly alien to modern eyes in its cursive nature and heedless execution, she could frequently almost discern the personality behind the dead hand that had made it. Unmarried, for nearly thirty years she had poured all her energies into scholarship, becoming deeply learned in the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. More that 140 articles in scholarly journals bore her name, and her multi-volume collection of inscriptions from ancient Crete had already taken its place as a standard sourcebook. Finely attuned to all that related to Rome and its turbulent history, perhaps no better-equipped, no more-industrious scholar could have been found for the work which - at this moment unknown to all - still waited to be done.
Accompanying Dr. Guarducci on her first trip to the necropolis was Monsignor Francesco Vacchini, chief engineer of St. Peter's Basilica. Some months before, Monsignor Kaas, then in his seventies, had fallen ill and shortly afterward had died. Until a new administrator could be named, Vacchini was filling in.
Entering the narrow street of the necropolis, the two strolled past the first seven tombs, pausing only long enough at each door for a brief look inside. At the Valerius mausoleum they turned into the small outer courtyard, with its wall niches containing marble funerary urns, then stepped over the high stone threshold into the main part of the tomb. Distracted for a moment by the marvelous display of stucco statuary, Dr. Guarducci's gaze soon eagerly focused on the central niche, just opposite the door. From fifteen feet away, the sketched heads and in inscription were barely visible. It was only on approaching closer that, in some dismay, she realized the truth.
For a decade now these wall markings had stood uncovered, in conditions that were frequently very humid because of the Vatican's notorious water seepage problem. This was a situation she had not foreseen. During those ten crucial years since the discovery, a gradual but steady fading of both the charcoal and the red lead had continued, with the result that at many points portions of the scrawled lines had simply disappeared. Her task, she concluded with a regretful sigh for eh the wasted years, was to be much more difficult than she had imagined.
Before setting to work, with Monsignor Vacchini she completed a tour of the necropolis, coming finally to the jumble of names crowded onto the surface of the graffiti wall beside Peter's grave. This feature of the excavations had been described in the official report, very briefly, as a highly interesting but essentially straightforward collection of names and prayers, of the sort often found at venerated graves in antiquity. There had been no sign that anything more unusual was present, and lacking, as it apparently did, any real challenge for an expert, the wall had failed to arouse in Dr. Guarducci more than a mild curiosity. Now, standing only two feet away from it, with Monsignor Vacchini carefully angling his light to bring out the shallow scratches, she was surprised and pussled by what she saw, even a little shocked.
There were indeed many names, crowding against and over one another, along with prayers and invocations. These her practiced eye was readily able to pick out from the tangle. But she was abruptly struck by another element, something very odd, but which had received no comment in the report. In most of the names, almost every individual letter was heavily festooned with additional short scratches, seemingly random lines trailing off at all angles and crisscrossing each other haphazardly. Even the spaces between the names and words, above and below, which would ordinarily have been blank, were filled with this strangely web-like pattern of strung-together lines. The total effect was one of rampant confusion, almost mindless, yet with an underlying, if not quite definable, feeling of purpose.
This was a sight which, in all her pursuit of ancient inscriptions, Dr. Guarducci had never before encountered. In the catacombs and other early Christian cemeteries, the walls at many points had been covered by epigraphs. But in none of these were the inscriptions so heaped up, or embedded in such an angry matrix of inextricable lines.
After a long, puzzled look, she abruptly turned aside, as if afraid of becoming too fascinated. Her professional schedule was already far overcrowded with work. There were articles waiting to be written, lectures to deliver, field trips to make. She had set aside these few days for the Valerius inscription only because, if it could be deciphered, it seemed to promise some information of value. But there would be no opportunity for further involvement.
Alone in the Valerius tomb, armed with a light, a large magnifying glass, and a notebook, Dr. Guarducci began a close inspection of the faded Latin words. The first phrase, she found, was still readily legible, though she now saw something else that had not been made clear in the report, and which would add to the difficulties. The sizes of the letters, and their general shapes, differed markedly, and the spacing between them was quite at random. The first line of the inscription was even interrupted, broken in two, by the sketched head of Peter.
To the left of the chin were the letters PETRU, while to the right were several other letters: SROGA XSIHS. Beyond any doubt, this was meant to be a single line and could be read as PETRUS ROGA CHRISTUS JESU, which translated to "Peter pray Christ Jesus …" The small, roundheaded cross was easily identifiable as the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of salvation, which in this period was often used by Christians.
Just underneath, in another line, were the letters PROSANC S. This required a restoration of two letters in the gap between the C and the S, and became PRO SANCTIS, "for the holy…"
Three more lines followed, one below the other, and it was these lines which had not yet been satisfactorily unraveled. Since their first discovery, several tentative readings had been suggested, but none had been found convincing, and interest in the problem had steadily waned. That the three lines should breed uncertainty was no wonder, thought Dr. Guarducci. Erratic letter sizes, wavering lines, gaps which might indicate either faded letters or blank spaces, made them extremely difficult even to trace out, leaving wide room for doubt.
With infinite patience, for hours at a time, she painstakingly followed through her magnifying glass the broken or twisted or misshapen strokes of each individual letter. Frequently, she was misled by the badly mottled plaster and the spreading network of fine, dirt-filled cracks, not always at first realizing her mistake. Noting down each letter as it yielded up its shape, or what appeared to be its shape, she came to the end of the last line three days after starting, confident that no minutest trace of red lead or charcoal clung to the surface beyond. Then she turned to study her notes:
Only a few minutes were required to reconstruct and translate these phrases, and her heart jumped as the meaning became clear: HOMINIBUS CRESTIANUS AD CORPUS TUUM SEPULTIS - "Christian men buried near your body." The necropolis had finally yielded a definite reference to Peter's remains as lying in the vicinity. The grave under the high altar was little more than thirty feet from the Valerius tomb.
In the following days, as Dr. Guarducci talked eagerly of her discovery with other experts, it became evident that its true value was more a matter of corroboration, rather than of original proof. The crux lay in the dating. In her view, from various indications the writing of the inscription could be assigned to a period straddling the third and fourth centuries, say, 290-310. It thus attested the presence of Peter's remains even before the advent of Constantine, and nicely filled in the century following the mention of the Tropaion by the priest Gaius.
Other scholars, while complimenting her on a brilliant feat of decipherment, disagreed with her dating. The scrawl was a veritable defacement of the shrine, they pointed out, as well as an open avowal of Christian sentiment. As such, it could hardly have been done while the tomb was still operative and in pagan hands. Only after condemnation of the entire necropolis, in preparation for the first basilica, perhaps sometime about 330, would any Christian have dared to mark a pagan tomb in this fashion. In that case, the inscription became part of the general evidence linked directly to Constantine's operations. Immensely intriguing, even reassuring, it still was not of independent worth.
In reality, the true value of Dr. Guarducci's work with the Valerius inscription lay in quite another direction. Almost predictable, its hard challenge had kindled her latent curiosity about the whole matter of the excavations, and with Peter's grave in particular. Not long afterward, despite a determined effort to put the basilica with all its scientific enticements out of her mind, her thoughts began reaching back to the graffiti wall. Soon she was burning to know what purpose, if any, could possibly be served by that giddy mass of extraneous, apparently senseless lines. Her request for permission to make a study of the intriguing tangle was quickly honored, but she was delayed for a while by some other commitments, and the writing of a report on the Valerius epigraph. It was September 1953 before she was able to begin.
As her first move at the graffiti wall, Dr. Guarducci, arranged for a series of professional photographs to be taken of the whole surface, overlapping close-ups which would capture every nuance of the inscriptions. Spending hours each day at the wall, usually kneeling on a cushion, one hand holding a light while the other wielded the magnifying glass, she was soon oblivious to the passing hours. As the days went by she fell into a steady rhythm, spending mornings at the basilica, then continuing her studies with the photographs at home in the afternoons, the only break in the routine coming from her teaching duties at the university. There were also frequent visits to the libraries and museums of Rome as she searched for any smallest light that might be thrown on the scratches by the work of the other scholars in related fields.
To her great consternation, the first weeks of this intensive effort, in which she tried one hypothesis after another while calling on her whole store of epigraphical knowledge, yielded exactly nothing. Behind the enigmatic jumble she could discern no rationale, no pattern. No ghost of a personality became visible. Only here and there could she find some letter - an A, a B, an E - which appeared to separate itself from its surroundings. Or were these forms mere accidents of conjunction? Of even this she couldn't be certain, and when a whole month fled by without the least hint of progress, in desperation she began casting around for something, anything, some stray bit of information, that might afford even the slightest clue to the wall's stubborn secret.
It was now, in the face of Dr. Guarducci's threatened defeat, that the perverse fate which had so seriously flawed the original investigation more than a decade before, at last began to make amends. As the frustrated scholar arrived at the site one morning, occupied at a task nearby was the workman Giovanni Segoni. Now promoted to head foreman of the Sampietrini, he and Dr. Guarducci had already met once or twice, but only in passing. This particular morning's encounter would be different.
After greeting each other, for no special reason the two stood looking at the graffiti wall, remarking casually on the inscriptions. As they talked, Dr. Guarducci's eyes trailed down to the enlarged opening of the repository, its brittle edges now plastered to prevent further deterioration. Had anything been found in this space, she wondered, which might help with the inscriptions? The official report in its very short and cursory account had specified that the cavity had been found empty except for a few bits of bone, some minor debris, and the coin of Limoges. But had that been all? Had anything else turned up, perhaps some object apparently of no worth, which had been left unlisted by the archaeologists? In her groping for aid she was unwilling to dismiss even this unlikely possibility. Segoni, she recalled, had taken part in the excavations from the very start.
"Tell me, Giovanni," she said, pointing, "do you remember what sorts of things were found inside that cavity?"
Segoni looked down at the opening and thought for a moment. "Yes, I emptied it myself," he answered, "when old Monsignor Kaas gave the order. I can show you the things if you want."
Not waiting for a reply, Segoni turned and led the way along a series of corridors until he came to a door which swung open on a small, dimly lit storeroom tucked into an angle behind the chapel of St. Columban. Spread round on tables, shelves, and much of the floor were dozens of boxes, wooden or metal, of may shapes and sizes. Most of these boxes, Segoni explained as he moved round the room opening one after another, held bones and other things turned up in the early digging. He still didn't know what was to be done with them all.
"Here," he said at last, lifting a box to a table, "this is it." He handed Dr. Guarducci a small card which was slightly torn and rather limp from dampness. Smoothing it carefully on the table, she was able to make out three words written in faded pencil: "ossa-urna-graf."
The box, made of wood, was carried by Segoni to an empty office nearby where there was less clutter and more light. Placing it on a table beside a window, he removed several clamps. Dr. Guarducci lifted the cover off, looked in, then stared for a moment in some doubt. Instead of a meager collection of bone fragments, the "slight remains" vaguely described by the excavators, the box held a considerable pile of bones, quite a few of which could hardly be described as slight.
Gingerly, Dr. Guarducci took up the larger pieces and laid them one by one on the table. Five were of some length, measuring from six to ten inches, all showing partial decay. It was obvious that they had come from human arms or legs. There were also a half dozen pieces from a human spinal column, vertebrae easily recognizable, and several thicker, knobbled pieces which might have belonged to knee or elbow joints. Almost a hundred other , smaller pieces of broken or decayed bone, or various shaped and thicknesses, were in the box, some several inches long but many of a size that could only be called tiny. On a closer look she saw that, in color, the larger pieces and a few of the smaller ones were a stark white, while other pieces ranged from duller white to yellowish to varying shades of brown.
Aside from the bones, the box yielded nothing that gave promise of helping with the decipherment. There were three or four bits of red plaster and of marble, and some dozen diminutive shreds of decaying fabric, colored a washed-out reddish-brown, in which still glinted purplish highlights and gold threads. There were also two corroded coins, one of which was identifiable as belonging to the Middle Ages, a fact which lent support to the earlier contention of the four excavators that the repository had been opened in the tenth or eleventh century. The second coin was judged to be too much worn for proper identification.
Fleetingly, Dr. Guarducci wondered again how the excavators could have described the bones in the box as "slight." Kirschbaum in his own writing had even used the word "splinters," a term which was wholly inadequate. Questioning Segoni, she asked if he were certain that everything in the box had come from the graffiti wall. Emphatically, the workman replied that he had emptied the space with is own hands while Monsignor Kaas stood by. He had then written out that very label at the Monsignor's direction. The box had been carefully locked and deposited in the storeroom, which had also been kept locked, the Monsignor being very particular about such things. The box, Segoni was positive, had never been touched since. Everything in it at that moment had definitely come from the cavity in the graffiti wall ten years before.
The question that had begun to rise in Dr. Guarducci's mind, never quite formed, now began to fade. If these bones had held no interest for the four original investigators, she reasoned, then they were evidently of slight importance. If the marble repository had indeed been opened in medieval times - and there seemed little doubt of it - the bones must date to that period, or at least they had been laid into the repository at that time. If older, they would naturally be of more interest, though in what way it was hard to tell.
In any case, it now seemed quite clear, definite in fact, that the bones in the box must comprise the remains of several individuals. Undoubtedly they were stray bones from different graves turned up accidentally in the vicinity form time to time and together enclosed in the graffiti wall as a convenient ossuarium. Some sort of connection with the ninth-century Saracen invaders appeared likely. More to the point, there was nothing here that could help with the inscriptions - a disappointing outcome.
Returning the bones to the box, she wrapped the box itself in heavy brown paper, then tied it round with stout cord. Simply as a matter of scientific precision, she had decided that these unrecorded items should sooner or later be examined by experts, and meantime they ought to be kept secure. With Monsignor Vacchini's permission, the box was not put back in the damp storeroom, but was carried to the basilica's main offices, where it was locked in a cupboard.
From the strange embroidery on the graffiti wall, under Dr. Guarducci's questing stare some fifty names eventually emerged, distant and separate, all of them familiar in third and fourth-century Roman usage. About half were linked to a Christ monogram, and about a third included prayers and invocations, always abbreviated, wishing for the dead eternal joy in Christ. But even after isolating all these names and phrases, often by minutely tracing out individual letters in succession, there still remained the weird inundation of extra lines from which no sense could be extracted.
Further weeks of fruitless study passed, then months, and despite the many fatiguing hours she spent on her knees before the wall, or bent over the pile of photographs at home, her bafflement continued to deepen. Earnest discussion of the vexing problem with her sister, with colleagues at the university, and with Pope Pius himself, brought sympathy and encouragement but no real assistance. Once during those months, however, her efforts were rewarded with a discovery, and though it proved of no assistance in deciphering the other scratches, in its own way it was electrifying.
When for the twentieth time her magnifying glass moved across the upper left corner of the graffiti wall, there suddenly leaped out a her, just above a Christ monogram, five letters arranged in two lines:
At their right edges both lines ran into broken plaster and could thus have once been longer. In fact, the aged form of what might have been a C still clung vaguely to the end of the first line. Instantly Dr. Guarducci recognized the phrase for what it was, the only thing it could be: IN HOC VINCE, Latin for "In this, conquer." These very words, she knew, had formed part of Constantine's famous aerial vision in the year 312, just before his final battle for Rome. In the vision, the words had been accompanied by some unspecified type of cross, and the Emperor had jubilantly ordered his troops to paint the emblem on their shields and helmets. A rapid victory had followed.
As it happened, the earliest report of this memorable incident was a contemporary one, written down from Constantine's own lips by the historian Eusebius. In his short account, and almost as an afterthought, Eusebius had also preserved the vital fact that the Emperor had not been the only witness to the arresting sight: "He said that with his own eyes, during the afternoon, while the day was already fading, he had seen a shining cross in the sky, more brilliant than the sun, accompanied by the words, 'In this, conquer.' He remained stunned by the vision, and so did all the army following him in the expedition, which had also seen the miracle."
The marvel had quickly become an accepted part of church history and had remained so, unquestioned, for many centuries. More recently, there had arisen a tendency among scholars to question its factual basis. Some preferred to explain it as spurious, a later addition to Eusebius' writings. Others had gone so far as to suggest that Eusebius himself might have simply invented the whole incident. But here on the graffiti wall was an occurrence of the famous phrase which certainly antedated the historian's work. Its presence could only mean that knowledge of the vision, in all its compelling reality, had been current among Roman Christians long before Eusebius wrote. A decade, at most separated inscription and vision, but the interval might easily have been a good deal less, even as little as a year or two. It might indeed - and the possibility was enough to send a shiver through the scholar - have actually been cut into the wall by an eyewitness to the memorable event.
By now Dr. Guarducci had become convinced that the enigmatic scratches must hide some rational meaning, and the conviction, based more on instinct that observation, was enough to keep her doggedly at work. Able to pick out several more letters from the tangle, she had been intrigued to note that some of them - A, V, or N - appeared actually to be repeated within themselves. In other instances, it seemed, certain letters had been altered in form by the deft addition of one or more lines.
The first real clue, when it finally showed up, revealed itself in a totally unexpected way, in an aspect of early Christianity already familiar, but which on the wall had been transposed into something quite unfamiliar. Small as the clue was, it provided the indispensable mechanism needed to bridge the gap between know and unknown.
Fairly frequently on the wall there occurred the well-documented alpha-omega combination, AO (in Greek A). This was a favorite device of early Christians in which the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet were used to indicate God or the Savior. The sign had been derived in the first instance from St. John's Apocalypse, where the symbolism is pronounced by the voice of God: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." In use since at least the start of the second century, the device had spread with the church across the Mediterranean and into the East. Its appearance among the graffiti thus was hardly noteworthy in itself, but Dr. Guarducci now noticed that it was used with a difference.
Examining the name MARIA, she saw that to the left of the letter I there was scratched a tine omega sign, w. Leading from this small insertion, another scratched line curved over the top of the I and connected with the final A of the name. Here, it appeared, was an AO in reverse, a curious inversion, if deliberate. When she saw that the same reversal occurred on several other parts of the wall - written even more plainly as an inserted A- she concluded that the anomaly was no accident. "Beginning-and End" transformed to "End-and-Beginning"?
In a Christian context, the only plausible interpretation for such a phrase was a reference to bodily death as the start of eternal life. That was reasonable enough in the framework of early Christian thought, but it made the OA a twofold symbol, one in which the original meaning had been extended. Ultimately, perhaps, it became a reference to Christ as the one through whose own death and resurrection, salvation had been made possible for all. Death in Christ was the beginning of true life.
Hesitating, Dr. Guarducci found herself wondering why she had never before encountered this symbolic reversal of the alpha-omega. Had others know of it? A few days of study in the libraries of Rome brought a quick answer: the reversal had indeed been noted before by a few isolated scholars, in funerary inscriptions. But it had received little serious attention. Most had dismissed it as a hurried or indifferent form of the ubiquitous A , perhaps even an error. None had been sufficiently impressed by the peculiarity to make it a subject of separate study.
Unwilling to dismiss this rare symbol as meaningless, Dr. Guarducci reasoned that if it was indeed purposeful, a king of cryptographic variation of the original, then perhaps other marks on the wall might be couched in a similar code. Once again she began systematically gleaning through the massed scratches, both at the wall and in the more manageable photographs. This time supporting evidence started to show up almost immediately.
The T, a known symbol for the cross in antiquity, was several times spotlighted in such a way as to leave little doubt of its symbolic function. The same thing was evident with the X, an early designation for Christ. More than once the phrase IN (in Christ), was varied to IN A, making the A interchangeable with the monogram. The tripling of the A, which she had noted earlier, now suddenly took on a quite specific meaning - did it not suggest a reference to the Holy Trinity? And could it be only be only by chance that where the monogram for Christ, second person of the Trinity, was added to these triplings, it was clearly attached to the second A?
Haunting libraries, delving into the works of archaeologists and church historians, sorting through long-neglected artifacts and old documents in museums, Dr. Guarducci gradually accumulated a list of meanings, definite or highly probable, for a whole range of letters. Among them were E for Eden, F for Son (Latin fidelius), N for Victory (Greek nika), R for Resurrection, S for Health (Latin salut), V for Life (Latin vita). The capital letter A was abundantly confirmed - through its use in mosaics and paintings which had never been quite understood before - as standing for Christ. The letter M, or letters MA, indicating Mary the mother of Christ, offered a particularly impressive example. Nestled inside the M there was often an A (Greek form ), which served as the last letter of MARIA, and also stood for her Son, .
No one, she found, had ever made any sustained investigation of this alphabetical symbolism, though it seemed to have been rather widely employed among Christians in the second and third centuries. In no sense a formal or standardized practice, this spiritual cryptography had grown and spread haphazardly over the decades, no doubt in response to the pressing need to keep certain revealing beliefs hidden from hostile pagan neighbors and officials. But also at work, Dr. Guarducci felt, was a definite inclination in the ancient world, among both Christians and pagans, toward a kind of artifice, a taste for the arcane, in which the appeal of religious beliefs was enhanced by a veiling of mysticism. There was also the prevailing Roman habit, often carried to an unreadable extreme, of sharply abbreviating names and familiar words in public inscriptions.
Like a bright flare bursting over a nighttime landscape, the nascent theory of mystical cryptography now brilliantly lit up the darkness of the graffiti wall. As finally formulated by Dr. Guarducci, the code was threefold. First, there was simple letter symbolism, in which almost every letter of the alphabet carried a special meaning. Usually employing the initial letter of a word, the message could be endlessly varied by direct or indirect combinations, according to the ingenuity of the writer. Second, there was letter transfiguration, in which by the careful addition of lines to an existing letter, several concepts could be expressed simultaneously in a confined space. Here too the possibilities were limited only by the writer's cleverness. Third, there was linkage, in which different letters located handily near each other could be joined by the drawing of straight or curved lines to form still other combinations.
Using this simple code, the faithful visiting the site had been able to express themselves with an astonishing range of ideas. Out of the scratches overlying the fifty names, Dr. Guarducci was eventually able to disentangle, among others, references to Christ as God and Son of God, the victory of the cross, Christ as the Resurrection and the Life, Christ and his mother in paradise, life eternal, the Holy Trinity, peace and salvation in Christ, and Christ as the Light of the World. This fantastic network of meandering lines was in reality a marvelously living document, preserving in a unique immediacy the spiritual hunger of that generation of Christians which was first to emerge from the long night of suppression and persecution.
But what of Peter? In this abundant flowering of spiritual sentiment on the wall guarding his grave, had the chief apostle been ignored?
Almost from the moment in which she first glimpsed the wall's secret, Dr. Guarducci had confidently expected that, in some manner, Peter would be mentioned. Eagerly on the alert as she threaded her way through the coded abbreviations, she had not searched long before she encountered the letters PE worked into a Christ monogram rising above the O in the name VENEROSA, . The way in which the Greek letter rho or R (P) was here made to serve as the Latin letter P, had thrown her off the trail at first, but she soon discovered that the substitution was not new. It had been seen several times before, in the catacombs and on old medallions, though never in connection with Peter. When she found the same device on the wall a second time, embroidered on the L of LEONIA, this time with the E attached to the downstroke, she knew that the mysterious absence of Peter's name on his own grave had been solved.
In abbreviated form, the apostle's name was present on the wall at least twenty times, usually accompanied by prayers for the dead person named - in one case expressing joy that the lost relative lay in the same cemetery that held Peter's own body. On every part of the wall - freestanding between the letters of a name, formed from or engrafted onto existing lines - there occurred the initials PE or PET. Often they were preceded by an A, in this case short for the Latin ad, meaning near (perhaps also denoting a link with Christ). Most often the initials were arranged as a monogram, a device for designating Peter which was entirely new to historians: or . Revealingly, the abbreviation was often associated with the Christ monogram, so interwoven as to suggest an unusually close union between Redeemer and apostle. Significantly, in two cases this union of symbols had added to it the name of Maria.
It was while researching the Peter monogram in libraries and museums that Dr. Guarducci uncovered still another fact largely forgotten over the centuries. It brought dramatically to light a fuller picture of Peter's true position in early Christianity.
The unusual monogram, its link to Peter totally unrecognized had actually been found before, outside the Vatican, and it had by no means been confined to funerary inscriptions. Surprisingly, it could be found scratched on ancient monuments, linked onto old documents of all kinds, worked subtly into wall mosaics, incised on the margins of public signs, roughly stamped on medals, coins, rings, statuettes, pots and similar household wares, even painted on gaming boards. The occurrence of the device in so many areas of Roman life unrelated to religion was, in fact, a minor phenomenon which had bedeviled classical scholars for years. The occasional attempts to explain it had not succeeded, and most experts were inclined to shrug it off as some obscure type of pagan good-luck symbol, its origin irretrievably lost in the dim past.
Now, with its discovery on the graffiti wall, there could be no real doubt of the symbol's true meaning - and no doubt whatever as to its origin. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven," Jesus had declared to Peter, and the Roman faithful had obviously delighted in the way the key-like monogram so precisely reflected those words.
But this pervasive use of the Peter symbol in secular Roman circles told a still more engrossing tale. Even centuries after the apostle's death, and though his place had been taken by a series of other impressive figures, this first pope had continued to haunt the thoughts of later Christians, growing ever dearer in their memories as the long, slow decades of persecution rolled by. Peter, above all, remained their earthly link to Christ. In their harried and yearning hearts, he had continued to be the one man who could bring them close to the healing personality of Jesus. Through Peter, they could stand in spirit on the blessed shores of Galilee as the eternal words of the Master feel through the crisp air, as they had when first spoken, like a benediction. Now it could be seen that the historian Eusebius had told only the literal truth about Peter, then dead some two and a half centuries, when he wrote: "He was known throughout the world, even in the western countries, and his memory among the Romans is still more alive today than the memory of all those who lived before him."
Dr. Guarducci had brought her task to a triumphant conclusion, but it had been the most demanding labor of her career. When starting work on the graffiti wall she had estimated that it might occupy her for several weeks, perhaps a month. Instead, counting preparation of a heavily illustrated, three-volume report, it had absorbed nearly all her mental and physical energies, and filled a large part of her waking hours, for five long years.