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)
Three lead-lined wooden boxes lay open on a long table in a bare, isolated room at the basilica. In them were carefully stored the bones that had been found in the central grave, those dug by Father Kirschbaum from under the triangular rise in the red wall. Standing before the table, a white laboratory smock covering his street clothes, was a sober-faced, middle-aged man named Venerando Correnti. One of Europe's most distinguished anthropologists, a leading member of the faculty at Palermo University, Professor Correnti was preparing to make a full-scale anatomical study of the bones now widely believed to be those of the apostle.
Ever since their discovery fourteen years before, the red wall bones had been preserved in the Pope's own apartment. Dutifully safeguarded, they still had not been accorded any special marks of reverence. Instead, for scholars and churchmen alike, they had continued to be a source of severe frustration.
The bones had been taken from what was incontestably Peter's own original grave (the portion disturbed by the building of the red wall). They had been medically certified as belonging to a single individual, someone who, like Peter, had been an elderly man of powerful build. In the opinion of many, this was proof enough, prompting a strong desire to have the remains declared authentic. Of course, more rounded evidence would have been welcome, these advocates admitted, but its absence should not be allowed to obscure undoubted facts.
On the other hand, as cooler minds recognized, there were still too many imponderables to allow any such authoritative step. The bones had been found strangely heaped together in the bare earth below the wall. Obviously, they had already been disturbed at least once, a fact that raised doubts about what other interference the grave and its contents might have suffered in the centuries before the erection of the first basilica. No less troubling was the ninth-century sack of the basilica, and perhaps the tomb, by the Saracens. Such a doubtful provenance, in itself, gave quite ample reason for pause.
In reality, it was pointed out more than once, lacking as they did all intrinsic evidence, the only way the bones could definitely be tied to Peter would have been the presence in them of some disease or deformity known to have been suffered by the apostle. But nowhere in the existing documents regarding Peter was any physical infirmity recorded.
For conscientious men, this situation had posed an extremely uncomfortable dilemma, and in the end it had reduced the authorities to frustrated inaction. Since the first, brief noncommittal mention of the bones in the official report, no further information had appeared in print, a silence which for scholars and churchmen around the world had grown steadily more exasperating.
Because of the Vatican's indecision, it was charged, the belief was rapidly becoming fixed that the bones really were those of Peter - worse, even the four excavators had begun to lend themselves openly to this lamentable process of approval by default. Kirschbaum's published opinion, for example, often came unwarrantably, and unwisely, close to certitude. "A recess under the lowest niche of the red wall," he had written, "was found to contain the bones of a man of advanced years and powerful build. The skull was missing. Who, we may well ask, is this old man in St. Peter's grave? In view of the fact that the head of the apostle has for many centuries been preserved and venerated in the Lateran church, the conclusion that these are the bones of the apostle himself is well nigh irresistible."
Perhaps, critics contended, it was only natural that the excavators and others close to the work should, in these peculiar circumstances, allow the weight of their beliefs to fall on the positive side. And of course it was only to be expected that many of the faithful should willingly follow their lead. But this was scarcely the path of science.
By the spring of 1956, this widespread concern over the unresolved question, coupled with the Vatican's own growing desire to have it settled, had brought about a determination to take some definite action. The long period of indecision finally came to an end when Pope Pius XII directed the basilica's new administrator, Monsignor Primo Principi, to pursue the only course left open. The bones were to be reexamined, this time not by medical doctors but by the best qualified specialist available. Whatever the results, they were to be promptly published.
If nothing but corroboration of the earlier conclusions were achieved, the problem would still not be wholly settled. But there then might be more reason, and a greater willingness among scholars, to accept the remains as those of Peter. If authenticity were in some definite manner to be disproved, at least the truth would have been served.
Lifting the bones one after another from the boxes and placing them on the table, Professor Correnti peered closely at each in turn. Even before the boxes were emptied, he knew that his task would be an unusually long and difficult one. Too many important bones were missing, or were present only in fragments.
If an entire, well-preserved skeleton had been available, it would have been relatively simple to determine such things as age at death, sex, height, and body type. The investigation would still have consumed a good deal of time, with many fine measurements and other tests required for each of several dozen bones. But the process would have gone smoothly and steadily, and the results, most often, would have been entirely dependable. When certain crucial bones were missing, however, or were altered and reduced by decay, then the work became endlessly laborious, requiring infinitely more time. The results, too, would be less satisfactory.
According to the number and type of bones present, and their condition, the conclusions reached would have to be expressed with lessening degrees of precision, in such terms as almost certain, probable, presumable, all the way down to indeterminable. From what Correnti had been able to judge in his first review, it appeared to him that little more than half the skeleton was present, with very few of the bones intact.
To one side of the table, the scientist gathered the larger bones and fragments, carefully spreading them. The smaller pieces he arranged to the other side. Among the larger ones, he began to check off those he could recognize on sight. There was a nearly whole sternum (breastbone), five pieces of the ilium (pelvic girdle), a complete left tibia (shinbone), and the left patella (kneecap). Suddenly he stopped counting and stared. On the table lay three fibulas. These were the long, slight bones of the lower leg, which paralleled the heaver tibia from knee to ankle. But each leg of a human being contained only one of these.
Looking through the gathering of smaller bones, Correnti patiently separated out a number which were recognizable as the metatarsals (from the foot, just above the toes). Carefully counting, he soon saw that there were far too many of these small bones for one person. Picking up a chunky fragment identifiable as part of the left humerus (shoulder), he looked along the table and after some minutes spotted a similar piece from the same area of the skeleton - and a few seconds later came across still another.
The most conspicuous bone on the table was the left tibia, about twelve inches long, intact and well preserved. Correnti next assembled a second tibia, which had been broken in two at its middle. Then, after searching for a while among the larger fragments, he found parts of what he judged to be four additional tibias. There could be no doubt of it. On the table lay the bones of not one but several individuals.
Almost immediately another surprise showed up. Many of the bones, those pieces darker in hue, had come from animals. There were bones from cows, horses, goats, and sheep, perhaps as many as fifty or sixty pieces in all, making about a fourth of the total spread on the table. After a bemused look at these bones, Correnti set them aside in order to concentrate on the human remains.
The examination now entered a phase which was to prove of weary length. To separate the various individuals, and to determine the basic facts of sex, age at death, and body type for each, a long series of fine measurements was required on all of the nearly two hundred remaining bones. Each of these measurements had to be recorded, and then checked against standard anatomical tables. The measurements themselves, and the other tests for such vital factors as porosity and degree of softening (sponginess), were by no means simple. In settling the age of a single bone, for example, the medullary canal (the tube-like cavity at the center of the longer bones) had to be gauged for width in order to find the amount of deterioration, a chore easily enough accomplished when the bone or fragment was well preserved. When there was only a trace of the canal in a broken or decayed piece, the measurements became increasingly more exacting.
According to the amount of time given to it, the task could stretch out for many months, even years, and with Professor Correnti the situation was aggravated. Because of his teaching commitments at the University of Palermo, and regular appointments as guest lecturer at other leading schools, his availability was limited. Further, all the work had to be done at the basilica, since the bones were not allowed out of the Vatican. Under these circumstances, as it developed, Correnti's assignment was to be drawn out to unusual lengths, and several years passed before he had completed event the determination of age at death. After that, however, sorting of the bones went rapidly.
There were just three persons present, he concluded. At death, two of them had probably been in their fifties. The third individual, to whom most of the bones belonged, could have been seventy years old or more.
For determination of the sexes, a delicate procedure, most of the necessary bones appeared to be present, but all had been fractured in one way or another, and most were only small fragments. Fortunately, for one of the most important bones, the pelvic girdle, there were a half dozen fairly substantial pieces. Patiently measuring each piece in several different ways, constantly comparing values with standard anthropological charts listing the ranges of male and female characteristics, Correnti found himself well into 1960 before the task was completed.
The two individuals in their fifties, he decided, were probably both males. One was of medium build, the other robust. For the slighter man, several fragments of the skull were present, and to him also belonged five teeth found in the box. Because of the much larger number of bones available for the elderly individual, the sex could be judged with greater precision, though the results fell short of absolute. The third person was, almost certainly, a female.
There results were communicated to the Vatican verbally, in advance of the official report. Understandably, they caused heavy gloom. The presence of the animal bones troubled no one, however, for it was pointed out that the basilica itself stood very near, perhaps even partially atop, the site of the first-century circus or arena of Nero, the traditional location of Peter's crucifixion. Here, in the first century, many animals had been stabled, and in addition the area was known to have accommodated a number of farms. In these circumstances, the fact that certain animal bones had somehow become mixed with the human remains seemed almost a guarantee of the original grave. The animal skeletons had probably been lying beneath the soil when the grave was first dug. Perhaps they had been picked up with the human bones, in ignorance, as the grave was being shortened at the building of the red wall. A much more devastating blow than the presence of animal bones was the determination that the elderly individual was female.
Still, there were some in the Vatican who refused to concede. The provisional nature of the negative judgment, they insisted, left the question at least partially open. The elderly person - for whom a skull was entirely absent - had been classed as "almost certainly" female. This description, patently, was not conclusive, especially on so vexed and sensitive a question. The issue had simply shifted from "probably Peter," to its opposite, "probably not Peter."
The few random bones of the other two men could easily be explained. Most likely they had entered the apostle's grave by accident, perhaps moved by soil slippage over the centuries, perhaps in the same way as the animal bones. All had been gathered up together by pious hands, when the cache was made beneath the red wall, in fear of losing any portion of Peter's body. So long as there was even a slight chance that these were the bones of the apostle, the dilemma remained.
Professor Correnti, his work done, kept aloof from the discussion. He was, in any case, busy preparing his report for publication. It would contain, in addition to the general findings, all the background materials, lengthy tables in which every bone and fragment would be listed and described, charts setting forth all measurements made on each bone no matter how small, comparisons with the standard tables, and a full set of detailed photographs. Merely to complete the excavation record, he had also agreed to perform a similar study on some other bones found in the vicinity. He would examine the few which had been dug up from the courtyard in front of the Tropaion, and also those which had been removed by Monsignor Kaas from the graffiti wall.
After a leisurely six months, Correnti reported that the courtyard bones belonged to four individuals. Three were adults, of indeterminable age and sex, the fourth was probably a male, probably about forty years old. In this group also, many animal bones were present, of the same species found among the red wall bones, a fact that bolstered the assertion that the whole area had been used to inter the carcasses of dead animals.
It was October 1962 before Correnti, glad to see the end of an interminable assignment, turned his attention to the wooden box with the brown paper wrapping.
Led to believe that the graffiti wall cache held a varied mix of individuals, Correnti was mildly surprised when he could find no duplication among the bones spread before him on the table, duplication such as had been quickly evident with the red wall bones. If there was a mixture here it would show up only after each item had been analyzed for age and sex.
Almost none of the bones on the table was whole. Except for three very small pieces, all had been eaten away by decay. The total number was 135, but only a half dozen of these were of some length, six inches or more, with the best-preserved being to longer bones from the legs. Conspicuous on the table were the left and right femur (thighbone), the left and right tibia (shinbone), and the right fibula (lower leg).
There were also some animal bones, but much fewer comparatively than had occurred with the first two groups, only some dozen pieces in all, none large. Another dozen very slight and fragile pieces proved to be the complete skeleton of a field mouse. Probably the little creature had entered alive into the repository, Correnti reasoned, and then, unable to find its way out, had died there. The condition of these mouse bones - very desiccated and stark white - seemed to show that they had never lain in the earth. Further, it was unlikely that all the tiny pieces would still be present if they had been transferred by hand.
As the scientist's enumeration of the human remains continued he began to see that, except for the feet, every part of the skeleton was represented. For the skull there were some twenty-seven fragments of the cranium, along with two small pieces of the mandible (jaw), and one tooth, a lower-left canine. One of the cranial pieces bore a trace of the suture, and since this was completely ossified Correnti could tell immediately that the skull, in any case, was that of an individual at least fifty years old, and probably a great deal older.
There were eight arm fragments, upper and lower, making about a quarter of the total lengths of left and right arms. Interestingly, the hands were well represented, even though most of the finger bones were very small and might easily have been lost or overlooked. The left hand was virtually complete; the right lacked two fingers and most of the wrist. For the legs, both thighs and shins, about eighty percent of the bone was present, though in fragments. Only the feet, from the ankles down, were entirely missing. Not a single one of the many small bones to be found in the human foot could be seen on the table.
Several months were needed to determine the age at death for all the bones, a task that was not finished until early in 1963. Without exception, they fell within the category of "elderly," between sixty and seventy years. An even longer period was required to determine the sex, as Correnti made nearly a hundred separate measurements and other analyses on more than two dozen critical fragments. In the end he had no doubt of his opinion, though because the skeleton was incomplete his description had to be a qualified one. The bones from the graffiti wall, he concluded, were those of a single, elderly individual, about five feet seven inches tall, of heavy build, and almost certainly male.
A thorough investigator, in his report Correnti also mentioned two further facts which had struck him. In the depressions and hollows of many of the pieces he had found encrusted soil, earth particles clinging in hardened patches. From this, he said, it was reasonable to suppose that the bones had lain - and for a considerable period of time - in a bare earth grave.
The second fact was still more curious. Four or five of the larger bones showed an unnatural staining on their intact extremities. The color was a dark, uncertain red, in spots tending to reddish-brown, the same as could be seen in the shreds of fabric found in the wooden box. All these bones, it appeared, at some time after dissolution of the flesh, had been taken from the earth and wrapped in a purplish, gold-threaded cloth.
Pope Pius XII, after reigning for almost twenty years, died in October 1958. To his own grave he carried one of the sharpest disappointments of his life, the knowledge that the bones found beneath the red wall were almost certainly not those of Peter. His successor, John XXIII, held the chair for less than five years, dying on June 3, 1963. Within a week of this sad event, and well before the election of a new pope, a conversion took place in the Vatican between Professor Correnti and Dr. Guarducci. Lasting only a few casual moments, it would set in motion the final phase of the quest that had begun nearly a quarter century before.
The two scientists had known each other for some years. Occasionally, Dr. Guarducci had visited her friend in his Vatican workroom to inquire about progress on the bones. Their exchange this time (as Dr. Guarducci recalled it) was brief and offhand.
"You know," remarked Correnti, "it is very curious. In that little box of bones I have found the remains of only a single individual, and not of many, as in the first and second groups."
"A single individual?" Dr. Guarducci responded in some surprise. Along with many others, she had assumed that the box must hold the remains of several persons. "And have you established the sex?"
"And the age?"
"An advanced age Between sixty and seventy years." Correnti paused, then added, "It is a man of robust constitution."
Explaining that all areas of the skeleton were present except for the feet, he said that judging by the soil still adhering to the bones, the body must first have been buried in the earth. Curiously, at some unknown time the bones had been enclosed in a wrapping of purple clothe - the bare bones, not the body itself. At the thought of the little mouse, its diminutive skeleton sharing the honors paid to the unknown man, both smiled in amusement. They parted for the day agreeing that it was indeed a singular circumstance that the human remains should prove to be those of one man.
Who could this have been, Dr. Guarducci found herself wondering, to have deserved burial so near Peter, actually within his shrine? From what lone grave had his decayed bones been lifted? To such questions the possible answers were nearly endless, involving a span of some thousand years, from the building of the graffiti wall in the third century right up to the Middle Ages. So, at least, it appeared to the scientist in those first hours after she learned the results of the testing. But a quiet spark had been struck, and her disciplined instincts now began to sift unhidden through a myriad of facts, guesses, and discarded theories.
During the evening after the conversation with Correnti, she continued to be mildly disturbed by some vague half-thought, a teasing echo of memory, which insisted on straying just out of reach. During the following day the feeling persisted, and the next morning as she prepared to leave her house for the university, there sounded dimly in her conscious mind, faintly reverberating, the two Greek words (Petros Eni).
Not for ten years had she given any thought to the inscription found by Ferrua inside the repository, scratched on the chunk of red plaster that had been shaken loose from the end-wall. While doing her original work on the mass of encoded graffiti, she had also taken a few days to study this isolated Peter graffito and had reached a conclusion satisfying to herself but which had not convinced everyone. The second word, the ENI, she had thought then, might be taken as complete in itself, rather than as the remaining portion of a longer word.
In ancient Greek, ENI (ENI) had sometimes been used, mostly in poetry, as a contraction of the verb ENEOTI, meaning "is within." The literal rendering of the red wall graffito would then be "Peter is within." But since, in this case, the word had a funerary context, its true reading could rightly be expanded to "Peter is buried in here."
At the time in 1953 when Dr. Guarducci first studied this inscription, no one among the experts had any doubt that, whatever its true meaning, the writing of it must have preceded the building of the graffiti wall. That the words had reference to the grave in the central chamber was a fact taken for granted. Some pious pilgrim of the late second century, kneeling in prayer, on the spur of the moment had hurriedly inscribed the two words, using some handy fine-pointed instrument (the cuts in the plaster are thin and shallow). Subsequently, the scratches had been covered up by the west end of the jutting graffiti wall. With this early assessment of the physical facts, Dr. Guarducci had fully agreed.
Now, two days after her talk with Professor Correnti, as she walked the busy corridors of the university, the phrase "Peter is buried in here," continued to whisper itself softly, insistently. At last the nagging question rose abruptly to the surface and, standing suddenly still, she almost recited it aloud: Could these graffiti wall bones be Peter's?
No, of course not, she instantly told herself. It made no sense at all. Why would Peter's bones be in the wall rather than where they belonged, in the central grave? If there had been the slightest chance of such a thing, how on earth could the four excavators have so completely missed it? And how could the placement of the Peter inscription be explained, sealed as it was inside the cavity where no one would ever notice it? Then there was the repository itself - everyone agreed that it had been opened in the Middle Ages, and who knew how many times it might have been violated before that?
But had the repository been opened? Why couldn't those tenth - or eleventh-century coins have gotten in by some sort of accident? The mouse! Surely if the marble cavity could be entered by a mouse, then the coins too might somehow have entered later, dropping in from above or at the sides. The official report had noted the roughness of the wall-fill above the repository, with its many cracks and fissures. The report had even explained that between the graffiti wall and the red wall a slight separation had developed because of settling. A great number of coins, nearly two thousand of them, had been found in and around the shrine, most dating from the Middle Ages. It would hardly be surprising if some of these had, suddenly or gradually, found their way down along the fissures or between the two wall surfaces.
Her mind now in a whirl, for the next two weeks Dr. Guarducci told her thoughts to no one as she feverishly evaluated every angle of the startling idea. How and when had the Peter graffito been written on the red wall, if that particular spot had been blocked? Of course! Through the front opening of the repository. After the bones had been laid in and just before the niche was walled up, a the last moment someone had reached in, probably with his left hand, and had made the hasty scratches, no doubt acting on impulse, moved by a vague wish to leave some definite identification.
But why, in the first place, had the bones been moved from the grave to the wall, and who was responsible? Constantine? And had he done it to preserve the relics forever from all threat of interference, especially vandalism? Perhaps it had also been thought necessary to lift them out of danger from floods, and the hazard posed by the drastic and constant drainage problem on the hill, as well as the excessively humid atmosphere beneath the soil.
Growing surer, she took Professor Correnti into her confidence, the her sister, and one or two trusted colleagues at the university. All were immediately intrigued by the theory, and offered encouragement, particularly Correnti, who suggested several tests that might be made and said he would be glad to help.
Concerning one thing, however, Dr. Guarducci remained troubled. When and how should she inform the Vatican authorities? Even by voicing her theory, she felt, she would be calling into serious question the competence of the original excavators, all men of high standing. But this minor dilemma was solved for her by an event that took place on June 21, 1963. On that day an old friend of the Guarducci family, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, was elected to the chair of Peter. She would wait, she decided, and present her ideas directly to Pope Paul VI.
The first chance for an audience with the busy new pope did not come until some four months later, in November 1963. Dr. Guarducci was to present him with copies of her own writings on the excavations, especially her latest work, which had already been translated into five languages. She would use this opportunity to reveal her secret, and ask permission to carry out the necessary tests.
Conducted to a small room adjacent to the Pope's private library, Dr. Guarducci found her volumes waiting for her, placed neatly on a marble table. Shortly afterward, the Pope entered the room, greeted his guest, chatted in friendly fashion for a few moments, then accepted the gift of books, which he glanced through with unfeigned delight. The door of the room had been left ajar, and through it Dr. Guarducci could see people standing and passing, a situation which left her uneasy. For now at least, what she had to tell was for the Pope's ears alone. Sensing her discomfort, Paul crossed the room and closed the door. As he came back there was a quizzical look on his face.
The thought of what she was about to announce brought on an excited fluttering of the heart, and in a single sentence she made her statement. It was extremely probable, she said breathlessly, that the true relics of St. Peter, almost half of his skeleton, in fact, had been found and could be satisfactorily identified, if His Holiness would permit.
Taken unaware, Paul gave a little start, his eyes brightening in mixed surprise and pleasure. But he was obviously puzzled, and after assuring his guest of his joy at the news, he asked diplomatically who else knew about his unexpected development. Naming Correnti and one or two others, Dr. Guarducci briefly outlined the circumstances of the discovery. Certain tests would be needed, she finished, for which His Holiness' permission was required.
In the Pope's crowded schedule only a few minutes had been allowed or this meeting, and the time had now expired. He was about to make a Christmas pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he said, and preparations for this would occupy most of his time. But as soon as possible after his return he looked forward to full discussion of the topic. It was a subject very close to his heart.
In two subsequent meeting with Pope Paul, in January and February 1964, at which Correnti was present along with the box of bones, and photographs of the repository, the new theory was thoroughly aired. The research needed, Dr. Guarducci explained, consisted principally of four strands: chemical analysis of the soil encrusted on the bones to determine whether it matched the soil in the central grave; analysis of the fabric found with the bones to determine its content and to see if the threads really were of true gold; examination of the animal bones to see if they fitted the probable types of the animals to be found in the area in the first century. Her final request she put forward hesitantly. They would also like to examine the ancient head of Peter, or more exactly its remaining portions, preserved in the reliquary over the Lateran altar.
After asking some penetrating questions, Paul took only a moment to consider. Permission was granted for all four tests. He required only that the work be pursued under the authority of the new administrator, Monsignor Principi, who would be instructed to offer all possible aid.
In spring and summer 1964, the various tests were conducted at the University of Rome by volunteers from among Dr. Guarducci's colleagues. The few animal bones quickly proved to be those of domesticated stock, mostly from goats with a number from horses and cows. Bones of these same animals had been found in the first two groups, along with pigs and sheep, just the sort of tame menagerie to be expected on the rural outskirts of Rome and in the vicinity of Nero's stables. The skeleton of the little mouse was confirmed as entire, and as coming from a single, immature individual of the species. The tiny bones were indeed all quite desiccated, as well as completely free from clinging soil.
The shreds of cloth provided an intriguing interval. Viewed under a powerful microscope, they were seen to be woven of wool threads, the weave corresponding with what was known of Roman techniques. The cloth had been dyed what appeared to be a shade of purple, now mostly lightened by age to a dark brownish red. The gold-appearing threads were indeed made of pure gold, manufactured in two different ways. The first method consisted of an unusually fine coating of gold laminate applied over wool. For the second, a core of linen or cotton had been sheathed with an initial covering of copper acetate, and atop this had been applied a very delicate plating of gold. The high skill and technical knowledge underlying the process - considering that it had been done as early as the third or fourth century - impressed the scientists as little short of marvelous.
Examination of the various soils - from the central grave, the courtyard, and the graffiti wall - took longest and was not completed until July. Particles of earth from all three locations were broken down chemically to their basic elements, then under a microscope the mineral and other components were identified and their relative quantities enumerated. At the conclusion of the study there was no doubt: the soil scraped from the bones made a perfect match with the soil in the central grave. Both were of the type called sandy marl, quite different from the blue clay or yellow sand which occurred generally in Rome, and which overlay much of Vatican Hill.
As it turned out, examination of the head from the Lateran was an experience at the same time both satisfying and sorely trying. While these relics played no essential part in the case being made on behalf of the other bones, their mere existence proved an irritating factor. For a thousand years, at least, the Lateran head had been accepted as the true remnant of Peter's skull. Among the graffiti wall bones, on the other hand, numerous fragments of another skull had been found. What was the connection between the two? Did one cancel out the other? If so, which, and in what manner? Or could the existence of the two be harmonized? I endless confusion and debate was to be avoided, an answer was imperative.
Paul's permission to examine the Lateran relic, however, had not been unconditional. Correnti, with whatever assistants he might choose to help him from other fields of science, was to be allowed full access to the relic, and would be given all the time he deemed necessary. The reliquary would be transported to the Vatican workroom, and he might perform on the bones whatever tests were desired (of course, short of inflicting damage). Complete notes were to be kept, and a full set of photographs made. But the report, whatever the conclusions, was not to be published by Correnti and his colleagues. The Vatican itself would decide when and under what circumstances the report should appear. Meantime, Correnti might state only general conclusions: his inspection of the Lateran relics did, or did not, raise a conflict with the other bones.
This condition, at first glance so well calculated to provoke suspicion, was really quite reasonable. The bones available for study from the Lateran were too few, by far, to permit a sure determination either of sex or age at death, even if expressed in as low a degree as presumable. And the varied history of Peter's relics, these and others, presented a vastly complicated tapestry, its threads reaching back to the earliest centuries along impossibly tangled and tenuous lines of tradition. An anthropological study, done on such inadequate materials (a few cranial fragments, a small part of the jawbone, a few vertebrae) could be no more than a first step toward a definitive answer. Premature publication in this regard might easily prejudice later findings.
For several months Correnti and his team were occupied with the Lateran bones. At the termination of this slow and careful study, their conclusion was absolute: nothing found in the reliquary interfered in any way, not in the slightest, with the claims made for the graffiti wall bones.
It was during these months of testing that Dr. Guarducci, to her great surprise yet considerable relief, at last discovered that the four original excavators had not, after all, overlooked the potential importance of the graffiti wall bones, incredibly dismissing them to the damp and darkness of an ordinary storeroom. In conversation with Father Kirschbaum, especially, and later in correspondence, it gradually became clear how, in reality, the four had been the innocent victims of a single devastating stroke of blind chance, all their good work marred by perhaps the most regrettable and egregious blunder in archaeological history.
At first, inevitably, the shock of this revelation, coming twelve years after the death of Monsignor Kaas, led one or another of the four to deny that any such horrendous mishap could have taken place. The wall repository had been found empty, absolutely empty, except for some minor debris, they insisted, repeating that it had been opened in the Middle Ages - and then were helpless to account for the wooden box and its contents. But a patient review of the excavation history of 1941-42, along with close questioning of Giovanni Segoni, established the truth. Even with that, Kirschbaum was the only one of the four able to bring himself to an immediate acceptance of the troubling facts. The other three, at first, disassociated themselves from the work, and continued for a while to defend the complete validity of their own efforts, eventually falling into a morose silence. Few cared to blame them for this attitude. Their anguish at having had all their eager hopes defeated by so bitterly mocking a denouement aroused only sympathy.
By now utterly convinced that the bones could only be those of Peter, Dr. Guarducci in the waning months of 1964 assembled the evidence. Since absolute proof was still lacking, and perhaps would never be found, conviction lay in the strength of circumstances. These must be put together link by link, drawing on all that had ben learned since the start of the excavations some twenty-five years earlier:
1. The sumptuous marble housing erected by Constantine over the Tropaion was intended to preserve forever both the true original grave of Peter and his earthly remains.
2. Within the ancient shrine stood a low wall containing a marble-lined repository. This special niche was constructed at the time of Constantine and there was no proof that it had ever afterward been violated.
3. Enclosed in the repository were parts of a human skeleton from the body of an elderly man of robust build, a description which immediately suggests St. Peter. The central chamber itself, located some four or five feet below the repository, was found empty.
4. Soil adhering to the bones in the repository proved they had originally been interred in the earth. Chemical analysis proved that this soil exactly matched the soil in the original grave under the monument.
5. The bones in the repository had been wrapped in cloth of royal purple, a sure indication of the unusually high dignity accorded the man. Threads of gold in the cloth reinforced this impression, since the combination of purple and gold was a fact well attested from antiquity as indicating imperial honors.
6. An inscription within the repository, in Greek, declared "Peter is buried in here." Other inscriptions on the outside the repository, in Latin invoked his name in prayer.
7. Transfer of the bones from the grave to the repository had almost certainly been done to secure the relics' safety. This could be related to the problems of flooding and excessive moisture that had definitely been reported of the area as early as Pope Damasus in the fourth century. Also to be seriously considered was the problem of vandalism growing out of religious bigotry, not negligible in that more violent age. The repository in the sturdy little wall had guarded against all such intrusions by permanently enclosing the precious remains on all sides.
8. The off-center location of the repository in relation to the shrine, a fact disturbing to some, was misleading to a hurried perusal. In reality the repository was an integral part of the marble housing, which simultaneously enclosed Peter's original grave, his earliest monument, the Tropaion, and his revered bones. And over this rich housing the vast basilica itself had been erected. In any case, the distance off-center was less than two feet, hardly significant when compared to the size of shrine and basilica.
By the end of 1964 the manuscript of the book in which Dr. Guarducci would reveal her secret, to both the general public and the scholarly world, was nearly ready for the press. Half the book was her own account, giving background and detail, and boldly setting forth the claim that the graffiti wall bones were Peter's. The second half of the book consisted of elaborate scientific reports supported by photographs, prepared by Correnti and the other scientists involved in the testing. The book was to be issued by the Vatican's own publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. While this affiliation at least implied some degree of official approval, there was to be no announcement to that effect. The arresting new theory would be allowed to make its own way through the rough shoals of scholarly review.
As a final blow in the direction of scientific rigor, all the working materials on which the theory was based had been submitted separately to five disinterested scholars. Three were respected archaeologists, two were language experts. All five, independently, gave their judgment that the procedures, and the conclusions from the evidence, were impeccable.