Ancient necropolis beneath Vatican set to open
The Via Triumphalis holds clues to early Roman and Christian customs
Detail of preserved paintings at the Roman Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, a first century burial ground below the Vatican
February 3, 2014
In the first century B.C., a grassy hillside just north of what is now St. Peter's Square was used as a burial place for local Romans.
It remained in use through dozens of mudslides and avalanches, until the early fourth century A.D., when work on St. Peter's Basilica began and the more than 1,000 graves were covered over. Soon after, it was forgotten as the construction of the Vatican City grew up around it.
It remained that way until the 1950s, when plans to build a parking lot on what appeared to be an undeveloped field uncovered a small part of the 10,000-square-foot necropolis, or cemetery. That's when excavations began.
Now, two generations and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the Vatican is ready to let the public see what it uncovered.
The Roman Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis illustrates changing burial traditions and the city's evolution from a pagan capital into its earliest days as a Christian city. Overseers say it is likely a small handful of those buried – no more than 50 of the 1,000 graves – may have belonged to early Christians.
"The area was constantly reborn between its establishment in the first century B.C. to around 300 or 320 A.D.," said Giandomenico Spinola, an archaeologist specializing in Greek and Roman periods and the curator of the Vatican necropolis.
Mudslides and avalanches helped preserve much of what has been uncovered. Many items in the cemetery are unusually well preserved: Some marble statues still bear signs of paint; a child's remains show he still clenches a coin placed between his teeth according to the burial traditions of the time.
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