Excursion to Antiquity

Archaeologists have uncovered treasures in Vatican City’s Santa Rosa Necropolis which offer a fascinating glimpse into the pagan Roman culture of Nero’s time.

The Vatican’s “Scavi Tour” is well known. An unforgettable, appointment-only excursion under St. Peter’s Basilica where tourists can see the resting place of the bones of St. Peter, it is often the highlight for many visiting the Vatican.

As well as being the location of Nero’s famous “circus” and the place of the first St. Peter’s Basilica, the Scavi was also a place of burial for the upper classes and royalty of the first centuries after Christ.

But half a kilometer away, on the other side of Vatican City, archaeologists have been uncovering another remarkable and distinctly different funeral site, this time mostly for the slaves, servants and middle classes of ancient Rome.

Called the Santa Rosa Necropolis, it was unearthed in 2003 when the Vatican was building a new telecommunications building. In the 1950s, the Vatican had excavated one part of it, called the Autoparco and dating from 50 B.C. to A.D. 200, but the Santa Rosa is larger and more impressive.

Funded by generous Canadian members of the Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museums, the dig brought to light an immense number of archaeological treasures, offering a fascinating glimpse into the pagan Roman culture of the time, then centered within the walls of Rome along the Via Triumphalis (the way the emperors took when they entered the city in triumph).

“We knew the cemetery was there because there was none other in the city of Rome, but we didn’t know the depth of it,” said Legionary Father Mark Haydu, international director of the Vatican patrons office. “The idea is to join the two together [the Autoparco and the Santa Rosa] and have the largest archaeological dig of the first century where everything is exactly where it was found.”

Once joined, the Vatican hopes both burial sites will open to the public, by appointment only, in the fall of next year.

Clearly visible in the Santa Rosa are tombs decorated with paintings, stuccos and mosaics, sarcophagi, small altars and tombstones, complete with inscriptions, driven into the ground.

Forty family burial niches have been discovered and, perhaps most surprising of all, several complete skeletons can also be seen. Alongside the dig, the Vatican has placed in glass cabinets an array of pottery, minted coins, gold earrings and other artifacts, many looking so pristine they could have been made yesterday.

“Two mud slides are what kept it in good condition,” explained Father Haydu, “one of which covered the necropolis at the end of the first century.” But he said that what makes this excavation particularly special is that, unlike other digs of the past when artifacts were removed and taken, for example, from Egypt to colonial Britain, everything here has been left as it was found. This practice in archaeology is a relatively recent development.

“It’s extremely unique that every single piece that’s found remains exactly where it is,” said Father Haydu, “so you are really walking in the cemetery as it was 2,000 years ago.”

Father Haydu said that the experience will be noticeably different from that of the Scavi tour.

“You have a whole different sense. You’re walking within it, and you don’t have this kind of vision from above,” he said. “It’s much more of a city. Here, you have the sense you’re in a field, as it once was.”

Among the tombs in the Santa Rosa are those of Nero’s servants and a child who died at 4 years, 4 months and 10 days. (The exact age is engraved on his tombstone, as is the child’s face, made out of soft marble.) On some tombs, details of a deceased’s employment are shown, giving further detail about daily life. Also visible are lanterns, used in funeral rituals, still in place on top or to the side of the tombs, as well as hooks for the funeral wreaths over the altars.

Father Haydu pointed out that the clear lack of Christian symbols in the necropolis, as opposed to the Scavi near St. Peter’s, “lends certain archaeological credence” to the fact that St. Peter’s grave is located under the basilica.

“Near the basilica, it’s crowded with Christians from the mid-first century,” he said, “but here, 500 meters away, from the fourth century, there were no Christians, and they weren’t interested in being buried here, regardless of their social class.”

The Vatican describes the Santa Rosa excavation as “second only in importance” to the Scavi. But such discoveries point to possibly many more treasures hidden underground within the Vatican’s walls. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what else lies underneath,” said Romina Cometti, an art historian of the patrons office.

The Santa Rosa project is just one of several being managed by the patrons office and funded through various chapters, most of which are in the United States. Last year, it completed perhaps its most ambitious project to date: the funding of a 14-year restoration of the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace.

Anyone can become a patron of the Vatican Museums by donating between $500 and $1,000 annually. Patrons are provided a complimentary tour of the museums with a private guide and are encouraged to visit the restoration laboratories and sections of the museums not open to the public.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.