Last Tuesday, I was able to tag along on a class field trip with a friend. Their teacher, Monsignor Wells had some connections in the Vatican and was able to get permission to take three groups over a couple weeks down into the excavations, or scavi, under St. Peter's Basilica. I had heard about them but didn't realize their extent. During World War II, the pope ordered the excavations and they found ancient tomb after ancient tomb.
The monsignor explained that the small door we walked in was ancient, and told us to imagine the following: Back in 300 something A.D., Constantine wanted to build a cathedral over St. Peter's tomb. A huge one. So he had to rip off the roofs of the ancient mausoleums and fill them in with dirt to make the foundations of this mammoth structure. He gave families time to take out their dead. This was primarily a pagan burial ground and they wanted to take their ancestors out. At the same time, Christians took this opportunity to move their bodies closer to the grave of St, Peter. So they would have been passing each other through the same low door we went through.
We continued on deeper and farther. Each room had a space-age Star Trek-type door, that opened and closed without warning exactly as we approached and passed. Next, we found a street that was made by the rows upon rows of families' mausoleums. Each one had an ancient title plaque above the door explaining the family history. In this corridor, our priest explained the different brickwork, ancient vs. medieval vs. modern, and he explained how the ancient brickwork was the best, as it was still intact and had lasted this many centuries on soft ground without collapsing.
As the tour went on, it was an indescribable feeling as we walked closer and closer to the tomb of St. Peter. His grave first had a small temple over it, then a supporting wall was built to keep it from collapsing. Over the years, an altar had been placed around it. Then another. And a marble box was placed around that. Then St. Peter's Basilica was placed over that, with the modern altar being about 30 feet directly over the bones of St. Peter. Keep in mind, all that is all well below ground level today.
As excavators came upon St. Peter's tomb, they attempted to dig under it. That was unsuccessful, so they dug around to the other side, where they were able to get the smallest one of them to reach up into the tomb and he pulled out a bone. They continued to excavate, and a doctor friend of the pope verified these were truly the bones of one man from about the first century AD. The problem was, he was an eye doctor--and they turned out to be the bones of two men, a woman, and several animals. So, the question remained, where were the real bones of St. Peter? A woman, an expert in ancient languages and scripts, continued studying the markings on the wall for the next couple of years. Finally, she decoded the meaning, and discovered the bones in the supporting wall of the original temple, placed in a small compartment lined with expensive marble and “Petras is here” scrawled into the wall. They went through the identification process over the next several months, and professionals determined they were the bones of an older, well-built man, from the first century A.D. whose bones showed evidence of torture and crucifixion. These bones were replaced, and we could catch glimpses of them through the hole in the wall. We exited through the intimate chapel located directly under the huge altar, and came out into the crypts of the popes which the public can access.
Thinking back at the sight of those bones as I walked back to class, it occurred to me that faith isn't based on evidence, but it is always nice to have real-world hints.
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You are reading "A Tour of the Excavations under St. Peter’s", an entry posted on 19 November 2008 by Andy Steves.