Near St. Peter’s, ancient burial site opens to public

Two generations and hundreds of thousands of dollars after excavations started on a cemetery dating back to the century before Christ, the Vatican is ready to let the public see what it has 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 Christians.

The cemetery on a grassy hillside north of what is now St. Peter’s Square remained in use through dozens of mudslides and avalanches, until the early fourth century, when work on St. Peter’s Basilica began and the more than 1,000 graves were covered over. Soon after, it was forgotten as Vatican City grew up around it.

It remained that way until the 1950s, when plans to build a parking lot on an undeveloped field uncovered a small part of the 10,000-square-foot necropolis, or cemetery. That’s when excavations began.

“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 was uncovered. Many items are unusually well preserved: Some marble statues bear signs of paint; a child’s remains show him clenching a coin placed between his teeth according to the burial traditions of the time.

There was a period when the dead were cremated, with ashes and bone fragments placed in urns buried at the site, and other periods when the deceased were buried in elaborate plots with personal belongings and other symbols of social stature.

The site is unusual because poor and middle-class Romans used it. Most well-preserved cemeteries in Rome are burial sites of the wealthy classes.