What Is Certain About The Excavations —And One Or Two Guesses
L. G. W ALMSLEY
ON August 23 an otherwise
responsible American daily newspaper produced a Monday Morning report which drew a reply from the Vatican radio, Had all the phrases disoening responsibility, such as " it was stated," " Vatican authorities said," and " it was understood" been removed, there would have been little left of the six short columns except the statement that the bones of St. Peter had been found in a terra-cotta urn in a place where one would have expected to find them, and that is under the baldacchino of the High Altar in St. Peter's basilica. The Vatican authorities in their radio reply neither denied nor confirmed the statement. All that they said amounted to " Wait for it,"
The article was based on stateinents said to have been made over a period of months by various knowledgeable people, despite the fact that such people, who are in fact engaged in the diggings, are all sworn to secrecy even down to the workmen doing the manual labour under the direction of the archaeologist, Prof. Giuseppe Nicolosi. and Including Mgr. Kaas, the procurator in charge of the edifice of St. Peter's and the man in charge of all Vatican City public works, Count Galeazzi.
The facts are these. Under St. Peter's there are certain grottoes, low-roofed and irregular, where some of the previous Popes had been buried. During the war, as the archaeologists had little opportunity to work outside the Vatican, it was decided to put these in order, lower the floor for more headroom, and lay out the various monuments properly.
A hole was dug alongside a pillar which supported the basilica floor and it was found that it rested on a 1st century tomb. recognised by the type of ornamentation in the stone. This discovery was both important and alarming. If a pillar rested on a mere thin shell of a pagan tomb, there was danger to the huge fabric of the basilica's cupola; on the other hand, the old tradition of St. Peter's burial place, spoken of in the apocryphal Acts, as being in a burial area alongside Nero's Circus, had never been substantiated by recent trustworthy archaeological discoveries.
No one but a crank would have denied the traditional site as being that of the present St. Peter's for it was 'there that the Emperor Constantine built the first basilica in the fourth century which was knocked down by Bramante, " The Master Wrecker," so that the larger present St. Peter's could take its place. Still it would be interesting. thought everyone but Prof. Alberto Giovannoni, to carry on with the diggings and strengthen at the same time the foundations of the church pillars. That much Nicolosi said in the Vatican publication, Ecclesia, last June.
Domenico Fontana, one of the series of architects in charge of the XVIth century building of the present St. Peter's basilica. had written a hook on the Vatican Church. The cfficial chronicler of the time. Giacomo Grimaldi, also gave an account of what was underneath the present level of the earth, which in some places in Rome has risen ty natural processes sometimes ten to twelve feet.
Roman town-plans were drawn up by men of letters to show the north wall of Nero's Circus as the foundation of the south wall of Constantine's basilica, all of which was very satisfactory for the support it gave to the old tradition that St. Peter had been crucified in and buried somewhere near the Circus. Constantine's main altar was a little close, perhaps, to the Circus but then, everyone argued, the Romans used to bury their dead along the sides of the road in little houses contaming rows of small niches for the urns holding the cremated ashes. Thus into the story, came the Via Cornelia which, from other writers, including the classical pagan, was known to run somewhere around those parts. The tomb, it was thought, might be along the Via Cornelia which would lead somewhere near the Circus for the crowds who had on occasion to get there. Incidentally, the originator of this Circus was the mad Emperor Caligula who used to invite his horse to lunch and even put it up for Consul. Caligula imported from Egypt a huge obelisk over BO feet in length and had it erected in what was to he the centie of the area whose actual construction was finished after the mad Emperor had been assassinated,
Going to Work
With this as their general mental background, the excavators went to work. Very carefully they dug down along the walls and pillars. strengthening as they went. When they came to the place where the plans said that there should be the northern walls of Nero's Circus they got right down to the clay of the Vatican Hill following a wall which was evidently Constantinian from the style of the material used. There was no sign of any Circus. 1 hey dug down the other foundation wails moving outwards all the time, for a huge building like St. Peter's has got to have foundations every few feet. There was still no Nero's Circus.
What they did find was a lot of packed earth as they went downwards and always they arrived at the clay of th Vatican Hill.
On this clay they made other discoveries, tombs of the second century, both pagan and Christian mixed, tombs in two lines, the line further south having one entrance door only and the other line having a second door reached by a staircase on to the roof. Why this peculiarity?
One tomb carried information that was wanted. A plaque on the side gave a codicil of the occupant's testament and stated that Popilius Heracla wanted to be buried alongside the tIlpi family in the Vatican Field opposite the Circus. As it was impossible that the family had erected both the tomb and the plaque in a different place for all the world to see. the Circus was somewhere near, This fact, together with that of the removal of the obelisk from the area described by Grimaldi to its present position in the middle of St. Peter's Square, put the Circus somewhere near the tomb which in terms of the basilica floor is slightly to one side of the central nave.
The next satisfactory point, as Nicolosi states, is that the tombs with the stairways ran in a straight Line right under the centre of the High Altar under the cupola. The space between the tombs was so narrow that it could not have been a highroad and therefore was not the Via Cornelia. But, as Fr. Kirschbaum says, the tomb stairways probably served to reach a highroad further up the side of the hill on which slope it ran. A VlIth century writing, About the places of the Holy Alartyrs, says that St. Peter was first buried near the first milestone in the vicinity of the Via Cornelia and this again served as evidence for certain mapmakers who drew into their Roman reconstructions the road of which no
trace has now been found. This latter fact, from Kirschbaum, disproves nothing; it was at best only a deduction from existing literary evidence, in other words a guess that didn't come off.
The Mystery of the Earth
The biggest shock of the lot was, however (again according to Kirschbaum), the fact that the floor of the Constantine basilica was 26 feet above the natural level of the ground, which. it must be remembered, was the Vatican Hill slope. The space in between was taken up, not with chapels or cellars, but with earth. What had happened and the reason for it was clear.
Constantine, wanting to build another of his commemorative churches as he had done in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the I.ateran and St. Paul's, found himself faced with a burial area and the ancient Roman law which forbade him either to disturb the bodies or smash up the tombs in it. He might have built a basilica somewhere else but the same law applied to the body of St. Peter and, as the basilica was more than anything a political move, Constantine not being a Christian until just before he died, he had to be cautious.
What he did was build three large bastions in a rectangle, cut into the side of the Vatican Hilt, tip the earth from there into the empty space and cover up all the tombs thus making a flat building site. This fact is borne out by the manner in which the tombs, whose tops still rose above this plateau level, have been treated. They were carefully preserved below this planed level and the protruding tops were removed, not smashed in.
All this points to Constantine's certainty that the tomb of St. Peter was on that slope.
It is ridiculous to suppose that any person in his senses would have chosen such a building site and faced such material and moral difficulties merely to construct a church halfway down an awkward hill. The burial place of St. Peter was there and the proper place to find it was under the altar which rose, by custom and inference from other shrines, immediately above the spot which was to be honoured. St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church. in his Contra Vigilanzinnt attacks that
priest in his seventh chapter: So the Roman bishop did wrong . .
who . offered sacrifices above the bones , . of the dead men Peter and Paul?"
All this is information from Nicolosi and Kirschbaum, men who. being sworn to secrecy, are not likely to let out beforehand anything which is controversial or that is even now still being argued. The secret department of the Vatican printing works has already produced a report of all the findings and the most eminent of the world's archaeologists of all religious creeds have been asked for their opinions. This, of course, is hearsay from people who, working in Vatican. circles. watch very closely the movements of those who know and, as everyone's fife and present job are fully known, deductions are made accordingly. If one of those who know makes regular visits to the secret printers and then stops, and if a series of letters go out to archaeologists all over the world through the Vatican post office, the rumour is bound to get round. These few facts do not matter, however, to the general outline of the situation.
The Pope's Information
The one person who can speak openly on the subject is the Pope and he has already told the world enough in his May 13, 1942, world radio message to take all the sensation out of recent journalistic conjecture. Here is one passage to add to the above facts: "But in its central part where there rise, one above the other, three altars of different ages, the indefatigable zeal of the investigators has discovered, simple in its form. a monument, to which however, long before the Constantine age, the devotion of the faithful had given the character of a venerable place of worship. To this (character) the wallwritings bear witness which run On the inside of the MO/111MM on a partition, revealing the same form as those which the martyrs' tombs in the Christian cemeteries give Us." Then again in January this year he said to a gathering of Rome students; "Under the central point of the gigantic dome there was. and there 3fill is, the burial place of St. Peter."
Now for a little conjecture, which has nothing whatsoever to do with what responsible persons have either written advisedly or said inadvertently for the watchful to use their deductive powers on and produce conclusions which have little to do with certainty.
Constantine had built another basilica over the little memorial shrine for St. Paul, and there today, in Si. Paul's Outside the Walls, the relics of the " Vessel of Election " are kept, once more under the altar in the centre of the church. It is quite possible that Constantine would use the same stonemason for all his jobs and that the type of burial coffin, a dark tufa-like stone container, would be repeated for St. Peter, because ease of transportation for the remains of Saints was one of the essentials during the period in which all kinds of raiders looted churches. setting great value on these relics whose market price was high. The rumour goes that a Belgian archivist, Monsieur Degrelle, when the excavations along the line of the newly discovered tombs in the direction of St. Peter's High Altar showed no result and the space towards the surface had been explored and still gave no satisfaction, suggested that, in view of the numerous sackings of Rome, the precaution might have been taken of moving St. Peter's remains to a lower vertical level though not changing their position according to points of horizontal re ference. The result, and here this otherwise factual account descends to " it is alleged," was the discovery of a burial container similar to St. Paul's.
St. Peter's Bones
This " allegation " has nothing whatsoever to do with the real question of St. Peter's burial place.
No present-day pathologist would be able to say what were St. Peter's bones and what were not, even be(ween the choice of two or three and not among a whole cemetery full, and if such are the criteria, the argument might just as well be abandoned immediately. No reasonable person could possibly require such proof.
The question rather turns upon whether and why a basilica was built around the central altar of the present St. Peter's, whether there Was a burial ground in the vicinity of Nero's Circus and where the other point of reference was, the Via
Cornelia. It is impossible for any person to assume that all the writers on this subject through the ages, including Mommsen, should be untrustworthy; some might be biased or slip up, but very few. The line of tombs running towards the centre of the cupola, the existence and difficulties of Constantine's building all point to one conclusion.
And the Via Cornelia? Under the ration store of the Vatican City, just inside Porra Angelica, there are
the stones of an old Roman road discovered more than ten years ago and which no one has bothered about. No one knew what road it was there was only a little bit of it. but there could not have been many highroads there at the period, for in this area were the GardeRs of Agrippina and all except two of the main highways ran from the City itself and crossed the river elsewhere. The bit that was uncovered points roughly in the direction of the cupola and no one is likely to knock down the Vatican Palace to see what there is underneath it.
Circus of Nero
'the last item is the Circus of Nero. Unfortunately, Grimaldi describes what he is supposed to have seen: " When this other part of the temple was founded it was seen that the length of the Circus was 540 feet," and he gives measurements. " It started from the lowest steps of the basilica and finished where the Church of St. Martha now is, behind the new apse to the west and looks down on to the Via Triumphalis, now
called the Sanctus Spiritus." tie gives more details and this is what Fr. Kirschbaum has to say about them all. " If we examine a little more closely Grimaldi's affirmations, three things are evident: (I) He is too precise in his indications not to have been able to see anything concrete; (2) he could only see something in the zone occupied by the construction of Maderna for the subsoil of the western part was already long ago rendered invisible by the previous construction of Michelangelo: (3) therefore all that he declares on this part is nothing more than a simple deduction from the elements seen in the western part of the basilica. Therefore. Grimaldi's error is having mixed his own deductions with positive elements which came to light during Maderna's work. Just as he did who, basing himself on what he had seen and made statements about what he had not seen, so would we do, if, basing ourselves on negative results which we have seen, we wanted to deny the existence of the Circus also in that part which we have not seen and that is precisely in the eastern zone under eladerna's construction. In fact, the presence of the obelisk at the side of the basilica, the positive elements from Grimaldi and the topographical indications from the plaque found in the last diggings give us in their addition the certainty that Nero's Circus really is there—agreed—but by themselves they do not give us the necessary elements for any kind of serious reconstruction and much less have they given us up to now the remains of that monument itself," Than the which, nothing could be clearer.
Poor Grimaldi! Up to now he has had such a good reputation among the rnapmakers and the more profound students of history, a reputation which has served him for 500 years and now simply on account of a bit of guesswork, it has gone. Such is the reputation of chroniclers. But he would probably take consolation from the fact that the world doesn't change a great lot either and that the newspaper that wrote about so much that was alleged would probably never have had their story remembered for 500 years either. Or if it had. what would archaeologists have thought of it?