Image: Necropolis
Vatican Museums officials and archaeologists on Monday unveiled the necropolis, which was unearthed three years ago during the construction of a parking lot for Vatican City employees and vehicles.
updated 10/9/2006 2:39:37 PM ET 2006-10-09T18:39:37

Visitors to the Vatican will soon be able to descend into an ancient world of the dead, a newly unveiled necropolis that was a burial place for the rich and not-so-affluent during Roman imperial rule.

Vatican Museums officials and archaeologists on Monday gave a press tour of the necropolis, which was unearthed three years ago during construction of a parking lot. One archaeologist said sculptures, engravings and other objects found entombed with the dead made the find a "little Pompeii" of cemeteries.

The burial places, ranging from simple terra-cotta funerary urns with ashes still inside to ornately sculptured sarcophagi, date from between the era of Augustus (23 B.C. to 14 A.D.) to that of Constantine in the first part of the 4th century.

From specially constructed walkways, visitors can look down on some skeletons, including that of an infant buried by loved ones who left a hen's egg beside the body. The egg, whose smashed shell was reconstructed by archaeologists, might have symbolized hopes for a rebirth, said officials at a Vatican Museums news conference.

The remains of the child, whose gender wasn't determined, were discovered during the construction of the walkways, after the main excavation had finished, said Daniele Battistoni, a Vatican archaeologist.

Buried there were upper class Romans as well as simple artisans, with symbols of their trade, offering what archaeologists called rare insights into middle and lower-middle class life.

"We found a little Pompeii of funeral" life, said Giandomenico Spinola, a head of the Museums' classical antiquities department.

"We have had the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus," Spinola said, referring to majestic monuments along the Tiber in Rome, "but we were short on these middle and lower-class" burial places.

The burial sites help "document the middle class, which usually escapes us," said consultant Paolo Liverani, an archaeologist and former Museums official. "You don't construct history with only generals and kings."

Among those buried in the necropolis was a set designer for Pompey's Theater, notorious for being near the spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. Decorating the designer's tomb were some symbols of his trade — a compass and a T-square.

Also buried in the necropolis were an archivist for Emperor Nero's private property and mailmen.

Unearthed were black-and-white mosaic flooring and other decorations, including figures of a satyr and Dionysus, an ancient god of fertility and wine, along with a scene of a grape harvest.

A male member of ancient Rome's class of knights, who died as a teenager, was remembered in death with a sculptured figure whose hands are outstretched as if in prayer. The kind of figure, known as an "orante," was widely taken as an early symbol of Christians.

However, Liverani noted that the necropolis spans an era "when it was difficult to document Christianity" as the religion of the deceased because Christians were still persecuted in the empire. Thus mourners were unlikely to leave clear Christian symbols for fear of persecution.

Battistoni pointed out a layer of churned up stone running horizontally through the upper part of the necropolis, a sign of a 2nd century landslide which covered part of the hilly burial ground.

Asked whether the construction of the parking facility meant not all of the necropolis was uncovered, Spinola shrugged.

"This didn't start out as an excavation to study the area but as an emergency excavation to save what one could save," from the bulldozers, Spinola said.

Starting later this week, tourists, in groups of 25 or less, will be able to visit the necropolis, after writing to the Vatican Museums for permission. Initially, the tour will be available on Fridays and Saturdays, and on other days as well if it proves popular.

The necropolis ran along the edges of an ancient Roman road, Via Triumphalis, and is distinct from another necropolis that followed the lines of another ancient road, Via Cornelia, whose ruins can be seen under St. Peter's Basilica.

The Via Cornelia necropolis is considered to hold the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope.

Another part of the Via Triumphalis necropolis was dug up in the 1950s during work to build another Vatican garage. That section, previously generally open to scholars only, can also now be seen by tourists.

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