THE REMAINS OF PETER
by Margherita Guarducci
(all rights reserved)
One of the surprises of the excavations carried out between 1940 and 1949 under the Confession of the Vatican Basilica was the discovery - beneath the papal altar - of the site of Peter's original tomb empty and in disarray.
The Apostle's remains were strangely missing.
After his martyrdom in Nero's Circus (autumn of 64), Peter was buried a short distance away, beyond the road (Via Cornelia?) which bordered the Circus, in a place where tombs already existed. That place corresponds to the area which archaeologists today call Area P. In the course of the centuries, various monuments were placed over the modest grave of the Apostle: the so-called "Trophy of Gaius" (about the middle of the 2nd century), the monument of Constantine (after 313), the altar of Gregory the Great (590-604), the altar of Calixtus II (1119-1124), and the altar of Clement VIII (1592-1605), which is the present altar. All these monuments were built (or so it seemed at first) over an empty tomb.
At the western edge of Area P there were found remains of human bones, remains to which some people attributed a certain importance. It was subsequently shown that in fact these remains had nothing to do with Peter, differing as they did with regard to both age and sex.
But the excavations inside Constantine's monument had also revealed a characteristic loculus which had been deliberately hollowed out of an already existing wall (the wall which archaeologists today call "Wall G"), included within the Constantinian construction. Wall G is built against the back wall of the Trophy of Gaius, that is the wall which - on account of the vivid red colour of its plaster - came to be called the "Red Wall". Wall G, therefore, is later than the Red Wall, but earlier than the monument of Constantine in which it was enclosed. On the whole, Wall G can be dated to about the mid-3rd century. Inside this wall, as I have said, a secret hiding-place (the loculus) was discovered. It measured 0.77 m long by 0.29 m wide and 0.315 m high, and was lined with slabs of Greek marble.
Wall G and its hiding-place are at the center of extraordinary events, due in part to the somewhat abnormal situation in which the 1940-1949 excavations took place. The first opening made in the northern side of the Constantinian monument brought to light the north section of Wall G, covered with Christian graffiti, and, below it, the opening of the famous loculus. No detailed study of these graffiti was made either then or during the entire period of the excavations. They were deciphered and commented upon at a later time by myself, and in fact they proved to be a wonderful page of Christian spirituality in which the names of Christ, Mary and Peter are particularly prominent and their victory is acclaimed. As for the loculus, the excavators had immediately noticed that it was about half filled with plaster rubble which had fallen from above, that is from the inside of Wall G itself, and from the side, that is from a section of the adjacent Red Wall. For various reasons a systematic emptying of the loculus was not carried out immediately. However, it happened that a certain moment someone noticed that there were bone fragments mixed in with the plaster rubble inside the hiding-place, and arranged for these bones to be gathered up, put in a wooden box and placed in a nearby spot in the Vatican Grottoes, where they remained forgotten for a long time.
In the meantime, the scholars working on the excavations returned to the loculus of Wall G and naturally found it empty, except for "some remains of organic material and bone fragments mixed with earth" (these are their own words) which had remained at the bottom. It was easily perceived that the hiding-place had been made during the building of the Constantinian monument, and from this perception there sprang the theory that it had been intended for the bones of Peter. This theory was admitted, in fact, by various scholars: Father Antonio Ferrua (1952), Jerome Carcopino (1953), Father Engelbert Kirschbaum (1957) and Pasquale Testini (1957). But for the moment the theory remained only a theory. The essential element of proof was missing: the box which had been placed in the nearby spot in the Vatican Grottoes and forgotten.
Since the excavators were unaware of the existence of the box, and on the other hand wished to give some explanation for the riddle of Wall G, the idea was put forward and gained increasing credence that the hiding-place had been opened during the Middle Ages on the eastern side, and that through this opening the remains of the Apostle had been taken away.
The wooden box containing the material removed from the hiding-place was found by me only in 1953. Besides bones, it also contained earth, flakes of red plaster, small pieces of rich fabric and two marble fragments. A note, written by a Sampietrino who took part in the first excavations and read by me clearly and in its entirety, stated that the material had been taken from the loculus of Wall G. The flakes of red plaster belonged to the adjacent section of the Red Wall (as can be easily understood). The fragments of marble were shown by a chemical analysis to originate from the front slab of the lining of the loculus. Both the plaster and the marble fragments clearly confirmed the statement in the note.
The idea accredited by the excavators and then generally accepted that the loculus had been broken into during the Middle Ages meant that at that time I myself did not attribute to these remains the importance due to them. But the elementary duty of serious scientific inquiry led me to transfer them to a dry place and to the making of provisions for their systematic examination by a qualified specialist. The specialist chosen was Prof. Venerando Correnti, who then held the chair of anthropology at the University of Palermo and today holds the same chair at the University of Rome.
Prof. Correnti was therefore asked in 1956 to begin his work. But before anything else he had to make a long and careful study of the skeletal remains, found in the earth on the western edge of Area P, to which (as I have stated above) a certain importance had hitherto been attributed. The anthropological examination showed in fact that the bones belonged to four different individuals, none of whom could be taken into consideration in connection with the problem of Peter's remains.
Only in October 1962 was Prof. Correnti able to devote himself to the examination of the bones found in the loculus of Wall G. This work lasted until the end of June 1963. Briefly, the result was the following: bones of a single individual, of male sex, sturdy build and advanced age (between 60 and 70 years old), encrusted with earth.
This result corresponded with the historical and archaeological data. In the only loculus of Peter's monument-tomb there was in fact to be expected the presence of bones with these characteristics. And this precisely is what had happened. Furthermore, it had to be kept in mind that among the remains from the loculus were small fragments of rich fabric. These indicated that these bones really were the mortal remains of Peter.
There remained a single doubt in my mind: that of the alleged opening of the loculus from the east during the Middle Ages. But it quickly vanished when a minute examination of the interior of the loculus, carried out at my request by the best specialists in Roman wall-construction, proved that the loculus had never been broken into from the time of Constantine until the moment when the excavators of the 1940-49 period had made the first breach of the Constantinian wall.
Experimental analyses of the remains of fabric and of earth were also carried out. All of these tests yielded positive results. The gold was genuine; the cloth was dyed with purple made from murex; the earth matched that of the area.
At this point it seemed reasonable to draw the following conclusions: at the time of Constantine, after the peace of the Church (313), when it was decided to arrange definitively the site of Peter's tomb, the bones lying in the earth under the Trophy of Gaius were collected, wrapped in a precious cloth of purple interwoven with gold and placed in a loculus specially made inside a wall (Wall G) already existing beside the Trophy. In front of this wall, enriched by the precious material inserted, another wall was built which was to be partially broken down only by the excavations begun in 1940. It can be added that the reason for the transfer of Peter's relics from the earth tomb to the loculus in Wall G was probably the well-founded fear that the dampness of the earth, which is notoriously very considerable in the Vatican area, would rapidly damage the venerable remains which had once been entrusted to it.
At this point, it would seem appropriate to sum up, for the sake of clarity, the chief elements which have permitted the present writer to proceed to the identification of the bones in the loculus of Wall G as those of the Apostle:
1. The Constantinian monument was considered, in Constantine's day, to be the tomb of the martyr.
2. Inside the monument-sepulchre there exists a loculus, and one only: the loculus of Wall G.
3. This loculus was carved out of Wall G and lined with marble at the time of Constantine
4. The loculus was never broken into from the age of Constantine until the time of the excavations (about 1941).
5. From this loculus come the bones which were removed at the beginning of the excavations, kept without interruption in a nearby spot in the Vatican Grottoes and recovered from this spot in 1953.
6. These bones, therefore, are the ones which were verified at the time of Constantine as the bones of Peter and place in the loculus of Wall G, inside the monument-sepulchre.
7. The cloth of purple interwoven with gold-thread in which the bones were wrapped at that time confirms the highest dignity then attributed to the remains. The royal purple harmonizes perfectly in fact with the royal porphyry which decorates the outside of the monument.
8. The anthropological examination of the bones - belonging to a single individual - showed that they conform perfectly to what, by tradition, we can imagine was Peter's physical appearance at the time of his martyrdom. Apart from the obvious fact that they belong to a male, the bones indicate a sturdy build and an age somewhere between 60 and 70.
9. The earth encrusted on the bones indicates that the bones themselves originally lay in an earth-grave, and we know that Peter's first burial was in the earth.
10. The characteristics of the earth, shown by the scientific examination, match those of the place where the original tomb was dug (marly sand), while in other parts of the Vatican area the earth is different (blue clay or yellow sand).
11. The place of the earth-burial under the Trophy was found empty. This is in harmony with the presence of the bones, transferred about two metres higher up, in the loculus in the monument of Constantine.
From this concise exposition it can be seen that the above elements constitute the links of a chain, joined to one another, and that chain leads to a conclusion: the bones of Peter have been identified.