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What’s under St Peter’s Basilica?

Discover the excavations and the very place where Peter was buried

I have been waiting to visit the excavations underneath St Peter’s Basilica for a long time. And finally here I am.

Almost every Basilica or place of worship has been built over ancient temples. But what’s underneath St Peter’s Basilica? Saint Peter’s grave perhaps? And what was previously there?

St Peter's square & Basilica

St Peter’s square & Basilica

The archaeologist Caterina Ruscio guides us through the excavations and shows us different plastic models that explain what happened here over the centuries.

It seems that until the first century B.C, the area between the Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill) and Vatican City housed a graveyard, therefore it was dirty and insalubrious. After they built over it a part of the Palace and the Circus of Nero. The necropolis survived the new constructions, and it was in use until the 4th century. Probably the Apostle Peter was buried here. Let’s find out.

During the 60s the archaeologist Margherita Guarducci discovered the bones of a man, buried without feet and died more or less when he was 70. It could be Saint Peter because, according to legend, he was crucified upside down. That would explain why there are no foot bones.

In actual fact, the grave that till then was considered Peter’s grave was empty. And these bones were found in a recess inside a wall covered with graffiti and votive dedications. Why? Archeologists suppose that Peter’s remains were removed from his grave and hidden inside this wall in order to preserve them from acts of vandalism and profanation. Here they also found the ruins of a shrine, the Trophy of Gaius, dating 180 CE.

Later Emperor Costantino had his Basilica built just above Peter’s grave. There are not many remains of it, because St Peter’s Basilica was built over it. Even before Costantino’s Basilica here there was a temple to Apollo, which was also represented in the frescoes of the graves.

The excavations are very interesting and the necropolis spectacular. The tombs have been restored pretty good indeed. And there is even a well with a spring, as in many sacred places.

From the excavations we head straight to the Vatican Grottoes, where the Popes are buried. Honestly, I think that this “modern” crypt doesn’t stand comparison with the ancient one.

Of course the faithful praying in front of the graves (especially in front of Wojtyla’s one) make the atmosphere very evocative, but nothing compares the mysterious atmosphere of the excavations, which are definitely worth visiting.


Cover pic courtesy of Flickr User queulat00  

St Peter’s square pic courtesy of Flickr User Pat Cullen

St Peter’s tomb pictures courtesy of Flickr User Francesco Gasparetti & Flickr User baldeaglebluff 

Syusy Blady

Accidental tourist. Her main passions while traveling: history, archaeology, spirituality, mysteries.

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