Visiting the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis was the highlight of our time in the smallest country in the world. This was a cemetery discovered in 1956 when a parking garage was being built, but it was only opened to the public in 2014. It contains graves of pagans and Christians from the 1st-4th centuries, but how did they get there?
It turns out that at that time this area was out in the country and Rome was across the river. Emperor Nero did build his circus at the bottom of the 200-foot-tall hill that the Vatican gets its name from, but for the most part this was outside the city. There were a couple roads leading to and from the city of Rome and along these roads people buried their dead. Over the centuries the ground cover moved around and then buildings got built on top of this site.
This really wasan’t what we expected when we were planning a trip to Italy, as we descended the stairs, the Necropolis was well lit and they did a great job of displaying these ancient tombs. We walked on catwalks above the graves and started with the earliest and most simple tombs. People were either buried or cremated. If they were buried the skeletons survived to this day and are shown right where they were found. Interestingly when they were buried they had a tube placed over their head and their loved ones “fed” them a milk and honey substance through this tube. The ones that were cremated had their ashes placed in a vase, which was also buried up to the neck of the vase.
The earlier graves were simply bodies and vases buried in the ground, but the later ones became family mausoleums. Some of these are fairly elaborate and contained a main chamber with side niches to hold the various bodies, but many of the graves were for poor people.
One thing I found interesting is that over the centuries the ground cover slid down the slope with rain and flooding and covered some of the older graves and new ones were built on top of them. I can imagine one of the tougher parts of being an archeologist is sorting out what part is from which century. I think they did a great job in their excavation and showing us lay people the different layers and eras.
Please note the Necropolis of Vatican City is different than the one of St Peter’s Basilica. The one we visited was under a parking garage and is administered by the Vatican museum. The one that is under the Basilica, and contains the tomb of St Peter, is administered by the church. I do find it amazing that within the smallest country in the world you will still find bureaucracy. Haha. It is possible to visit St Peter’s tomb, you just have to arrange a guided tour on their website. There is limited space, but I am amazed they only charge $12. When I return to Vatican City I will make sure I do this tour!
After we finished with the guided tour of the Vatican City Necropolis our guide took us through an hour long tour of the Vatican Museum and dropped us off at the Sistine Chapel. I am going to follow her lead and continue the next blog in the museum and finish at the chapel where I have a secret we learned to save us a ton of time in line.