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The Vatican Necropoles: Rome’s City of the Dead

The Vatican Necropoles: Rome’s City of the Dead

By Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola (Monumenta Vaticana Selecta). Pp. 352, figs. 292. Brepols, Turnhout  2010.  €95. ISBN 978-2-503-53578-4 (cloth).

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The entire 44 ha (110 acres) of the present Vatican City lies within a vast area once used as burial grounds for ancient Rome. This sprawling zone, within which the Holy See is located, yields burials wherever excavations penetrate the earth. Every location where construction has been undertaken in this large portion of modern Rome, such as the recent Metro extension to Cipro, pierces some part of this enormous necropolis. Liverani and Spinola have produced an impressive volume offering a visual review of the mortuary archaeology from within the area that now is the Vatican, from the earliest recorded accounts up to recent excavations. This work vastly expands on the authors’ earlier treatment of the subject. Its inclusion as one of the English-language versions of the Monumenta Vaticana Selecta series, which began with a study of the Sistine Chapel and includes a gorgeous work on the Vatican gardens, indicates the audience for which it is intended. In Italy, there is an impressive market for superbly illustrated studies of every aspect of culture, including archaeology. This volume provides, in English, an excellent summary of the results of extensive excavations at several locations in the Vatican portion of this huge mortuary zone, each exposure generally identified as if it were a separate necropolis. Beginning with a chapter on the topography of this area, the authors then provide three long chapters describing funeral rituals, the materials recovered, and the architecture of the tombs. The closing chapter addresses the important matter of conserving the materials recovered as well as the exposed ruins.

Following a very brief introduction by Buranelli, former director general of the Vatican Museums (2002–2007), the authors examine the “Topographic Setting” (11–22). A plan of the entire Vatican City (10) opens a review of the history of this complex and dense zone within the larger mortuary region. The limited indications of the various excavations on this plan are not well linked to the data in the text. The second chapter, “Rituals: Anthropological and Religious” (23–40) summarizes literary sources relating to funerary matters. The excavations of these tombs reveal the gradual shift from cremation burial in the first century C.E. (26–7) to inhumation, the dominant rite of the third century (24). The authors cite Tibullus (ca. 55 B.C.E.–ca. 19 C.E.) for his comments on the cremation process of his era, including the gathering and washing of the ossilegium, the bones remaining after the burning. Only careful inspection can determine if burned bones found in a tomb were washed in antiquity or simply scooped up from the ustrinum along with ash and charcoal from the pyre and poured into a burial container. These processes are described by Becker, Turfa, and Algee (Human Remains from Etruscan and Italic Tomb Groups in the University of Pennsylvania Museum [Rome 2009] 48). Cremated remains can be remarkably durable. Skilled excavators can identify small heaps of cremated bone within a tomb as indicating the locations of perishable containers used as burial urns. Liverani and Spinola recognize that marble urns reflect the use of upscale versions of perishable prototypes in wood, wicker, and leather that were used by the less wealthy (35).

Liverani and Spinola attempt to confirm textual sources through the use of archaeological data, a traditional but limited view of the process of archaeological interpretation. The analysis of human remains and of other organic and inorganic materials is not included here. The recent Santa Rosa excavations at the Vatican may be subjected to more modern analytical techniques. Of course, osteological and other related data is not available from the old records. Among the numerous illustrations from the Vatican excavations are a few pictures of impressive objects recovered from other sites. Figures of these non-Vatican items (e.g., 222, 262–63) are identified by Roman numerals, such as the marble funerary container in the shape of a basket (fig. V), to distinguish them from the plethora of Vatican finds published in this volume.

After providing a general background to mortuary archaeology, Liverani and Spinola devote two long chapters to illustrating the principal investigations of the Vatican necropolis. Chapter 3, “The Necropolis Under St. Peter’s Basilica” (40–139) focuses on a row of impressive tombs, which are shown in plan and in an elevation view (40). An enlarged and much more complete plan of the western end of this area appears later (53). The many impressive tombs that lie directly below St. Peter’s reveal the earlier history of this specific location as having been associated with an upscale burial zone. Numerous details of these major monumentum (55), as the authors identify the mortuary buildings, are impressively presented; frescoes, mosaic floors, and other surviving features of these mortuary contexts handsomely fill the 100 pages devoted to them.

Chapter 4, “The Vatican Necropolis on the Via Triumphalis” (140–286) reviews four exposures of the necropolis, each identified by a separate name and illustrated with a separate plan. These are the Galea area (142–61, fig. 2), the Auto Park area (162–63, 165), the Annona area (197–208, 214), and the more recently excavated Piazzale Santa Rosa (214–85, fig. 63). The distinction between the Galea area, located in the “Autoparco’s basement” (143) and “The Autoparco Necropolis” (161) is not clear. These many tombs yielded so many impressive sarcophagi, as well as other notable artifacts, that only basic descriptions can be provided here. The two-page view (174–75) of the Auto Park “Columbarium 8” reveals the intensive use of this particular cemetery area. Numerous niches and all of the floor space of these tombs are packed with urns and other burial containers. This density was typical of large ancient tombs, both in Rome and throughout Etruria, where families buried their kin and probably servants and slaves as well within their mortuary structure. Zander contributed chapter 5, a lengthy discussion of the conservation and restoration efforts related to the necropolis found under Saint Peter’s Basilica (287–329). Zander, often identified as the archaeologist in charge of the Vatican necropolis, led the conservation program. Zander’s work is followed by extensive “Notes” (331–45), a compact bibliography (346), and an index of names (347–50).

The emphasis on the impressive tombs and goods buried with the elite reflects a traditional art historical approach to mortuary archaeology and also reflects the intended readership. The effort to present statistics involving the ratio of cremations to inhumations during the period ca. 125–200 C.E. is valiant but is limited by restraints on sampling. Cremations were still being done into the fourth century C.E., lingering among the poor, whose choice in such matters was financial. The statistics that Liverani and Spinola provide reflect the lack of skeletal analysis available to them from the earlier excavation reports. The “infant burial” in which an egg is present (fig. IV.74) seems to be that of a child closer to six years of age. No scale is used and no evaluation of the skeleton is cited. As a physical anthropologist, I often decry the omission of skeletal information and the publication of “boneless” cemetery reports in which the human remains serve as wonderful props in illustrations but are completely disregarded as a source of information. Reading this text offers few clues to the existence of bones in these burials. The authors, however, cannot be faulted for the techniques used by previous excavators. Most human remains encountered during Vatican excavations in the last century were almost certainly discarded, regardless of their possible religious affiliation. We can only hope that the final report of the Santa Rosa area will incorporate modern approaches to the study of human and other remains such as suggested by Artioli (Scientific Methods and Cultural Heritage: An Introduction to the Application of Materials Science to Archaeometry and Conservation Science [Oxford 2010]).

In the case of the Vatican-area burials, the past lack of concern for human remains became extremely inconvenient with the discovery of possible bones of Saint Peter. Alone among the thousands of tombs encountered in ancient Rome, the human and other remains that may have been associated with Saint Peter attracted considerable interest but little anthropological expertise. Bones of saintly interest had been encountered during various investigations, including some as late as 1968, but nothing resembling proper processing was directed toward them. Their subsequent “study” was even murkier. However, note is made here of the important contributions of Guarducci (1902–1999), who led the excavation of the tomb of Saint Peter, as it ultimately was declared by papal decree (M. Guarducci, Le Relique di Pietro in Vaticano [Rome 1995]). Over the years, several people within the Vatican Museums provided me with various interesting research projects, but I never saw Saint Peter’s bones.

Notably absent in this volume is a single plan on which all the explored burial areas are clearly located. The lack of a scale with most of the illustrations is problematical for archaeologists. Illustrations of artifacts from Santa Rosa (280–83) reflect a great range of sizes, but they are placed side-by-side with nothing to indicate relative scale. Metric scales appear with some architectural drawings, but the three that appear with figure 21 lack numbers. The small “Errata” slip inserted at this page is confusing. The illustrations, numbered by chapter, often have captions that appear several pages removed, while others, such as “III, 3,” refer to two separate figures. Cross-referencing is almost nonexistent, so that the “burial of Flavius Agricola in tomb R” (24) under the Vatican basilica can only be linked with “the tomb of Flavius Agricola” (133), where it is labeled “S,” through consulting the index. The assumption that readers will be familiar with the many terms used may not be correct. Nevertheless, the extensive and nearly error-free text, plus the many extraordinary views of the numerous fabulous tombs within the area of Vatican City, provide us with an impressive volume. With each of these pages measuring 24 x 33 cm, the many two-page spreads provide spectacular panoramic views nearly half a meter wide. These graphics are accompanied by an informative text and useful references for those interested in further research related to the many subjects brought into view by Liverani and Spinola. We eagerly anticipate these authors’ scholarly report on the excavations in the Santa Rosa area and expect that it will be up to modern standards and a credit to all involved.

Marshall Joseph Becker
Department of Anthropology
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383

Book Review of The Vatican Necropoles: Romes City of the Dead, by Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 2 (April 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1172.Becker

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