In the first century BC, a grassy hillside just north of what is now St Peter’s Square was used as a burial place for local Romans. It remained in use until the early fourth century AD, when work on St Peter’s Basilica began, reports the Religion News Service.
With the construction, more than 1,000 graves were covered over. Soon after, they were forgotten as the construction of the Vatican City grew up around it. It remained that way until the 1950s, when plans to build a parking lot on what appeared to be an undeveloped field uncovered a small part of the 10,000-square-foot necropolis, or cemetery. That’s when excavations began.
Now, two generations and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the Vatican is ready to let the public see what it uncovered.
The Roman necropolis of the Via Triumphalis illustrates changing burial traditions and the city’s evolution from a pagan capital into its earliest days as a Christian city. Overseers say it is likely a small handful of those buried — no more than 50 of the 1,000 graves — would have belonged to early Christians.
'The area was constantly reborn between its establishment in the first century BC to around 300 or 320 AD,' said Giandomenico Spinola, an archaeologist specialising in Greek and Roman periods, and also the curator of the Vatican necropolis.
Mudslides and avalanches helped preserve much of what has been uncovered. Many items in the cemetery are unusually well preserved: Some marble statues still bear signs of paint; a child’s remains show he still clenches a coin placed between his teeth according to the burial traditions of the time.
There was a period when the dead were cremated, with ashes and bone fragments placed in urns buried at the site, and other periods when the deceased were buried in elaborate plots complete with grave goods - personal belongings and other symbols of social stature.
FULL STORY Near St Peter’s, an ancient burial site opens to the public (Religion News Service)