O’Neill: The Fisherman’s Tomb

August 13, 2019

The Fisherman’s Tomb
The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search
John O’Neill
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2018)
256 p.

One of the best — in fact, maybe the very best — of the archaeological sites in Rome is the Scavi, an excavated fourth-century Roman necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. One steps through the climate-control doors into the past: there is a spacious road lined by small buildings, each with a main doorway giving onto the road; they are family tombs, in an amazing state of preservation — apart from the sawed off roofs on some. The road leads westward, past tomb after tomb, and terminates at a humble looking little monument. Could one look up, through the ceiling, when standing before it, one would be looking up through the main altar of the basilica, up through Bernini’s great baldacchino, and up to the apex of Michelangelo’s dome. It is the focal point of the basilica’s floor plan. The small monument is the tombstone of the fisherman from Galilee, St Peter.

John O’Neill’s book tells the story of how this amazing excavation came about, and of how the tomb, which tradition had always said was there, was re-discovered in the twentieth century after being hidden for about 1600 years. He introduces us to the main people involved, the conduct of the work, and the internal politics that for decades roiled around the interpretation of the excavation’s findings.

**

The excavation was an initiative of Pope Pius XII and was begun, in great secrecy, during the early days of World War II. While the war raged, and as the Nazis occupied Rome, the slow work under the Vatican continued for years. It was all financed, we learn from O’Neill, by an American oilman named George Strake, who did not learn until decades later what his money was being used for. The work, during those war-time years, was led by one Antonio Ferrua and was, unfortunately, done too hastily and to poor archaeological standards. The initial findings were confused — Ferrua fell for a ruse that had apparently been set up to prevent the relics of the saint from being vandalized, and concluded that the bones of St Peter were not there.

It was not until after the war that a young academic, Margherita Guarducci, caught wind of the project, and, after berating Ferrua and his methods in a meeting with the Pope, was herself placed in charge of the site. She established proper procedures for the excavation and spent years studying and untangling a complicated network of scratched inscriptions found on and around the monument, especially those on a nearby wall fragment. This wall had been something of a mystery at the initial uncovering of the site: when the first St Peter’s Basilica had been built by Constantine in 337 his men had planned the church so that, as in the present church, the altar would be directly over the small monument — a decision not taken lightly, as it had necessitated building out the eastern side of Vatican hill and filling the Roman tombs with dirt in order to make a flat foundation for the church — and they had covered the monument in a marble box, but this box had been built asymmetrically so as to also enclose the wall fragment covered with graffiti. It had clearly been done intentionally, but the reason why was not clear until Guarducci came along.

She discovered on the wall fragment numerous inscriptions making reference to Peter, including one which read “Peter is within”. Beneath a corner of the wall was found a cavity with bones. On forensic analysis they were found to be of a man, aged 60-70, of stocky build. It was not a complete skeleton, but enough bones, and from one individual, that the reasonable inference was made that these were the mortal remains of the Apostle.

The historical timeline that was pieced together was something like this:

  • c.65: Peter was executed by the Romans, on Vatican hill, and was buried quietly nearby
  • c.150: the small wall near the burial place was built (the bricks have been dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius). Graffiti inscriptions began to be made on the wall, naming Peter.
  • c.250: the small monument was built over the burial site
  • c.250-337: at some point, bones originally beneath the monument were moved to beneath the wall. At this time they were wrapped in a cloth, fragments of which survive.
  • c.337: Constantine builds the first St Peter’s church over the site, encasing both monument and wall in marble, an enclosure that was not breached until the twentieth century

This was Guarducci’s theory, but an entertaining academic feud was about to break out. Ferrua, her predecessor, whose methods she had criticized, refused to accept her account, and waged a decades-long war against it. According to him, his original conclusions were sound: the small monument was to mark Peter’s resting place, but the bones themselves were gone, and the nearby graffiti wall, with all its inscriptions, was irrelevant.

Guarducci prevailed, says O’Neill, until the late 1970s, when John Paul II was elected and Ferrua was promoted to head of the Vatican’s archaeological office, at which point he erased her name and work from Vatican publicity materials, and reasserted his own interpretation. The Vatican therefore found itself in a topsy-turvy situation where a secular (at least at first) layperson was arguing for the authenticity of Church tradition and a senior clergyman was arguing for its in-authenticity. It was not, says O’Neill, until Ferrua died in 2003 that his self-aggrandizing theory lost its influence. Pope Benedict commissioned a thorough review of all evidence in the late 2000s, and in 2013 Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the bones found beneath the graffiti wall as being those of St Peter. (This was before he decided to give a bunch of them away.)

**

So, at least, says O’Neill, but here’s an odd thing: I have visited the Scavi twice, first in 2001 and again in 2005, so straddling the year, 2003, in which Ferrua died. But I detected no change in the story between the first visit and the second; the story in both cases was Guarducci’s. So perhaps O’Neill draws sharper lines in the sand than existed in reality.

In any case, the story O’Neill tells is a riveting one, full of the wonder of discovery. Its import for the historical origins of Catholicism is obvious, and I would recommend the book to Catholics for sure, but also to other Christians, those interested in archaeology or war-time history, or just those with a taste for cut-throat academic in-fighting.

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