The archeological proof of the existence of St. Peters tomb under St. Peters basilica in Rome.

"Nero...publicly announcing himself as the first among God's chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome [about 200 AD.]. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid: "But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church." And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: "You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth." [Eusebius, [A.D. 303] (Church History 2:25:5-8)]


On Wednesday 26th June 1968, Pope Paul VI, conducting an audience in the basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, departed from his normal routine to issue a statement of enormous significance to the Holy See, Roman Catholics and Christians throughout the world: the Pope declared that the mortal remains of Peter, foremost of the Apostles of Jesus Christ, had been found beneath

the great church in which he was speaking. The statement marked the culmination of one of the most famous and important archaeological investigations of recent times; a vast undertaking which had engaged the talents of scientists, historians and linguists for a quarter of a century.

 Since the reformation on of the oldest anti-Catholic "arguments" used by the Protestants in a attempt to discredit the position and authority of the Pope is the clame "Peter was never in Rome". Thanks to the extensive writings of the early church fathers and a exciting archeological discovery made in the last century We can finally put this  Ridicules "argument" to rest. In a work issued in 1959, Father Kirschbaum, a member of the archeological commission excavating under the basilica during the 1940's, has given a summary of the findings. These are in brief that it is reasonably certain that the place where St. Peter was buried has been discovered.

Peter.jpg (22005 bytes)
Among the more than 30,000 Greek and Latin inscriptions have been discovered in the catacombs of Rome, is this marble slab above is from about the year 313 A.D. The slab sealed the tomb of a little boy named Asellus and the inscription goes on to tell us that he had lived 5 years, 8 months and 23 days. To the left we see the images of the Saints Peter and Paul, with the monogram of Christ above the name of Peter. The fact that the Gospel of Jesus brought to Rome by St. Peter and St. Paul was clearly professed by the early Christian community there.

According to historical records, supplemented by these new discoveries, this is the "history" of the tomb. The Christians buried the Apostle's body in a simple grave on the southern slope of Vatican Hill and covered it with a few brick slabs. Soon other graves were made near that of St. Peter, and these have been recently discovered. Their existence and inscriptions on the wall make clear that from the very first St. Peter's tomb was a place of pilgrimage so that there was uninterrupted Christian veneration and observation of this spot.

About the middle of the second century the grave was marked by a simple monumental slab, the "trophy" mentioned by Father Gaius about 200 A.D."But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church." . During Valerian's persecution, when Christian cemeteries were closed for the first time, St. Peter's relics, but probably only the skull, were moved to a more secure place on the Via Appia. They were returned in the fourth century when Constantine began the first basilica over St. Peter's tomb. To this end he went to great labor and expense to fill up piles on the sloping Vatican Hill to provide a level foundation. This is why St. Peter's tomb is at a considerably lower level than the floor of the Basilica of Constantine and its modern replacement.

St. Gregory the Great carried out extensive alterations between 594 and 604, placing an altar over the tomb, but leaving a shaft through which objects might be lowered to touch the tomb for the veneration of pilgrims. During a Saracen raid in 846 much of the basilica and tomb were plundered, although the actual grave was not penetrated. It was soon after, probably, that the skull was removed and placed, together with that of St. Paul, in the Lateran, where they still remain. To prevent further vandalism the tomb shaft was filled up and the crypt sealed.

In 1503, work was begun to construct the modern basilica which was built over the tomb without disturbing it. During construction some attempts were made to reach the tomb, but were abandoned, it is now clear, before reaching the actual grave. The discoveries of 1940-51, however, successively penetrated the various layers and reached the actual site of the original grave of St. Peter. Here were found bones, all belonging to the same person, "an elderly and vigorous man," with the skull missing.

EARLY_CHRISTIAN.jpg (32233 bytes)
The Archaeologists found the early Christian Monogram used for the name of  St. Peter over two dozen times, on and around the tomb of the Apostle. 

When Pope Pius XI died in February 1939, he was buried in the Grottoes alongside his predecessors. The new Pope, Pius XII, decided that the time was right to reorganize the space into a proper underground chapel. Under the direction of Monsignor Kaas, administrator of St. Peter's, the Vatican's architects and engineers estimated that the modifications could best be accommodated by lowering the level of the Grottoes by three feet.

As soon as the digging started, the anticipated hoard of ancient sarcophagi began to turn up. But at a depth of some two-and-a-half feet, the workmen hit something unexpected. Traces of the top of a walled enclosure were uncovered. The roof of the enclosure had been crudely sliced off, however, and the interior had been packed with earth. Intrigued by the building, the workmen began to dig down through the compressed fill. Fifteen feet down, they finally reached the floor of what was clearly a Roman mausoleum. Four inscriptions placed below funerary urns identified the owners as a family called the Caetennii. But there were indications that this mausoleum was not alone; it seemed likely that there were in fact other tombs on either side of it. The excavators informed the Pope and Pius XII abandoned the plan to create an underground chapel. Instead, he put together a team of Vatican officials who were to explore the site further: Two Jesuit archaeologists, Antonio Ferrua and Englebert Kirschbaum, undertook most of the work; the Vatican architect, Bruno Apollonj-Ghetti, and the Inspector of Catacombs, Professor Enrico Josi, oversaw the project, and all four were under the authority of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the Administrator of St. Peter's, answerable to the Pope himself. Pius XII commissioned them to investigate further but laid down one condition: they were not to encroach on the area beneath the high altar.

Work began in 1941 and within months it had become clear that a major area of archaeological importance had been discovered. A whole street of tombs came to light, some 300 feet long, with tombs on both sides. Some were simple structures, small and unadorned; but others were sumptuously decorated with wall paintings, stucco decoration and even expertly finished mosaics. In these tombs, the Vatican excavators found hundreds of burials. Over half were cremation-burials, the rest inhumations and many of the dead were named. Their names proved to be an important means of dating the street. It seems that the burial area was dominated by freedmen and their families. Slaves customarily took the names of their former masters on manumission and a small but significant number of the freedmen buried in the street of tombs had been owned by Roman emperors of the second century. There was evidence also that Christians had used the street of tombs. In one tomb, the excavators found a breathtaking golden mosaic which depicted Christ driving a chariot across the sky, a motif borrowed straight from depictions of the Sun God Sol or Helios.

But two striking finds convinced the investigators that they were on the verge of some great discovery: First, they noticed the way in which the street of tombs had been destroyed. The roofs of many of the tombs stretching eastwards down the Vatican Hill had been crudely hacked off. Some of the tombs themselves had had buttress walls inserted into them, running north to south; and all had been filled in with a vast quantity of earth, estimated at 1 million cubic feet.

The excavators knew well that the emperor Constantine had built a church in honor of Saint Peter in the 320s AD and the transverse walls inside the tombs were clearly part of the foundations of that church. But the way in which the tombs had been damaged and filled in indicated that Constantine had been determined to build his church on precisely that alignment on the Vatican Hill. He had in effect sawn off the top of the hill and deposited it further down to create a vast platform on which to build his basilica. But there could only be one reason for this: there was something on the hill that he wanted to preserve and place in the focal point of his church. The excavators had discovered that the street of tombs which Constantine had destroyed was leading straight under the high altar.

The second important discovery made by the Vatican investigating team was a graffito on the wall of another tomb. They found two Crudely sketched heads which date from about 290-310 AD. were on the wall of the central niche in the Valerius tomb [about thirty feet from the tomb of St. Peter].  The upper drawing represents Christ , the lower depicts Peter. under the sketch was found the Latin inscription: 


This translates as:

"Peter pray Christ Jesus for the holy Christian men buried near your body"

The  Crude early Christian sketch of Christ and Peter found about thirty feet from the tomb of St. Peter.

These developments, communicated to the Pope, caused him to change his mind about the scope of the excavations. He ordered the team to penetrate the zone beneath the high altar of Saint Peter's basilica. Once again, however, a stern command was issued: not a breath of their activities was to be communicated to the public until the work had been completed and a full report published. Thus, while the Second World War ravaged Europe, Monsignor Kaas and his colleagues burrowed unnoticed under one of the most revered sites in Catholic Christendom.

This phase of the excavators' work presented the greatest difficulties. There was absolutely no question that the Basilica of Saint Peter could be closed for the duration of the project and yet its progress had to remain secret. The present high altar of the basilica was very carefully supported through the skill of Vatican engineers and the drainage problems were solved by hydrologists. The excavators themselves had been forbidden to use power tools and had to conduct the investigation with trowels and spades and an army of Sampietrini (Vatican workmen).

Three years of digging, first from the west, then the south and north, finally brought this part of the street of tombs to light. Directly beneath the area of high altar of Saint Peter's basilica lay a paved courtyard, 7 metres by 4. The westernmost limit of this courtyard was provided by a thick red brick wall to which the excavators gave the name the muro rosso, the Red Wall. Built into this wall was a structure rising to a height of about 2 metres from the floor. Although its upper portions had been badly damaged, its overall shape could be reconstructed. It had an upper and a lower niche, a pediment topped the upper niche and the lower was framed by two short columns. The remains of a slab of marble lay on top of the two columns. Because of its appearance, the excavators called this structure the "aedicula", the "little temple".

On the floor of the courtyard, at the point where the aedicula met the Red Wall, a second slab of marble had been set into the ground. It had come from another tomb in the area and a rectangular hole had been cut into it. To the right hand (or north) side of the aedicula a small buttressing wall had been placed in front of a crack in the Red Wall at a date after the completion of the aedicula itself. This wall had been faced with plaster which had been scratched and scored by ancient visitors to the site. Also, the builders of this wall which the excavators called "the Graffiti Wall" had inserted into it a small marble-lined space to which the team gave the name the "loculus".

The crucial question was the date of this little complex. The investigators regarded the courtyard and the four tombs around it as being constructed at the same time. These tombs around the courtyard yielded names, but nothing strictly datable. However, when the archaeologists explored the sloping alleyway on the western side of the Red Wall they discovered that someone had installed a drain to carry away the rain on the hill. The drain had been made with bricks from a Roman workshop and five of them bore the same maker's stamp. They came from a factory in production between AD 147 and 161.

The excavators concluded then that the basic structures at this end of the street of tombs had been laid down in the middle of the second century AD. They had in fact discovered the structure which the churchman Gaius described, when he was writing around the year AD 200. But although this evidence indicated an impressively early date for the aedicula and the courtyard, it was still at least three generations later than the traditional date of the death of Saint Peter. Was there anything earlier? The excavators decided to push down through the floor level of the courtyard.

Directly beneath the marble slab set into the pavement at the point where the aedicula joined the Red Wall, the archaeologists discovered what was clearly a grave. A cavity, measuring only 72 cm from side to side and approximately 1.4 m deep, was clearly visible. Several attempts had been made to line this cavity with simple stone walls to protect its sides but it had still been badly damaged. Innumerable ancient coins from all over Christian Europe lay all around the floor of this space and indicated that a large number of pilgrims had visited this site, dropping coins into the grave through the little rectangular window in the marble slab over it.

Of bones, however, there was at first no sign; the grave seemed to be empty. But when Kirschbaum looked more carefully inside the cavity, he noticed that right at one end, where the grave stretched underneath the Red Wall, there was a small pile of bones. The Vatican excavators summoned the Pope immediately and shortly after the closing of the basilica Pius XII seated himself on a stool beside the cavity and watched Englebert Kirschbaum slowly hand out the fragments of bone to his colleagues. Most of the fragments were small but some were larger. Part of a breastbone was handed out, and then half of a shoulder blade. There was no skull. This absence of the remains of Peter's head did not disturb Pius XII or the excavators, on the contrary, it actually confirmed one of the great traditions of the medieval church. All those present, the Pope and the excavators, knew that a skull in the basilica of Saint John Lateran since at least the ninth century, was widely believed to be that of Peter. Obviously, the skull had been taken from this grave at some stage in the early medieval period to adorn the parish church of the Pope himself.

The bones recovered from the niche beneath the aedicula were carefully placed in a number of lead-lined boxes and given for formal identification, to Pius XII's personal physician Dottore Galeazzi-Lisi. There was, however, as the team knew very well, no actual indication of the date of this grave. Among the coins of all ages which had covered the floor of the cavity, there were several which were much too early, including one from the reign of Augustus, who had died in AD 14, when Peter was only a boy. So the coin evidence could not be conclusive. The excavators turned their attentions to other burials within the vicinity of what they took to be Peter's grave.

Two proved to be particularly important. Two meters below the floor of the courtyard the excavators unearthed a child's grave which they called 'Gamma'. The small sarcophagus had been placed in a short trench from which, leading to ground level was a narrow lead tube. Pipes of this kind were a common feature of pagan tombs and on the anniversary of the child's death the family of the deceased would gather at the grave and pour a little wine down the tube as an offering to the departed shade. At the point where the pipe emerged from the earth, a crude altar had originally been constructed, again with a pagan cultic purpose, but the makers of the aedicula had destroyed most of it in building their own monument. Lastly, the child's grave had a distinctive orientation, slightly off a true west-east axis.

The same orientation was notable in the second important grave, to which the excavators gave the name 'Theta'. This was a much humbler burial. The corpse had been placed in the earth and covered over with brick tiles, leaning together like a roof. Crucially, for the excavations, one of these tiles bore a maker's stamp. It had been manufactured in a Roman workshop during the reign of Vespasian, emperor from AD 69-79, and well within a generation of Peter's death.

Now when the excavators looked closely at the aedicula, and more specifically, when they examined the slab of marble that had been set into the floor of the courtyard where the aedicula met the Red Wall, they noticed that it too was slightly off the perpendicular. Its orientation was in fact exactly the same as the early burials Gamma and Theta. Also, when they looked again at the foundations of the Red Wall, they discovered that whoever had constructed it had made a curious rise in the foundations at precisely the point where it met the cavity. It seemed to the excavators that the builders of the Red Wall, whom we know carried out the task in the second century, had, during the work of laying the foundations, come across something in the ground which they did not want to disturb. Furthermore, those who placed the marble slab on top of the remains marked by the aedicula placed it in line with a body that was not lying perpendicular to the Red Wall. That body was in fact in alignment with the earliest burials at the site, one of which had apparently taken place between AD 69 and 79.

To the excavators, the task seemed complete and their confidence turned to joy several months later when Dr Galeazzi-Lisi reported back on the remains discovered beneath the aedicula. They were the bones of a powerfully built man who had been 65 or 70 years of age at the time of his death. But it is a tribute to the professionalism of the excavators and the caution of Pius XII himself that the Pope reported the discoveries to the world in the following terms in his Christmas broadcast on 23rd of December 1950:

Has the tomb of Saint Peter really been found? To that question the answer is beyond all doubt yes. The tomb of the Prince of the Apostles has been found. Such is the final conclusion after all the labor and study of these years. A second question, subordinate to the first, refers to the relics of Saint Peter. Have they been found? At the side of the tomb remains of human bones have been discovered. However, it is impossible to prove with certainty that they belong to the apostle. This still leaves intact the historical reality of the tomb itself.

One reason for the Pope's caution was the absence of any physical reference to Peter in the vicinity of the aedicula. But that evidence arrived in startling circumstances just after the excavators had sent their final report to the Vatican publishers. Antonio Ferrua was visiting the site on his own one evening when he noticed that a piece of plaster from the wall on the right hand side of the shrine had worked itself free from the back of the wall, where it was placed against the crack in the Red Wall. Ferrua looked carefully at the fragment and noticed that some unknown hand had scratched two lines of Greek. On the upper line only the letters pi, epsilon, tau and rho were still visible, while of the lower line only epsilon, nu and part of a vertical line survived. Ferrua, however, with his grounding in Christian epigraphy, immediately restored the missing letters in his mind, so that the short inscription read "Petr[os] en[i]", "Peter is buried in here". He believed that at last, and through a stroke of fate that was almost miraculous, a crucial reference associating Peter with the aedicula had been found.
St.peters-bones3.jpg (189055 bytes) As we saw, Pope Pius XII had been cautious in his Christmas broadcast of 1950 about the identification of the bones found in the space beneath the aedicula. Eighteen years later (June 28, 1968) After a extensive scientific investigation  Pope Paul VI would announce to the world with a certainty "The relics of St. Peter have been identified...."  

Those bones had been entrusted to Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi for examination and he had identified them as the bones of a powerfully built man who at been 65 or 70 years of age at the time of his death. Judging by fragments of fabric found we know that the bones had been wrapped in a cloth of royal purple, a sure indications of the unusually high dignity accorded the man. Threads of gold in the cloth reinforced this impression , since the combination of purple and gold indicate  imperial honors.

We may conclude, then, that not only St. Peter's authority and spirit, but even the relics of his body, have remained in Rome. Nature and grace have conspired to justify the Latin inscription on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, towering some 400 feet above the once simple earthen grave: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and I will give you the keys of heaven."