It must be the fact that I was 12 years old when “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out, but it might also be that I’ve been a National Geographic magazine subscriber since about the same time, but I’ve always been a sucker for archaeology stories, especially those related to a fantastic treasure.
The relics of St. Peter, the first pope, aren’t the usual type of treasure in the sense of gold and jewels, but it is a treasure to the faithful. For 2,000 years tradition has held that the giant Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City in Rome was built above his final resting place, but for most of that time nobody really knew for sure. That is, until an excavation begun in the Grottoes underneath the basilica in the late 1930s uncovered a Roman necropolis.
In his new book “St. Peter’s Bones”, Thomas Craughwell provides a popular re-telling of the tale of the dig and what was found. It’s full of the usual intrigues, personal foibles, politics, faith, and unbelievable happenstance. But along the way, we don’t just learn how Pope Pius XII set in motion one of the great Christian archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, we also learn much more about the Church throughout the ages. We learn about St. Peter himself, how he came to Rome, and how he died there. The ancient burial practices of Romans, Christians, and others are explained. Myths about ancient Christian ways are exploded.
We see how the history of Christianity revolves around veneration of the places connected to Christ, Peter and the Apostles, and the early martyrs, including the catacombs of Rome and other excavations.
But it’s the main story that is most compelling. We start with four clerics tasked with the job of excavating by Pope Pius. Ironically, they were told to stay away from the the expected location of the tomb of St. Peter when they started, but as they discovered more and more of the necropolis, including evidence of Christian burials around the time of Christ and clear references to Peter, they were able to start digging toward the first Pope’s burial spot, which tradition had said was beneath the high altar, such that if you could drop a plumb line from Michelangelo’s dome, down through the high altar, down through the ground, it would land right in the middle of his burial spot. And, spoiler alert!, that’s where he was.
Of course, we didn’t know any of that because of a quirk of ecclesial politics. The digs were overseen by another priest, not one of the archeologists, but the one responsible for all of St. Peter’s Basilica. His main concern was that the remains of Christians being dug up by the explorers be respected and so every night he went to the digs with a workman and carefully gathered up all the remains they found and placed them in a storage area. So one night, they went into a newly opened space, one that the archeologists hadn’t explored yet, and removed a set of bones. Off they went to storages for years and years before they were brought out again and it wasn’t until decades had passed that enough evidence had been amassed to declare these the bones of St. Peter!
In his efforts to provide due respect, the poor priest had shoved the first Pope’s holy relics in a box in a storeroom where they were nearly lost.
There’s a lot of other great information in there as well, including how grafitti played a major role in identifying the remains as St. Peter’s. Just imagine! What we would call vandalism today was key to saving this location for us 2,000 years ago.
If I had any quibbles about the book, it was that it could do with some illustrations and maps. But there are some good resources online that helped, including an unofficial site dedicated to St. Peter’s Basilica that has some maps, illustrations, and photos of the Scavi (as the excavations are called); an entry on a blog that goes into great detail, including information on and illustrations of the previous churches built on the site; and Kathy Schiffer’s post from last fall about the exposition of the relics by the Vatican to end the Year of Faith.
By the way, Fr. Chip Hines and I interviewed the author, Thomas Craughwell, on our radio show The Good Catholic Life, a couple of weeks ago and you can listen an audio recording of the 1-hour-long interview.