The Vatican's Pagan Cemetery

By Barbie Nadeau
Oct. 14, 2006

Funerary statue of an infant with inscription 'Tiberius Natronius Vemustus' from the family tomb of the Natronii family—part of the pagan cemetery uncovered beneath the Vatican

Oct. 13, 2006 - Just inside the Vatican's fortified walls, directly below the street connecting its private pharmacy and its members-only supermarket, lies a 2,000-year-old graveyard littered with bizarre, often disturbing displays of pagan worship. Under one metallic walkway, the headless skeleton of a young boy rests in an open grave. At his side, a marble replica of a hen's egg, which to pagans represented the rebirth of the body through reincarnation. Nearby, countless skeletons lie scattered among the remnants of terra cotta vases used in pagan ceremonies. The underground air is damp with the smell of wet dirt, and the clay tubes used by the pagans to feed their dead with honey and syrup still protrude, fingerlike, from the ground.

Walking among the exposed bones of any ancient graveyard would be chilling enough. But when it's a pagan necropolis directly beneath Vatican City, arguably Christianity's holiest shrine, then the situation redlines right into completely unnerving. Or it would be if it weren't so enthralling, especially for anyone who has ever pondered Roman Catholicism's pagan roots. The Necropoli dell'Autoparco (literally Necropolis of the Parking Garage), a 2,000-year-old burial ground, which opens to the public Oct. 20, offers a rarely seen glimpse of the close ties between pagans and Christians during the Augustan era (23 B.C.-14 A.D.). "You see a mix of social class and even religious beliefs here," says Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums, who believes that including the pagan graveyard as part of the Vatican's museums will foster awareness of the roots of Catholicism and the importance of its Roman history. The site "brings together the rich and the poor, the plebes and the nobles," he says. "We have not opened an exhibit as historically significant in recent history."

The necropolis was discovered by accident in 2003 when construction workers broke ground for a new parking garage for Vatican employees. After local residents complained that dump trucks leaving the site were carrying tombstones and other seemingly important archaeological debris, the Vatican admitted uncovering what was believed to be an ancient Roman burial ground. Little further explanation was offered. But in the waning days of John Paul II's papacy, plans were made to open the graveyard to the public. John Paul himself was a student of Rome's pagan roots. But when he was succeeded by the more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, the plan was nearly derailed-until the Vatican's official archeologists insisted that the Holy See carry through the plans to honor the former pope. Indeed, when it opens next week as part of the Vatican Museums' 500th anniversary, the very fact that it exists so publicly is a testament to the Holy See's curious new willingness to promote that which it does not necessarily believe. "Everyone always thinks that if it's not about pure Christianity, the Vatican isn't interested," says Cristina Gennaccari, an archaeologist with the Vatican Museums. "But there are many pagan aspects of all things modern, and when it comes to archeology, especially religious archeology, there is really no room for distinction."

The sepulcher of a woman the Vatican believes was a convert to Christianity

Courtesy Vatican MuseumsFunerary statue of an infant with inscription 'Tiberius Natronius Vemustus' from the family tomb of the Natronii family-part of the pagan cemetery uncovered beneath the VaticanBesides, the Vatican is quick to point out, some of the bones in the necropolis belonged to people who were, as Gennaccari puts it, "on the verge of conversion to Christianity." She points to a carving on the sarcophagus of a young third-century soldier that shows a young woman kneeling next to a tree upon which a bird roosts. These symbols, she says, represent the soldier's potential belief in Christianity: "It brings him into the Christian realm," she asserts. Another carving shows a man praying in a way that early Christians did, she says, which could show that he was also an early convert, or at least had the inclination. Never mind that nearby, the tombs of others are decorated with obviously pagan mosaics elaborately depicting, among other things, a drunken Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, being held aloft by a satyr. Many of the tombs are still equipped with the oil lamps used by mourners for illumination when they read to their dead to keep them occupied until the next life.

The graveyard will be open to the public only on Friday and Saturday mornings, by appointment, for €5 ($6.25). It will also remain an active archaeological dig until the sacred archaeologists feel they have cataloged and uncovered as much as they can, or need to. While Gennaccari admits that there are probably more treasures under the buildings that form the core of Vatican City's infrastructure—mainly under the pharmacy and grocery store—"It'll be hard,” she says with a shrug, “to convince anyone that we have to dislocate some of our modern conveniences to see what else is there." For now, the Necropolis of the Parking Garage is probably as deep as the Vatican wants to dig into its pagan roots.

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