The Vatican Necropoles: Rome’s City of the Dead | American Journal of Archaeology

Reviewed by

Marshall Joseph Becker

The entire 44 ha (110 acres) of the present Vatican City lies within a vast area once used as burial grounds for ancient Rome. This sprawling zone, within which the Holy See is located, yields burials wherever excavations penetrate the earth. Every location where construction has been undertaken in this large portion of modern Rome, such as the recent Metro extension to Cipro, pierces some part of this enormous necropolis. Liverani and Spinola have produced an impressive volume offering a visual review of the mortuary archaeology from within the area that now is the Vatican, from the earliest recorded accounts up to recent excavations. This work vastly expands on the authors’ earlier treatment of the subject. Its inclusion as one of the English-language versions of the Monumenta Vaticana Selecta series, which began with a study of the Sistine Chapel and includes a gorgeous work on the Vatican gardens, indicates the audience for which it is intended. In Italy, there is an impressive market for superbly illustrated studies of every aspect of culture, including archaeology. This volume provides, in English, an excellent summary of the results of extensive excavations at several locations in the Vatican portion of this huge mortuary zone, each exposure generally identified as if it were a separate necropolis. Beginning with a chapter on the topography of this area, the authors then provide three long chapters describing funeral rituals, the materials recovered, and the architecture of the tombs. The closing chapter addresses the important matter of conserving the materials recovered as well as the exposed ruins.

Following a very brief introduction by Buranelli, former director general of the Vatican Museums (2002–2007), the authors examine the “Topographic Setting” (11–22). A plan of the entire Vatican City (10) opens a review of the history of this complex and dense zone within the larger mortuary region. The limited indications of the various excavations on this plan are not well linked to the data in the text. The second chapter, “Rituals: Anthropological and Religious” (23–40) summarizes literary sources relating to funerary matters. The excavations of these tombs reveal the gradual shift from cremation burial in the first century C.E. (26–7) to inhumation, the dominant rite of the third century (24). The authors cite Tibullus (ca. 55 B.C.E.–ca. 19 C.E.) for his comments on the cremation process of his era, including the gathering and washing of the ossilegium, the bones remaining after the burning. Only careful inspection can determine if burned bones found in a tomb were washed in antiquity or simply scooped up from the ustrinum along with ash and charcoal from the pyre and poured into a burial container. These processes are described by Becker, Turfa, and Algee (Human Remains from Etruscan and Italic Tomb Groups in the University of Pennsylvania Museum [Rome 2009] 48). Cremated remains can be remarkably durable. Skilled excavators can identify small heaps of cremated bone within a tomb as indicating the locations of perishable containers used as burial urns. Liverani and Spinola recognize that marble urns reflect the use of upscale versions of perishable prototypes in wood, wicker, and leather that were used by the less wealthy (35).

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