The Bones of Saint Peter

John Curran

The Queen's University

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.

But more than fifty years after the beginning of the excavations, the data, methods and conclusions of the investigators can still be viewed as controversial. The purpose of this paper is to offer an introduction to the debate on one of Rome's most important (and least frequented) ancient sites.


Sometime in AD 48, Peter had a tense meeting in Jerusalem with an enthusiastic missionary called Paul, who had been travelling among the peoples of the Near East, spreading news of Jesus' teachings.[1] Peter and his Jewish friends in Jerusalem were anxious that male converts to the new sect should be circumcised, as a sign that their commitment was genuine. But Paul was against the idea. He did not believe that gentiles should be asked to undergo Jewish rituals; emphasis should be laid instead on their adoption of the teaching of Christ. Paul tells us that he managed to convince Peter, whom he calls 'Cephas' (the Aramaic for "rock"):

So James, Cephas and John, these leaders, these pillars, shook hands with Barnabas and me as a sign of partnership: we were to go to the pagans and they to the circumcised.[2]

The two met again, a year later, in Antioch. Peter surveyed the progress of Paul's mission and dined with the converts, but when Peter's hard-line Jewish friends came down from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from gentile company. Paul was outraged at Peter's inconsistency and there was a furious row (Paul writes):

When I saw [that] they were not respecting the true meaning of the Good News, I said to Cephas in front of everyone: "In spite of being a Jew, you live like the pagans and not like the Jews, so you have no right to make the pagans copy Jewish ways."[3]

The two men fell out badly and never spoke to each other again. Paul, spurred on by what he thought was Peter's hypocrisy, embarked on a series of voyages all over the Mediterranean world, urging gentile converts everywhere to play a role in the growing Christian community. Peter, it seems, stayed at Antioch for several years. He had already been the victim of persecution at the hands of other Jews and it may have been dangerous for him to return to Jerusalem. But sometime in the 50s AD, according to many Christians, Peter travelled to Rome.

There was a large Jewish community in the city but life within it was hardly secure. Roman historians tell us that there was unrest in the Jewish quarters of the city. In AD 48 or 49 the emperor Claudius had had to expel the Jews from Rome because they fought viciously among themselves over someone called Chrestus.[4]

Someone in this troubled Jewish community at Rome wrote a letter in AD 63 or 64 to followers of Christ in the eastern Mediterranean.[5] The letter exhorted the faithful to stand firm in the face of sectarian violence and persecution and its authority was greatly enhanced because it claimed to be written by 'Peter, Apostle of Jesus Christ'. We can sense the apprehension of the author in the final words of the text:

I write these few words to you through Silvanus, who is a brother I know I can trust, to encourage you never to let go this true grace of God to which I bear witness. Your sister in Babylon, who is among the chosen, sends you greetings; so does my son Mark.[6]

The author of these lines writes like a man on the run: he needs a courier whom he can trust and his family's location is encoded: 'Babylon' is a secret term used to denote Rome, a term which the author of Revelation would use again to describe the same city some years later.[7]

The fears of the author of what is called The First Letter of Peter were well placed, although when the catastrophe of persecution finally struck the Christian community at Rome it came not from the Jews but, unexpectedly, from the emperor Nero. When the city of Rome was badly damaged by fire in AD 64, rumours swept through the populace that the emperor Nero, a notorious libertine, had himself been responsible. Tacitus, the greatest of all the Roman historians, explains how Nero managed to deflect the charges levelled against him:

..Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the Romans. Christus, from whom the name had its origin suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, but the deadly superstition, checked for a short time, broke out again not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson as of hatred of the human race. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames...Nero had thrown open his gardens for the spectacle....and mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer.[8]

It is believed by many historians, Christians and non-Christians, that Saint Peter died in Rome at the hands of Nero.

One of Nero's friends, the writer Seneca, records in a letter that he had seen criminals being crucified upside down at around the time of Peter's alleged execution.[9] A generation later, Saint John's Gospel contained a passage in which Christ prophesied Peter's death:

When you are old, then you will stretch out your hands and another will bind you and take you where you do not want to go.[10]

The phrase "to stretch out one's hands" is found in literature of the time referring to crucifixion.[11] Certainly the Christian church at Rome claimed Peter as a martyr and founder of along with Paul as early as the end of the first century AD. And another Roman tradition which we can trace back to the third century AD added the detail that Peter asked his persecutors to turn his cross upside down, because he was unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

These literary fragments may not seem impressive, but it must be borne in mind that no challenge was ever mounted to the tradition of Peter's residence and martyrdom in Rome prior to 1324, despite the fact that the authority of the bishops of Rome was a constant battleground in the early church.[12] No one disputed the claim that Peter had died at Rome. As a condemned criminal, Peter, like Christ, did not merit a normal burial. His body, like the bodies of executed villains, should have been dumped in the Tiber or thrown into a convenient rubbish pit. But we know the early Christians often took particular care to recover the bodies of their dead for veneration.

Certainly from a very early date, both the apostles, Peter and Paul, were receiving special attention in the Roman Church. Around AD 200, a Roman churchman called Gaius wrote to a correspondent:

I can point out the trophies of the apostles. For if you would go to the Vatican, or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who founded this church.[13]

For the first time in the written record, the name of Peter was explicitly associated with the Vatican hill, situated north-west of the main area of the city of Rome.


It was very widely known that ancient remains filled the soil on which the Renaissance and Baroque masterpiece of St. Peter's basilica stood. In the work to complete the great church, labourers had frequently uncovered ancient artefacts. One notorious discovery in 1626, for example, was the coffin of a man called Flavius Agricola whose final advice to the living was:

Mix the wine, drink deep and do not refuse to pretty girls the sweets of love, for when death comes earth and fire devour everything.[14]

Pope Urban VIII was so appalled by the pagan sentiment that he ordered the sarcophagus broken up and thrown into the Tiber. But objects had continued to turn up, especially as a result of burials in the crypt of Saint Peter's, an area of the church known as the Vatican Grottoes. The Grottoes lie beneath the nave of the basilica and contain the bodies of some notable Catholics, including James II and a number of Popes.

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 reorganise 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 honour 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. Some ancient hand, perhaps belonging to one of Constantine's workmen, had scrawled in charcoal: Petrus roga Christus Iesus pro sanctis hominibus Chrestianis ad corpus tuum sepultis ("Peter, pray Jesus Christ for the holy men buried near your body"). For the first time evidence in this ancient street pointed to the presence of Peter's remains in the vicinity.

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 metres 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 23th 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 labour 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 here within". 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.

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. 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. Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi was no specialist, however, but a general physician. The papal authorities in the interests of proper scientific procedure, sought a second opinion. The remains were passed on to Venerando Correnti, Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Palermo and a well respected anatomist. Subjected to thorough examination throughout the 1950s, the bones conveyed a very different conclusion to Correnti.

They were the remains not of one man, but of three people, one of whom was a woman. She was elderly, Correnti estimated her age at death to be 70-75 years. The men were not quite so aged; both were in their fifties at the time of death, one was robust but the other was not. And just to complicate matters further, included in the hoard of bones had been animal remains: pieces of cockerel, pig and horse were found.

Elsewhere, sceptics had seized on Antonio Ferrua's "Petros" graffito. They did not dispute its existence or the letters that had survived, but they argued for very different restorations of the short text. Some believed that it should be read "Petr[os] en[dei]" or "Petr[ou] end[ei]", meaning "Peter is not here", a notice for those who believed that the body of the apostle was beneath the aedicula but were wrong. These sceptics pointed out that the church of San Sebastiano on the Via Appia had long been associated with Peter and Paul; the name it had borne in antiquity had been the "basilica apostolorum", the "basilica of the apostles". There were ancient remains beneath this old church too and Ferrua's critics argued that this was the site of Peter's burial, not the Vatican.[15]

Thus the conclusions of the Vatican excavators had come under strong attack from medical and epigraphic experts. There was nothing conclusive to indicate that Saint Peter had been buried at the site of the aedicula or even that the aedicula had ever acted as a focus for any kind of ancient cult associated with Peter.

The introduction of a new expert to the whole investigation, however, opened a fresh chapter in the history of the excavations. Professor Margherita Guarducci held the Chair of Greek Epigraphy at the University of Rome. Like almost all members of her profession, she had heard of the excavations and she had read the excavators' report when it first appeared in 1950. She had noted in particular, the excavators' discovery of a Christian graffito in one of the tombs and the strange wall beside the aedicula which the Vatican team had found covered with scratches and names and into which a small recess or loculus had been built. In 1953, she was invited to inspect the site of the excavations personally. She was greatly intrigued by what the excavators had called the "Graffiti Wall" and secured permission to make a thorough study of it.

The task was daunting. The plaster was deeply scored and an impenetrable tangle of names and scratches defied her as it had defied the original excavators. They, in fact, had considered it to be of little importance and had looked into the possibility of demolishing it to gain better access to the aedicula. But after months of study, Guarducci solved the extraordinary puzzle of the Graffiti Wall with a brilliant and controversial interpretation. Her results astonished the excavators and swept away the argument of sceptics that the site had no demonstrable connection with Saint Peter.

What Guarducci discovered was that the Graffiti Wall was covered with cryptic symbols linked together to signify spiritual and theological beliefs. Woven around the names of early Christians who had scratched their names on the wall was a complex of significant letters and monograms. Alpha and omega combinations were present, as references to Christ, but they were also found in reverse order, signifying Christ's role as the gateway to eternal life. Alpha and omega might also be separated from each other and connected by a thin line. Other letters signified other mysteries: tau indicated the cross, epsilon stood for Eden and nu for "nika", victory. But most important of all, curious combinations of rho and pi were references to the apostle Peter. Not only did Guarducci uncover the spiritual richness and hunger of those who visited the Graffiti Wall, she revealed that there were no fewer than twenty references to Peter on it.

Guarducci's labours took the best part of five years to complete and they established a new standard for the investigation of ancient Christian inscriptions. But in the course of her work she made another discovery, and this time it was one that cast a dark cloud over the work of the original excavators.

As we saw earlier, the Vatican team had been put together and placed under the control of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the Administrator of Saint Peter's Basilica. Kaas was not an archaeologist himself, and from the start of the investigations he was not of the same mind as the excavators. They were left to get on with the work and Kaas did not share the painstaking and difficult labour of excavation. He was, in fact, rather romantically inclined and he had expected to see realised the medieval tradition that Saint Peter had been buried in a great bronze coffin. The finds of the excavators disappointed him and he did not approve of what he thought was their cavalier attitude towards the human remains they exhumed. After only a few months, communications between Kaas and the excavating team all but broke down. The archaeologists rarely met him and when they did, the meetings were formal reports of progress. Kaas, for his part, took to visiting the scene of the excavations in the evening or early in the morning, when the team had gone home. During these visits, he relied on the knowledge of senior Sampietrini, who had been helping the excavators during the day.

In 1953, several months after Kaas had died, Margherita Guarducci was working at the site of the Graffiti Wall when she met Giovanni Segoni, a foreman of the Sampietrini and an experienced worker on the site who had shown Kaas around the remains many times. Offhandedly, Guarducci pointed to the loculus in the middle of the Graffiti Wall, the loculus which the Vatican excavators had said was empty, save for a few chips of bone. She asked him if there really had been nothing else in it. Segoni replied that one evening in 1942, he had been showing Monsignor Kaas around the site just after the wall had been uncovered by the excavators. The team had unearthed the wall and the loculus in it, but had not yet investigated it fully. Kaas, however, thought that they had. He ordered Segoni to peep inside the loculus to see if anything was there. When Segoni reported that he could see some fragments of bone, Kaas thought that the excavators had uncovered another routine burial which they would treat with scant respect. He told Segoni to empty the loculus and the remains were deposited in a lead-lined box in a room in the Vatican complex. Only several days later did the excavating team return and no one noticed that the loculus, which they had not examined properly, was empty. They reported in their final published account of the excavations that it had held only a few fragments of bone. Segoni knew where these bones were stored but at the time of his conversation with Guarducci, the bones which the excavators had found beneath the aedicula were with Venerando Correnti. Guarducci was reluctant to interfere and waited for the results of Correnti's tests on these bones.

As we saw, however, Correnti's analysis of the bones given to him by Pius XII showed that the remains were not those of a single man but of two men and a woman. When Guarducci learned of these findings, she began to wonder again about the bones Segoni had removed from the loculus in 1942. Fortunately, Correnti was a thorough scientist. He had decided to test his conclusions on the aedicula bones by comparing them to others found in the vicinity and he selected those taken from the loculus. Guarducci was anxious to draw the attention of the papal authorities to the significance of the loculus bones but was aware that by doing so she would be bringing to light an unfortunate mistake in the conduct of the original excavations. While Correnti carried out his experiments on the second collection of bones, Guarducci agonised over the dilemma. Then, on the 21st June 1963 Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini was elected to the Papacy, taking the name Paul VI. He was an old friend of the Guarducci family and in an audience with him in November 1963 she finally alerted him to the importance of the loculus bones. He immediately gave his blessing to the work of Correnti and told her that the research was very close to his heart.

Through late 1963 and into 1964, Correnti worked on the loculus bones. Paul VI gave permission for the alleged head of Peter deposited in the Lateran to be examined as well. The one condition which he laid down was that Correnti was to publish nothing himself; the Vatican would decide when and under what circumstances the final report would appear. That task fell finally to Guarducci herself who produced a book entitled The Remains of Saint Peter in 1965. The manuscript incorporated Correnti's findings and had been given to five leading scholars prior to publication. This book was to be the bedrock upon which Paul VI based his momentous public statement in 1968.

The loculus had contained 135 fragments of bone. Most of the fragments were small but several were larger; in particular the left and right femurs and the left and right tibias had survived basically intact. Fragments of skull were present and the tests carried out on the Lateran skull did not come from this body. All areas of the body were present, with the exception of the feet. Most important of all, however, Correnti identified the remains of an elderly man, aged between 60 and 70 of robust stature. The bones also had traces of earth clinging to them, showing that they had once been interred in the ground. When Correnti carried out tests on the soil beneath the aedicula it provided a perfect match. And finally, mingling with the bones from the loculus were the slightest traces of a distinctive garment: purple in colour and containing fine strands of gold thread.

Based on these findings, Guarducci concluded that the bones of Peter had been found. The bones were not complete; the feet were missing. But Guarducci argued that the old Roman tradition of Peter being crucified upside down was accurate. His executors had hacked the body off his cross by severing the legs at the ankles. The remains which Peter's followers received were then interred on the Vatican Hill which became a sacred place for the Christian community in Rome. At some time in the second century AD, a proper enclosure was built over Peter's grave, featuring an aedicula and a marble slab placed over the remains which preserved the original alignment of the grave. But for some reason in became necessary at a later date to move these remains, perhaps because the area was being flooded. Under Constantine, early in the fourth century, the bones were taken out, wrapped in an expensive purple and gold cloth as a sign of their revered status. A special repository was constructed for them by building a new wall (the Graffiti Wall) and a short inscription was added for the faithful, informing them that Peter's remains were henceforth to be found in the Graffiti Wall.

Guarducci's theory was decisive in securing papal agreement that the bones from the loculus were those of the apostle. Paul VI shared his knowledge and his joy with the world on 26th June 1968. On the evening of the 27th, at a ceremony before the aedicula attended by the Pope, Professors Guarducci and Correnti, the bones were restored to the loculus in the Graffiti Wall. A short prayer was said and the shrine to Peter was closed off from the street of tombs by a heavy wrought iron gate.


No one who examines the evidence carefully and dispassionately can accept the statement offered by Paul VI in 1968. The truth is that the papal announcement inhibited further debate. On the one hand, there were those who regarded every utterance of the Pope as, by definition, untrue. And on the other hand, many Catholic scholars felt uneasy about contradicting the findings of the Vatican authorities. It is important, however, to keep a sensible perspective on the opinions of Paul VI on this matter:

..while belief in the primacy of the Roman pontiff as Saint Peter's successor is part of the Catholic faith, and while respect is always due from Catholics to the Pope's judgement in all matters, no doctrinal issue whatsoever is involved in so relatively secondary a question as that of the precise site in Rome of Saint Peter's burial.[16]

With this important point in mind, I venture to suggest that Pope Paul VI and Margherita Guarducci were absolutely mistaken in their confidence.

Was the humble loculus and a hastily scribbled graffito really the best a Christian emperor could provide for the prince of the apostles? Constantine's church is a better guide to the emperor's intentions, and it focused on the aedicula, not the loculus. And even if the remains were moved at some later date, why weren't they restored to the aedicula?

There was of course a reason why the bones from the loculus were never restored to the aedicula: they had never been in it in the first place. The soil clinging to the loculus bones proves only that they had originally been buried in the vicinity of the aedicula, and we know that over two dozen people were. The purple and golden fabric may signify status, but the status need not be that of an apostle; it could be a bishop; or a senator; or a wealthy merchant. And as for the missing feet, the whole area beneath the floor of the courtyard was a confusion of bones. I suspect that the loculus bones belong to someone who was originally buried near the grave of Peter but moved by someone else who took the space. But because the bones were clearly old, this second person deposited them in the wall and still near the apostle.

So where is Peter? The aedicula was clearly built over an old grave and the alignment of this grave with graves Theta and Gamma suggests, I think, that it dates to around the same time: the last third of the first century. In the second century, the Christians of Rome built something grander. But the complex had a flaw; a crack soon developed in the Red Wall and so in the second or third century the Graffiti Wall was built to support it. On this wall pilgrims scratched very abbreviated, symbolic and perhaps secretive messages (off and on during the second and third centuries there were outbursts of persecution). One of these visitors expressed the immanent presence of Peter in the aedicula by writing "Peter is in here". The persecutions came to an end in 312 when Constantine captured Rome and he marked the site of the burial of Peter by building a huge church over the aedicula.

But the excavators basically found the grave of Peter empty; so at some point the remains were moved. If the remains were moved by Christians, then it seems odd that they were never restored; it is possible that the whole body might have been broken up to make relics but there is no trace of this in the medieval sources. But what if those who moved the bones were not Christians? Rome was sacked twice between the fifth and ninth centuries. On the second occasion, when Saracens broke into the city in 846, pontifical records tell us that they carried out "unspeakable acts" of desecration at the site.[17] As a barbaric act of destruction, they may have opened the grave and destroyed the remains.

But did they really succeed? When the excavators opened the grave, they found that the bones inside had been shoved to one end, into a little space beneath the Red Wall. Someone, I suggest, had made an attempt to protect the relics, although over the course of time the remains of Peter had been invaded by some of the many bones from other burials in the surrounding soil. I believe that Peter is one of the two men whom Correnti identified to the dismay of the excavators in 1960. And is it possible, finally, that the remains of a woman found in Peter's grave were those of his wife? Perhaps you would sooner see the Pope married than believe that.

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