A Mass Grave from the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome, Second-Third Century AD

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The catacomb of San Pietro e Marcellino (Saints Peter and Marcellinus hereafter) extends to almost 3ha with 4.5km of subterranean galleries at three levels, containing between 20 000 and 25 000 burials (Guyon 1987; 2004). Located to the south-east of Rome on the ancient Via Labicana, it lies some 3km from the city walls and from the gate of the same name. The catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, now at Via Cassilina 631, is closed to the public (except by appointment). A religious establishment and a school stand above ground, immediately next to the mausoleum of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The origins of this catacomb appear to go back to the last third of the third century AD, re-using an earlier network of drainage tunnels. However, it was not the first use of the area for burial. A cremation cemetery and small mausolea of the first century AD have been identified on the surface north of the Via Labicana during excavations carried out in 1948 and 1977, and a cemetery of imperial equites, or 'equites singulares Augusti', beginning in the early second century AD, has been identified some 50m north of the ancient road. It was most probably surrounded by other private funerary installations (Guyon 2004: 210, 217). The cemetery was developed further in the early fourth century AD, when Constantine built an important mausoleum dedicated to his mother, Helena; the apse of this building is still standing.

The subterranean catacomb remained a funerary space up to the beginning of the fifth century AD, but from then onwards the cemetery was gradually transformed into a pilgrimage site where only some privileged individuals could be buried next to the saints (Guyon 2004: 212). Worship and devotion at the tombs of the saints continued during the sixth century and the site saw its golden age during the first third of the seventh century, when itineraries for the pilgrims were written down. The eighth and ninth centuries were marked by the translation of relics, ordered by a series of pontiffs, towards intra muros churches, as Lombard and Saracen incursions caused insecurity and troubles in the neighbourhood of Rome. Notwithstanding these measures, the remains of the saints Marcellinus and Peter were stolen and taken to Germany in AD 827 (Guyon 2004: 214). Pilgrimages, however, did not stop: though no longer containing bones, the tombs of the various saints continued to be venerated.

In the middle of the ninth century certain monuments were still being refurbished (underground and on the surface) but then the catacomb fell gradually into obscurity, to be rediscovered in 1594 by A. Bosio. Thereafter the site was visited frequently up to the middle of the nineteenth century, when new investigations were started by G.B. de Rossi. It was at this time, or more precisely in 1852, that the site came under the auspices of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology (PCAS), a Vatican organisation dedicated to the safekeeping, study and preservation of all Christian catacombs in Rome (Fiocchi Nicolai et al. 1999).

Investigations in 2002 and 2005/6 (Figure 1)

The greatest part of the galleries was gradually cleared from the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1970s. However, a small area (area X, first catacomb level), located centrally with respect to the network of underground galleries, remained inaccessible because of substantial amounts of rubble. In 2002, investigations were carried out there as a result of necessary maintenance of the areas waterworks; this was done under the direction of R. Giuliani (a PCAS Inspector and a specialist in Christian archaeology) and M. Ricciardi (an archaeologist contracted to PCAS).

The removal of the rubble revealed new funerary spaces that differed markedly from the traditional scheme observed in the rest of the catacomb, and indeed in other catacombs. These are normally characterised by straight galleries provided with loculi (simple individual burials), arcosolia (more elaborate burials) or cubicula (small chambers in which are regrouped several individual burials). …