May 31 – Anniversary of the Discovery of the Catacombs

Posted on May 24, 2014

On this date in 1578, some workers just outside of Rome, Italy, were digging up some pozzolano earth to be used to make cement. And they discovered something very cool. Or maybe very creepy!

The Catacombs.

The workers discovered a stairway going downward, underground, and opening out to a series of narrow rooms or galleries that had been carved out of rock.

And the creepy part is that these were burial galleries!

When the Catacombs were discovered by accident, there was some excitement, but nobody put the effort in to study them. But in 1593 a young man named Antonio Bosio decided that they were interesting – and important! - and he began to explore them.

He explored the Catacombs for more than 27 years! Basically, he explored them for the rest of his life.

Bosio found 30 more entrances – 30 more sets of stairs going underground. And he discovered that the chambers that were first found were connected to more and more – and more and more – narrow tunnels and galleries.

Some of the walls in some
catacombs were decorated
with paintings.

I read that, if you laid out all the branching galleries end to end, they would stretch the length of the country of Italy! (And yet all these lie just outside the city of Rome.) I also read that the estimate of the number of bodies buried in the Catacombs is about two million...Crazy, huh?!

The people buried in the Catacombs were Jews and (mostly) early Christians who lived in Rome. Apparently ancient Romans cremated their dead and kept the ashes in family tombs, but the Jews who lived in Rome followed the Jewish tradition of burial. Because the graves in Palestine were mostly tombs cut into rock, covered with slabs of stone, the Jews of Rome carved out similar rock tombs underground. And since early Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism, so did the early Christians.

Bosio ended up writing a book called Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome), in which he carefully described many of the catacombs he had explored. Modern scholars are grateful that he did this, because some of the catacombs he had explored have since been destroyed.

Some of the catacombs are decorated with
artistically arranged bones.

Why rock?

Under Rome and the land surrounding Rome is a thick layer of tuff (sometimes called tufa). This volcanic rock is made from layers of ash spewed from volcanoes and washed down into low-lying areas. The ash is pressed together by additional layers of ash and soil, and it hardens into rock.

Although the tuff found in some places of the world is pretty brittle—even fragile—the tuff that is the bedrock of Rome is pretty strong. Many ancient and even modern Roman buildings have been built of blocks of tuff.

Still, I imagine that tuff is a little easier to carve into than some sorts of rock. It was probably ideal for creating rock graves—and that's why the catacombs were used for so long, by so many.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, in 380, various buildings and temples were torn down or changed to become churches, and burials began to be in more familiar churchyards and cemeteries. Eventually the catacombs were forgotten, their stairway-entrances buried—perhaps for a thousand years—until that accidental discovery on May 31, 1578.

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