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St. Paul's Tomb Unearthed in Rome

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Vatican City
for National Geographic News
December 11, 2006
 
St. Paul's stone coffin has been found beneath Rome's second largest basilica, but its contents remain a mystery, Vatican archaeologists announced today.

The sarcophagus dates back to about A.D. 390 and was uncovered in Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, named for its location beyond the ancient wall surrounding Rome's center.

(Related: "Roman Catacomb Find Boosts Early Christian-Jewish Ties, Study Says" [July 20, 2005].)

Long believed to be buried beneath the church's altar, the coffin is now on display for the first time in centuries—its precious cargo, however, is not.

"For now we didn't open the sarcophagus to study the contents. Our aim was to unearth the coffin venerated as St. Paul's tomb, not to authenticate the remains," said Giorgio Filippi, the archaeologist of the Vatican Museum, who directed the excavations.

"The sarcophagus was buried beneath the main altar, under a marble tombstone bearing the Latin words "Paulo Apostolo Mart.," meaning "Apostle Paul, Martyr."

The basilica "rises on the place where, according to tradition, Paul of Tarsus was originally buried after his martyrdom," Filippi said.

Saul of Tarsus

St. Paul was born Saul in the first decade of the first century A.D. in Tarsus, the capital of the ancient Roman region of Cilicia in what is now Turkey.

Though he never met Jesus Christ, he joined the first Christians after a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, one of the Bible's New Testament books.

Baptized as Paul, he traveled around part of what is now Turkey as well as ancient Greece and Rome, founding a number of religious communities.

Paul's thought largely influenced Christian doctrine by means of 13 or 14 letters, the Pauline epistles, included in the New Testament. Perhaps his most recognizable passage—to modern wedding guests, anyway—is his poetic definition of love ("Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. … ").

According to later reports, in A.D. 65 Paul of Tarsus was imprisoned in Rome, beheaded, and then buried in the family tomb of a devout Roman noblewoman, Matrona Lucilla (Rome map, facts, photos, and more).

"Around A.D. 320 Emperor Constantine built a first small basilica to receive the pilgrims visiting Saint Paul's tomb," Filippi said.

"In A.D. 390 Emperor Theodosius enlarged the building and encased Paul's remains in a sarcophagus located on view in the middle of the basilica—the same sarcophagus we found."

"We know for sure it's the same object because the stone coffin is embedded in the layer of the Theodosian basilica," he continued.

In A.D. 433 part of the building collapsed during an earthquake. In the course of renovations the floor was elevated. The sarcophagus was buried and covered by a marble tombstone.

In 1823 a fire completely destroyed the ancient basilica, and the modern Saint Paul's Outside-the-Walls was built on the site.

"The sarcophagus and the tombstone were covered by concrete and debris, on top of which the main altar, named the Papal Altar, was placed," Filippi said.

The Excavations

Six years ago the Catholic Church celebrated what it called the Jubilee 2000. Pilgrims from all over the world visited Rome and Saint Paul's Outside-the-Walls.

"They asked to see Saint Paul's tomb and were disappointed to learn that it was buried and not on view," said Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the archpriest of the basilica.

"So we decided to begin excavations and bring the sarcophagus to light."

Work started in 2002 and just recently wrapped up.

"Archaeologists opened a window 70 centimeters [28 inches] wide and 1 meter [39 inches] deep through the concrete layer under the main altar to reach the side of the sarcophagus," he continued.

Archaeologist Filippi said, "There is a hole in the cover of the sarcophagus, about ten centimeters [four inches] wide.

"In ancient times people used it to dip pieces of fabric inside the coffin, so they would become relics too. Currently the hole is closed by debris.

"It could be used to access to the remains of the saint if and when Vatican authorities decide to explore what the sarcophagus contains."

Cardinal di Montezemolo added: "At last, today pilgrims visiting the basilica can see the side of the sarcophagus through a small window we left open under the papal altar."

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