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The Vatican's Scavi Tour - Excavations under St. Peter's Basilica

Sharon Zukowski (SharonZ)

Thanks to the Slow Travel Talk forums, I learned of the Vatican's Scavi Tour. I'm glad I did because the tour was a highlight of my recent trip to Italy. Since there are a lot of questions about the tour and booking the tour, I thought I'd write a few notes.

With only 120 visitors allowed each day, the Scavi (excavations) Tour is one of Rome's hottest tickets. The tour, which goes beneath St. Peter's Basilica to the tomb of Saint Peter, must be booked in advance - months in advance.

A Bit of History

After being crucified, Peter was buried in a hillside necropolis, a city of the dead. It was a place, fashioned to look like a city in miniature, where wealthy pagan families entombed their dead in houses where they could continue their new lives. Emperor Constantine eventually became a Christian and, in the 4th century, ordered the construction of a church over the tomb of St. Peter. The church also covered the other mausoleums in the ancient cemetery.

In the 16th century, the present basilica was built on the site. Donato Bramante designed the basilica; Raphael, Frea Giocondo da Verona, and Antionio da Sangallo continued the design after Bramante's death. When the last of the new architects, da Sangallo died, Michelangelo was commissioned to complete the design. He designed most of the apse and the main dome before dying. The dome was completed by Domenico Fontana in 1589, and inaugurated in 1593.

As the centuries passed, so did the memory of the necropolis beneath the basilica. In 1939 workers digging a tomb for the deceased Pope Pius XI, broke through a wall beneath the church and rediscovered the necropolis. Pope Pius XII ordered the excavation of the necropolis, but kept the work secret in case Peter's tomb was not found. Since the necropolis acts as the foundation for St. Peter's Basilica, the entire area could not be uncovered without the possibility of having the Basilica collapse. Work continued for a decade and on December 23, 1950, Pius XII announced the discovery of St. Peter's tomb. On June 26th 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the remains of St. Peter had also been discovered.

The Tour

On the day of the tour, we waited outside the Excavations Office for our guide. When she arrived, she led us inside and down a staircase. After a scanner read her handprint, a glass door opened and we were admitted to the crypts beneath St. Peter's Basilica. After going under a low, narrow arch in a 16th-century wall that supports the basilica, we walked along a dimly lit lane lined with Christian and pagan mausoleums. As we walked, the path went slightly uphill and the guide pointed out that we were walking on what was Vatican Hill more than 1,900 years ago.

Highlights of the tour include what is thought to be Peter's original tomb, a "graffiti wall" which has Greek letters for "Peter" and fragments of words that may have said "is here," "within," or "in peace," and a second tomb built by Constantine as a more fitting resting place for Peter. The other side of the graffiti wall has a small hole with two small clear plastic boxes containing 18 of the 19 human bones found on the site. The 19th bone has been retained by the pope in his private chapel.

Conditions to Expect

Pauline asked Sharon a few details questions about what to expect.

Is it wet and damp and muddy? No mud, but some uneven footing. I went in October. The air was humid, but not damp. A bit warmer than I expected.

How is it lighted? The lighting is dim, but adequate. I think the dim lighting is to help preserve the ruins. As the guide reminded us several times, the Scavi Tour is a tour of a fragile archeological site; that's why the number of people and lighting are limited.

How big is the excavations area? I don't know, but we went up and down several flights of stairs and walked on bumpy ground. It's not strenuous, but it's not smooth, either.

Do you have to crouch down and go through tunnels or anything like that? No tunnels; no crouching. I did a bit of bending and neck-craning to get better views of some the tombs' interiors. I don't think that the "average" person will have trouble with this tour, but a person with physical disabilities that limit movement may find it difficult.

For more details on the tour and what to expect, read Sharon's full report of her tour.

Practical Information

The tour, which ends at the tomb of St. Peter, lasts approximately 90 minutes and costs 10 euro per adult, 5 euro for children. The group size is 12. Children under 12 are not allowed. Children 12 - 15 are allowed, if accompanied by a parent. While the tour is not strenuous, it does require climbing stairs and going through narrow corridors. Claustrophobic people might experience difficulties on this tour because it takes you beneath St. Peter's Basilica and has some tight spots in the narrow paths, dim lighting, and no windows.

The Excavation Office reserves the right to modify the schedules of the visits in case that the Basilica is closed and for other reasons. If the visit cannot be rescheduled, the Excavations Office will cancel the scheduled visit and refund any payments made.

Don't bring any "bulky" suitcases or backpacks (the space is sometimes tight). Purses are okay. Also, the Excavations Office does not have any place to check large items-so don't bring them! If you do, you will not be allowed to take the tour. And, please, once inside don't touch anything!

Finally, remember that you are visiting a holy site. You must wear appropriate clothing. Shoulders must be covered. Shorts are not permitted, and skirts should fall in length below the knee. A head covering is not necessary. Good walking shoes are recommended.

Making Reservations/Requesting Tickets

Please be patient when requesting tickets. The Uffico Scavi is a small operation (there were only two people working there on the day I took my tour) and the tour guides are specially-trained volunteers. Only 120 people (10 groups of 12 people) are allowed in each day in order to preserve the integrity of the archeological site. The 10 tours are given in different languages, so you must request an English-speaking tour, if appropriate. There may be a limited number of English tours a day, so be sure to have some back-up times or dates.

The following steps outline how your reservation is made

1. Request tickets for a tour by email, fax or a visit to the office (see contact information below).  Do not phone them. They need the following information:

  • The number of people in your group.
  • The name of each person (group leaders should give their name and address).
  • The language you'd like the tour to be conducted in.
  • The day and time period you'd like to visit (it helps if you give a wide latitude of times, the office will then determine the time of your tour). Tours are not given on Sundays and church holidays.
  • Where you are staying in Rome (name and phone number).

Failure to include any of this material, may cause your application to be turned down!

2. Receive email auto-confirmation and wait...

3. After a month or so, you will receive an email with a reference number, number of visitors, language of the tour, day, time, and cost. To confirm the reservation, you will have to pay for the tour within 20 days of receiving the confirmation (tickets are not refundable). You can pay by faxing or emailing your credit card info to the office (emailing credit card information is not a good idea!). Be sure to include the reference number you received in the confirmation.

4. On the day of the tour, go to the Excavations Office 10 minutes before the tour is scheduled to begin. The Excavations Office is reached through the Holy Office Gate (through Colonnade to the left) or from St. Peter's Square through the Arco delle Campane (to the left of the facade). At either gate, ask the Swiss Guard for the Excavations Office. On the day of my tour, the Guards made us wait outside the Colonnade until a few minutes before the time of the tour. When we got to the Excavations Office, we waited outside the office for about 15 minutes (after our tour's scheduled time) because the earlier tour had not yet left.

Contact Information

www.vatican.va: Scavi Tour website

Excavations Office
email: scavi@fsp.va,
tel: +39-06-6988-5318, fax: +39-06-698-73017
Hours: 9:00am - 5:00pm, closed Sunday and Holidays

Full Report of the Tour

The Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office) people scared me. After all, I went to Catholic grammar school. I learned that you can't mess around with God and the people in the Vatican were certainly capable of telling God that I hadn't followed their instructions.

Their instructions said to show up at the Excavations Office, which is reached through the Holy Office Gate (through Colonnade to the left of St. Peter's). The email said to ask the Swiss Guard guarding the gate for the Excavations Office. Not wanting to miss my chance (the instructions sternly warned that if I was late, I might miss the tour), I checked it out the day before.

The sight of thousands of folding chairs set up on St. Peter's Square and the barricades made my stomach drop. My planning coincided with Pope Benedict XVI presiding over the first canonizing ceremony of his papacy, canonizing five people during a mass at the Vatican. (According to the BBC news, the new saints are a Chilean Jesuit priest, two prelates from Ukraine, and a Capuchin friar and the founder of a holy order-both from Italy.) Pilgrims had engulfed Rome, leading hordes of chanting followers through the narrow streets and they would all be gathering in front of St. Peter's at about the same time that my tour was to begin. I decided to show up early the next morning to beat the crowd.

The next morning, I showed up early - an hour before my tour and well ahead of the pilgrims. I grabbed a chair from behind a barricade and settled down to drink my water, read my newspaper, and watch the pilgrims approach. The instructions, which I had read and re-read a hundred times, said to get to the Ufficio Scavi ten minutes before my tour was to begin. So, at 10:50am, I approached the guard at the gate. I patiently waited as a group of nuns (from Washington, D.C. who were following Mother Seton's path through Europe) were turned away.

"Come back at 11," the guard said. I compared confirmations with the nun and my heart sank. We were on the same tour. But if the "sisters of God" couldn't make it in, what chance did I have? The crowds were swirling around and the Swiss Guards were supplemented by men who looked like they had walked off the "Men in Black" set and ambled over to the Vatican to help out. At 11:00, one of the Ray-Banned men in black let us through the gate (actually, they let the nuns through the gate. I scrambled behind).

The Ufficio Scavi is only a few steps from the gate. It's nice of the Vatican to call it an "office," because the space isn't much larger than a telephone booth. After watching the crowds milling around (a French-speaking group that was waiting for a guide, people from my 11:00 group that kept asking what was going on, and people who were begging to be added to a group), I began to feel sorry for the people working in the office. Finally, order was restored. The French group that was holding us up left for their tour; our guide appeared and all 10 people in my group were accounted for. (Only a limited number of people are allowed in due to the location of the area near the tomb of St. Peter - directly under St. Peter's Basilica - and the cramped space in the excavations.)

With much anticipation, I got in line (behind the nuns who were enjoying their European jaunt more than the average tourist does) and followed the guide to the door. Like salmon swimming upstream, we battled the crowd coming out from the "graves of the popes" tour. (Note: People on this tour think they view the crypt of St. Peter, but it's not the real thing.) After going a hundred yards or so, we stopped. The guide said we needed to be quick when the door opened. She pressed her hand against the security pad on a glass door. James Bond and Q couldn't have done it better. The security system approved her palm print and the door swung open.

We scurried after her, walked down a staircase, and entered another world. We had entered the Roman Necropolis, the "City of the Dead." The lighting was dim and almost smoky with dust from the previous centuries. The air was dry, but humid at the same time. The bricks walls of the tombs rose to the ceiling.

The cemetery that is beneath St. Peter's contained the tombs of pagans and Christians. Our first stop was in front of some of the pagan tombs. One had an inscription written by a man about his brother, who died in his 30s. Another had mournful carvings of a man and his wife on a tiny sarcophagus holding their two-year-old child. One tomb had pagan and Christian symbols mixed in the same space; it's as if the Christians took it over after the pagans and just added to the existing decoration.

After walking along a fairly level surface and peering into the mausoleums, we came to another narrow staircase and climbed down. After passing through another James Bond-like door (we had only a minute or so to go through to keep the humidity levels down), we entered to the vicinity of St. Peter's tomb. Actually, there are two tombs. The first is the pauper's grave where he was buried after being crucified. Early Christians sneaked down to the tomb and covered the walls with graffiti that paid tribute to Peter. Eventually, the guide explained as she pointed to the spot, Peter's bones were removed from the pauper's grave and placed in a marble box. It was sealed into a secret niche in the support wall. Dirt on the bones in the box matched the soil in the pauper' grave. A stone found with them had the words "Peter within" carved on it.

Finally, we reached the highlight of the trip: a small hole in a wall (at this point, we were 33 feet under the floor of St. Peter's). One by one, we peered into a small hole in a wall and saw two plastic boxes, holding 18 small bones of a man somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. The feet were missing, having been broken off at the ankles. St. Peter was crucified upside down, the guide explained, and missing feet are typical because the body is chopped free before burial. She also noted that we were 33 feet below the floor of St. Peter's Basilica, directly beneath Michelangelo's dome.

The tour ends in a cozy, beautiful, gold trimmed chapel which the guide said was the original St. Peter's Basilica, the new one was built over it. After a few moments admiring the chapel, we walked out into the crypts where the modern popes are buried. Once again, we fought against the flow of the crowd for a view of the tomb of Pope John Paul II and then we turned and walked back to the modern day.

Please don't take this report as a step-by-step guide to the Scavi Tour. I know I left some important details out and misplaced others. To me, the most important part of the tour was its effect on me. It was a fascinating and moving experience to walk through history and stand at the foundation of the Catholic church.

Sharon Zukowski spends as much time as possible in Italy. She's usually found in Venice, but occasionally steps out to places like Rome. When Sharon's home in the US., she's a writer, specializing in the financial services industry. Oh yeah, she writes books, too. Sharon has had five mystery novels published and, even though it's been a few years since her last book, she's hard at work on a book set in, guess where, VENICE! You can find more of Sharon's work at www.sharonzukowski.com and weirdvenice.blogspot.com. Finally, Sharon LOVES Slow Travel and everyone who so willingly shares information.

© Sharon Zukowski, 2005

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