Religion, Science Clash as Archaeologists Restore Ancient Jewish Catacomb in Rome

New finds in the 2,000-year-old underground cemetery include the first Hebrew inscription at the site, as well as signs that Christians and Jews may have shared the burial space

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The well-to-do would lie in arcosolia, richly decorated chambers within the ~2,000-year old Jewish catacomb in Rome, Villa Torlonia
The well-to-do would lie in arcosolia, richly decorated chambers within the ~2,000-year old Jewish catacomb in Rome, Villa TorloniaCredit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

Archaeologists racing to save a vulnerable and rapidly disintegrating 2,000-year old Jewish catacomb in Rome gave in to pressure from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group and let them rebury the bones found within, not allowing their study. The decision spurred outrage among some scientists who protested in frustration as the bones were resealed in their tombs, putting the remains beyond the reach of curious researchers forever.

The Italian authorities and the archaeologists involved rebut that the compromise was necessary in order to save the site, which had begun to decay rapidly after its exposure.

Meanwhile, new discoveries made in the process of restoring the underground cemetery highlight the importance and prosperity of the Jewish community in the capital of the Roman empire, as well as the surprising extent to which their culture was intertwined with that of pagans and Christians.

Also, in a development likely to surprise Jews everywhere, the study of the site has led archaeologists to a new theory about how and where the menorah became a symbol of the Jewish people.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had rented the villa above the Jewish catacomb in RomeCredit: AP

Mussolini and the Jews

The catacomb, housing some 4,000 burials on two floors, was in use between the 2nd and 5th centuries C.E., the archaeologists say, though some experts believe it may have been built even earlier. It is located in northern modern Rome, beneath the grounds of Villa Torlonia, a 19th-century neoclassical villa with vast gardens once owned by the aristocratic family of the same name.

During the Fascist period, the villa was rented by none other than Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as his residence in the city.

The underground city of the dead was rediscovered in 1919 during construction work on the estate, but it has since lain mostly abandoned and easy prey to looters, researchers say.

“Most of the tombs had been smashed open and looted, with the bones strewn around the floor, and anyone who went in could walk on them and crush them,” says Yuval Baruch, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority leading the restoration project.

The Torlonia catacombCredit: YouTube

In general, Christian catacombs may be better known than Jewish ones because they have been well preserved by the Catholic Church as burial spots of martyrs and early places of worship. But Jews used catacombs too. There are at least six such cemeteries in Rome alone, says Daniela Rossi, the archaeologist overseeing the project on behalf of the Italian Culture Ministry.

In fact, some researchers have concluded that the Jewish catacombs in the city predate the Christian ones, and that it was the Jews who first introduced this burial method to ancient Rome.

The dead in the Villa Torlonia catacomb were placed on shelves called loculiCredit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive

As in most of these underground cemeteries, the dead of Villa Torlonia were buried in loculi - rows of niches carved into the soft tufa stone and then sealed with plaster. The cover would often be inscribed with the name of the deceased as well as prayers or invocations.

Those who could afford it were buried in larger chapels with arched niches, known as arcosolia, whose walls and ceilings were elegantly decorated with Jewish motifs such as menorahs and the Ark of the Covenant, or symbolic fruits like the pomegranate and the etrog.

Already in 2005, the Italian Culture Ministry had approved the 1.4-million-euro restoration plan for the catacomb, but then the experts ran into an impasse. Because Italian law recognizes and respects Jewish burial customs, archaeologists could not begin work on the site with all those bones lying around, Rossi explains.

Jewish religious law prohibits removing or damaging bones from a burial, even if done for scientific purposes. In Israel, this has led to frequent clashes between ultra-Orthodox Jews and archaeologists whenever ancient Jewish graves are dug up.

To preserve this treasure, archaeologists had to make concessions to Jewish religious sensitivities, Rossi says.

Geometric designs on the ceiling of the Villa Torlonia catacomb, possibly a rudimentary map of the siteCredit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive

Between a rock and a hard place

Over the last year, Italian authorities allowed Atra Kadisha - a small ultra-Orthodox group that took upon itself to protect Jewish graves wherever they might be - to collect the human remains at Villa Torlonia and reseal them in the loculi.

Bones, and the DNA they contain, can help date a site or answer questions like where people came from, what illnesses they suffered from and what they ate. The decision to surrender this scientific treasure trove angered many experts, dozens of whom signed petitions to the Culture Ministry asking for the reburials to be stopped.

On Thursday, as the Italian-Israeli team presented the project at a conference in Jerusalem, one angry archaeologist interrupted the talk by shouting that his colleagues had behaved unethically.

“It breaks my heart that people who have nothing to do with archaeology were allowed to do such enormous damage to antiquities,” the dissenting researcher, Amos Kloner from Bar Ilan University, later told Haaretz. “Atra Kadisha doesn’t care about archaeological findings. They are an extremist religious group that should not be backed by archaeologists.”

The Italians only agreed to allow the ultra-Orthodox in “because they were afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism,” Kloner suggests.

Frescoes in the ancient Jewish catacomb beneath Villa Torlonia in Rome.Credit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive

Scholars from around the world wrote time and again to the Italian authorities beseeching them to stop the works and allow a task force of international experts to inspect the site, says Leonard Rutgers, an archaeologist from Utrecht University and a longtime researcher of Jewish catacombs in Rome.

“The Italians never let us in, which is even more worrying, because if there is no problem with your work then you should have nothing to hide,” Rutgers says. Before letting a minority group barge in and do “irreversible damage” to antiquities, there should have been a broader debate involving researchers and religious figures to discuss how to respect the human remains without losing anything of historical value, he says.

Rutgers further cautioned that the catacomb is extremely fragile and opening it to the public could lead to further damage.

On the other hand, Yuval Baruch, who explains that the Israel Antiquities Authority joined the project following the protests, reports that the Israelis were positively impressed when they inspected the site during the reburial work last year.

“From what we saw, they worked together with experts in conservation and did a very precise work of archaeological restoration,” he said. “We don’t think that salvaging the bones did any damage to research beyond, of course, preventing research on the bones themselves.”

“We were between a rock and a hard place, between the demands of the Orthodox and the scientific community,” Rossi told Haaretz on the sidelines of the conference. “I am not ashamed of the compromise we made. Certainly, it’s a loss for science, because we couldn’t bring in the anthropologists to study the bones, but this is a price we had to pay for not losing the entire monument.”

With Atra Kadisha’s religious work completed, the restorers will begin work next month on conserving the frescoes and preparing the site for visitors. The plan is to open the catacomb sometime next year. Funding is still being sought for a small museum to be built above ground to showcase important finds, Rossi said.

Shalom shalom

The preliminary work has meanwhile turned up new discoveries, such as the only Hebrew inscription found in the catacomb. Most of the writing in the cemetery is in Greek – the lingua franca of early diaspora Jews and Hellenistic-era Israel – and some is in Latin.

Actually, the new-found Hebrew text was first noticed by one of the rabbis working in the catacomb, Rossi says.

The text is fragmentary but is believed to spell out “Clodius shalom shalom” – likely the equivalent of a rest-in-peace blessing for a man named Clodius.

The only Hebrew inscription found so far in the Jewish catacomb of Torlonia in Rome: "Clod" (short for "Clodius")Credit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive

Archaeologists also found a beautifully preserved oil lamp decorated with the Christogram – a symbol of Christ formed by the Greek letters ‘chi’ and ‘rho’ – which suggests the catacomb was used by early Christians in Rome as well.

The fact that local Jews had typically Latin names such as Clodius, and that Christian symbols were found, indicates the extent to which the cultures living side by side in Rome influenced each other, Rossi concludes. “There was a lot more coexistence and commingling than we think,” she says.

The sheer number of burials in Villa Torlonia and in other Jewish catacombs in the city also attests to the size of the local community, Rossi says.

The first Jews arrived in Rome during the second century B.C.E., and many more came –voluntarily or as captives – following the abortive Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Most of the Jews settled in Trastevere, a neighborhood on the River Tiber, and were generally artisans or traders.

Catacombs with their tightly-packed shelves were usually used by the lower classes, who couldn’t afford to buy a plot in a fancy open-air pagan necropolis. But the rich decorations in some of the larger tombs in Villa Torlonia show that at least some of Rome’s Jews had achieved a modicum of wealth, Rossi says.

“We don’t know exactly how many Jews there were, but it must have been a fairly large community with a stratified society, as was the rest of Roman society,” she says.

Menorah motif in the 2,000-year old Jewish catacomb beneath Villa Torlonia, RomeCredit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive

Where does the menorah come from?

The restoration at Villa Torlonia has also given researchers an opportunity to study more closely the catacomb’s frescoes, especially the nearly ubiquitous depictions of the menorah, the seven-armed candelabrum that was one of the treasures the Romans seized from the Temple.

Their conclusions were presented at the conference in Jerusalem and suggest that we need to rethink the origins of the menorah as a symbol of the Jewish people, says Baruch, the Israeli archaeologist.

There are less than a dozen depictions of the menorah in Israel that date to before the destruction of the Temple, and these are usually found in a discreet location, such as a water well, or in a context connected to the Cohanim, the priests of the Temple. This makes sense because at the time the menorah was locked up in the Temple and visible only to the priests, Baruch says.

After the Temple was destroyed, the menorah was prominently depicted on the primary Arch of Titus, which the emperor Domitian built in Rome (in fact, two were built) to celebrate the Roman triumph over rebellious Judea. The original menorah, looted from the Temple, was displayed in the Temple of Peace built nearby by the emperor Vespasian along with other trophies of Rome’s wars.

Most historians believe the menorah itself was melted down during the barbarian invasions of Italy in the 5th century C.E., but the bas-relief on the arch has endured to this day.

“Suddenly anyone could go and copy it, and the depiction on the arch became the prototype of all menorahs,” Baruch says.

Initially used in the Jewish catacombs of Rome as a symbol of death and mourning for the destruction of the Temple, only later did the menorah acquire a broader national significance, appearing in synagogues and Jewish buildings across Israel and the diaspora, he says.

“Ironically, it seems that the menorah as a symbol of the Jewish people did not originate in Israel, but in Rome,” the archaeologist concludes.

The well-to-do would lie in arcosolia, richly decorated chambers within the ~2,000-year old Jewish catacomb in Rome, Villa TorloniaCredit: Jacopo Brogioni, Courtesy Yuval Baruch archive


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