Several years ago, the Vatican was conducting excavations for a parking lot and discovered (more accurately, rediscovered) an ancient pagan necropolis, which once ran along the “Via Triumphalis,” a major road leading into the area known today as Vatican City. The site was open briefly to the public, then promptly closed for further excavations. They also had to make decisions on how to interpret the site and make it accessible to the public.
The Via Triumphalis Necropolis site re-opened to the public in December 2013. Its site area was expanded; and walkways, exhibitions of the artifacts found during the excavations, and touch-screen computer information kiosks had been installed. We were lucky enough to visit the site in early 2014.
As in other areas of ancient Rome, burials were required to be outside the city walls and often ran along main roads. These burials ran along the ancient Via Triumphalis, outside the city walls. Used by pre-Christian Romans, the site was re-used over time, including after a land slide partially buried it. With the rise of Christianity, however, the focus for burials moved to the area near what is today St. Peter’s Basilica — the well-known “Scavi” tour visits that necropolis. Over time, the Via Triumphalis Necropolis was forgotten.
The make-up of the Via Triumphalis Necropolis is a mixture of the poor to the upper-middle class. The simplest burials would have been bodies wrapped in a shroud. Others would have been cremated, with their remains placed in an urn or other vessel. Surprisingly, many examples of both types of burial have survived here.
As offerings of such things as honey and milk would have been shared with the dead, many of the burials have a small “snack” tube visible above ground, into which libations would have been poured.
For the more affluent, small tombs would be built, sometimes with lovely murals, mosaic floors, and even marble and statuary, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post. Generations of a family could be buried together, using small niches or ossuaries. As time passed, bones could be consolidated to make room for new family members entering the tomb.
Some of the dead were lucky enough to spend eternity in a gracefully carved sarcophagus…
and others had above-ground markers for themselves and loved ones.
The three-hour tour is the only way to visit the site. Frankly, I would have liked more time there to look at the site, as well as to explore the information on the computer kiosks, such as 3D renderings of the archaeological site. But, it is altogether worth it just to get a fascinating glimpse into the world of the ancient Romans.
You can puchase tickets on the Vatican Museums official website, in combination with other offerings such as the Vatican Museums. So, for €26, we bought a three hour guided tour to the Via Triumphalis site, as well as general admission tickets to the Vatican Museums (without a guide). There is also a combo ticket that includes the guided tour of the Vatican Gardens.
A tip for purchasing your Via Triumphalis tickets: Make sure to select your language. We used the English tour and were required to purchase a combo ticket of the necropolis and Vatican Museums entrance. We hope the Vatican changes this policy soon to eliminate English speakers’ requirement to also get museum tickets.