In 1941—as bombs were falling over London, German tanks were rolling into Russia, and most of continental Europe was under the Nazi flag or its allies—one of the most epic archaeological quests in history was underway in the center of the chaos.
Deep under St. Peter’s Basilica, workers had begun the search for the bones of the first pope who, according to Church tradition, had been martyred and buried there.
It all started with an accident.
In 1939, workers were excavating the floor in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s altar in order to make room for a chapel where recently deceased Pope Pius XI had asked to be buried. Suddenly, the floor broke through, revealing an ancient Roman mortuary with striking murals of wildlife and the tomb of a young Christian woman—all hidden and unseen for more than a millennium.
When informed of the discovery, Pope Pius XII faced a choice. Church tradition holds that the first pope was martyred and buried in Rome. Proceeding with the excavation could verify that tradition, but the flip side was that failing to find the remains would be “deeply unsettling” given Rome’s status as the seat of the papacy, as author John O’Neill explains in his recent book, The Fisherman’s Tomb, which tells the story of the search for St. Peter’s tomb. Yet Pius XII took what outsiders may view as a gamble because of his “unwavering faith that Peter was there.” (The account presented here is based on O’Neill’s book.)
The excavation commenced with one big clue as to where St. Peter might be. One of the Vatican Library’s treasures, the 1,500-year-old Book of the Popes, described in detail where St. Peter’s bones rested—within a bronze sarcophagus enclosed in marble and surrounded with other treasure. A monument known as the Trophy of Gaius supposedly marked the spot.
The excavation was a massive undertaking, requiring the construction of special pillars to hold up the basilica and rest of the Vatican buildings above it—what O’Neill describes as “one of the largest and heaviest structures on earth.” Under the pope’s orders, the work was to be done in strict secrecy, so the use of power tools was prohibited. All of this depended on the financial backing provided by a Texas oilman and devout Catholic named George Strake, who contributed on the condition of anonymity.
As workers dug their way deeper into the history of the necropolis underneath the Vatican they were, as O’Neill puts it, “traveling back in time.” As the dirt was cleared away, the world of ancient Rome came alive. Two hundred years worth of pagan family tombs were uncovered, along with numerous statues and murals of the hero Hercules and the god Pluto.
So far, the excavators had only come across one reference to Peter—a painting of Christ and Peter along with an inscription invoking the apostle’s prayers.
Then the team—led by Vatican priest and archaeologist Antonio Ferrua—had a breakthrough: they chanced upon another underground tomb, splashed in Christian images of the resurrected Christ, the Good Shepherd, and Jonah and the whale.
Encouraged by their findings, the team pressed forward. As they burrowed deeper into history they passed through one altar that had been built in the Renaissance and two others dating to the time of the crusades. They also came upon two walls—the Red Wall from the time of Marcus Aurelius in 160 and another, known as the Graffiti Wall, dating to 250. The latter would later prove crucial to their quest, but, for the time being, the excavation moved on.
Finally, in 1942, excavators found what they thought was the Trophy of Gaius. Although there was no magnificent sarcophagus or enclosure, they did find bones in a small opening in the Red Wall. The pope’s personal doctor examined the remains and declared them to be from a 65-year-old man. The world would not know of the apparent discovery until seven years later—when an Italian journalist broke the story.
But, in a way, the search for St. Peter’s bones was just beginning.
First, the Vatican had to ensure Rome was spared the devastation that leveled other European cities. The Americans held off on bombing and mounting other attacks on Rome, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of three Vatican priests—Monsignor Giovanni Montini, Walter Carroll, and Joseph McGeough. (The first was to become the future Pope Pius VI; the latter two were American-born.) The Vatican was also able to get the retreating Germans to refrain from flattening Rome as they withdrew.
Rome survived WWII and so did St. Peter’s alleged bones, until news of the discovery became public in 1949. One year later a noted Italian archaeologist, Margherita Guarducci, was invited to inspect the excavated necropolis beneath the Vatican. She found that the team had not adhered to “basic archeological procedures,” according to O’Neill. She informed Pope Pius XII, who put her in charge of the project.
Among her first tasks was deciphering the jumble of inscriptions on the Graffiti Wall that had been previously ignored. Among the letters were deeply symbolic Christian symbols like P for Peter, R for resurrection, and T for the cross. And then Guarducci found a giant clue—an inscription that read “Near Peter.” Next to it was one she had glimpsed earlier “Peter is within.”
A medical anthropologist subsequently examined the bones that initially had been assumed to be those of St. Peter and determined that the finding was false. He then verified the authenticity of the second finding. In 1965, the Vatican published a report by Guarducci disclosing the new finding.
But Ferrua—Guarducci’s predecessor—launched a disinformation campaign challenging the authenticity of Guarducci’s work. After the death of Pius VI in 1978, Guarducci lost one of her last key allies in the Vatican. From his position as rector of the Pontifical Institute for Christian Archaeology, Ferrua was able to marginalize Guarducci and remove the bones from the Graffiti Wall. As a result, the truth about St. Peter’s bones remained clouded in controversy for decades.
Finally, Pope Benedict XVI ordered a review of the matter, which was concluded under Pope Francis. The review reaffirmed Guarducci’s conclusions and, on December 5, 2013, Pope Francis had the bones restored to their former resting place.