St Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope were Lost and Found…and Then Lost and Found Again, by Thomas J Craughwell
Image (2013), Paperback, 126 pages
This is a story I’ve been fascinated by for many years. I first read about the excavation under the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome when I was teenager with a passion for archaeology. It seemed to me incredible then that they may actually have found the bones of the chief apostle, Jesus’ right-hand man, and the first pope. But everything seemed to fit, the bones they discovered were of a elderly, powerfully built man, (Peter was a fisherman after all, accustomed to manual labour, and if he died during the Neronian persecution as tradition holds, he would have been about 65-70 years old) right under the High Altar of St Peter’s, exactly where tradition said they would be. So I became convinced that they had indeed discovered the bones of the second-most important man in the history of Christianity. The addition of years and experience had made me somewhat more sceptical, and I became equally convinced that the whole thing was too good to be true, traditions just don’t get proved that easily and completely. But then, last year, my perspective was changed. I heard about the discovery of the remains of Richard III, exactly where they were supposed to be, and conforming to every respect with history and tradition. We have been told that Richard was a hunchback, and that he died violently in battle, and his skeleton showed exactly that. He had a pronounced spinal deformity, and his bones showed signs of terrible battle injuries, as well as post-mortem wounds gratuitously performed on his body by the victorious Lancastrians. To have these traditions confirmed so completely has made me re-think the possible authenticity of the bones of St Peter, and I am now prepared to concede, after reading this little book with the latest research on the remains, that, yes, these may well be the actual bones of St Peter. The story will enthrall both those with a Christian perspective, and those of a secular bent who are fascinated by archaeology and the resolution of ancient mysteries. The story itself has been well-detailed before, with excavations under St Peter’s beginning in the 1940’s, discovering first a magnificent late Roman necropolis, the most complete ever found, with family tombs complete with lovely structures, art and inscriptions. The excavators then sought permission from the Pope to dig right under the High Altar itself, where tradition said Peter was buried. They discovered a complex set of early Christian structures, with graffiti which seemed to attest that Peter lay nearby, finally discovering bones which were initially identified as Peter’s, it later being confirmed they were not. However, another set of bones which had earlier been removed in secret, were rediscovered forgotten in a storeroom. These are the bones which match the description off Peter so closely, and which in due course, the Vatican has officially pronounced as his remains. Whether or not you believe this, the whole complicated story is thoroughly absorbing, and Craughwell has done an excellent job of translating the science of the discoveries into a fast-paced book accessible to the lay reader. The lack of pictures and diagrams is perhaps a disappointment, and would have made following the progress off the excavation easier to understand, but there is a comprehensive bibliography where the interested reader can locate more detailed material. An excellent little book, recommended for the both the faithful and the scientifically-minded.