Deep under the Vatican lies one of the world’s greatest archaeological and religious wonders. It is almost unknown to the public, and was recently opened on a very limited basis to a few carefully vetted people each day as the so-called, “Scavi Tour.” The tour is often called the, “Hottest Ticket in Rome.”
Beginning 75 years ago, the Vatican began a secret search for the tomb of the Apostle Peter, whom legend said was buried on Vatican Hill after his execution by the Roman Emperor, Nero, in 66 A.D. Peter was Christ’s most important lieutenant and, with Paul, one of the most important figures in early Christianity. Ultimately, after floods, cave-ins, and many twists and turns, the search found Peter’s relics, as well as a vast Roman necropolis of house-sized tombs and early first, second and third century inscriptions secretly carved on stone walls by early Christians. All of these had been covered for 1700 years since the construction of the original St. Peter’s in 330 A.D.
The discovery of Peter’s tomb and relics under St. Peter’s as Christian tradition predicted (but many naysayers denied) is obviously of very great importance to all Christians. The inscriptions on stone by persecuted early Christians, done secretly within a few hundred yards of the Emperor’s palace, are among the earliest Christian inscriptions in the world and reflect the same core Christian beliefs of Christ’s resurrection and redemption.
In addition, the secret Vatican dig uncovered many Roman family tombs – large structures covered with vivid mosaics and murals, which are among the best preserved Roman art in the world.
The great search for the Apostle was secretly launched in 1939 after a workman fell twenty feet into the unknown world. It proceeded in absolute secrecy (anonymously financed by the Texas oilman, George Strake) using only hand tools, as St. Peter’s was surrounded by fascist black shirts and then Nazi troops. In 1950, word of the dig leaked. While a marker of Peter’s grave was discovered, there was still no Peter. The inscriptions seemed unreadable to the excavators.
One of the twentieth century’s greatest archaeologists, Margherita Guarducci, was brought into the project. Through many years of study, she was able to decipher the early inscriptions and through them, locate Peter’s remains – only a few inches from the direct center of St. Peter’s Basilica above. Extensive testing and forensic examination verified the remains of the first century, roughly 65-year-old man (who had been crucified upside-down by Nero) as Peter. Pope Francis then displayed the relics to a large crowd in St. Peter’s Square and proclaimed these as Peter in 2013, validating Guarducci’s work and the long search of 75 years.
During a 1995 tour of the Vatican, I was informed by the guide (in response to a question as to Peter’s location) that this was a silly superstition. Later, during an early tour of the Scavi with the great Catholic writer, Michael Novak, I began to learn the truth. “The Fisherman’s Tomb” was written to bring the truth about the great search for the Apostle, including many first-time details, to the public.
John O’Neill is the author of “The Fisherman’s Tomb,” and the author of the #1 New York Times best-seller “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.” He has spent much of his life visiting and researching early Christian sites. O’Neill is a 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and a senior partner at a large international law firm.