The term 'Scavi' is the popular name given to the Vatican Necropolis which lies under the Vatican City. It is here that St Peter and countless other early Christians were buried.
Covered for centuries, they were uncovered in works to satisfy the request of Pope Pius XI (died 1939) to be buried as close to St Peter as possible. More of the necropolis was unearthed in 2003 during the construction of a car park.
The Vatican Necropolis / Scavi was originally an open air cemetery with tombs and mausolea built on the southern slope of the Vatican Hill adjacent to a circus built by Emperor Caligula (Roman Emperor 37-41 AD). An Egyptian obelisk complete with heiroglyphics and dating from around 4000 years ago stood at the top of Caligula's circus. The position of this was just outside the Fabbrica di San Pietro Scavi Office but was moved the 30 metres or so to the centre of St Peter's Square in 1596.
It was forbidden in Roman law for the dead to be buried within the city walls and at the official cemetery of the Vatican Necropolis, there were also graves on the road leading to it (Via Cornelia).
During the persecutions against the Christians by Emperor Nero that he began in July 64 AD and which ended on 9 July 68 when he fled Rome, St Peter suffered martyrdom at the Neronian Gardens on the Vatican Hill. It was here, according to Tacitus, that along Via Cornelia and at the foot of the Vatican Hill, the gruesome scenes of Nero's persecution were visible to all and here that St Paul was buried. As testified by Origen and Tertullian in the 2nd Century, Peter suffered crucifixion upside down.
St Paul was martyred in Rome during the same persecution, and the remains of both St Peter & St Paul are believed to have been removed from their resting places to share a vault in the catacombs on the Appian Way (Via Appia) where a 4th century church now stands, originally dedicated to Sts Peter & Paul and now dedicated to St Sebastian. It is believed that St Peter's and St Paul's remains were taken by the Christians to this place during the Valerian persecution in 258 to prevent their desecration threatened by the authorities. They were later restored to their original resting places and Emperor Constantine protected the bones of St Peter and built a Basilica built directly above it in the 4th Century.
In order to build this Basilica, it was necessary to make a sufficiently large flat area onto which to build. Consequently Constantine ordered that part of the Vatican Necropolis on the Vatican Hill should be excavated which caused the necropolis to be filled with the moved soil and debris with the exception of St Peter's tomb which Constantine preserved.
The filling-in of areas of the Necropolis and the establishment of a Basilica over St Peter's bones actually caused many mausoleums and tombs to be encapsulated in earth which protected them in a pristine condition throughout the centuries. It was only in the 20th Century that Pope Pius XII ordered investigation and excavation of the underground Necropolis in order to find St Peter's remains. This archaeological investigation discovered the Pre-Constantine structures, the Constantine Structures, and the 16th Century structures when the most recent Basilica of St Peter was constructed. In 2003, due to the construction of a car park, the majority of the Vatican Necropolis was excavated.
The excavations uncovered a map of the mausoleums of the Vatican Necropolis. A shrine over St Peter's grave was believed to have been possible around 100 years after St Peter's death. This shrine was found and it was additionally discovered that the tombs surrounding the suspected burial place of St Peter suggest that the place of St Peter's tomb was the site of early veneration. At this place, the shrine inscribed as the Trophy of Gaius is referred to by the early historian Eusebius thus:
I can show the tropaia of the apostles. Because if you want to go to the Vatican or on the road to Ostia, you'll find the tropaia of those who founded this Church.
Tropaia in Greek usually means monument or trophy of victory. Adjacent and at right angles to this shrine there is a wall containing a marble lined hole with the wall still having Latin graffiti written on it speaking of St Peter. It is believed that when Constantine built the 4th Century Basilica over the shrine and burial place of St Peter, the bones were removed and placed in this marble lined hole in the graffiti wall. Indeed, when the excavations took place they found human bones within this hole and they lay directly below the high altars of the various Basilicas of St Peter.
Special visits to the necropolis underneath the Basilica, where the tomb of St. Peter is located, are only possible following special permission granted from time to time by the “Fabbrica di San Pietro”. Visits are organized according to the schedule set by the Excavations Office./p>
Requests, if possible, should be sent directly by the interested visitor/s. If the person submitting the request is not the actual visitor, he or she should send the visitor(s) name(s) and e-mail address(es). This will allow the Excavations Office to replay back to the person requesting the visit and to the visitor with specific information about the visit granted.
Those leading groups (universities, parishes, cultural associations, agencies, and other groups) should send a complete list of names of the participants and the name of their organization.
There are no set deadlines for submitting requests. All requests, even urgent ones, will be fulfilled depending on the places left available at the closest date to the one requested.
Requests may be submitted in written form by fax +39 06 69873017, or by visiting the Excavations Office in person (using the south [left] entrance, just outside of the Colonnade).
It is absolutely necessary to provide the following information:
1. Exact number of participants;
2. Names of participants;
3. Language requested;
4. Possible dates *when the Excavations Office can assign your visit (the time will be determined by the Office). *please always write in full the name of the month (e.g.: from 01 January 2013 to 08 January 2013)
5. E-mail address, or fax number, or a complete postal address.
The cost of the individual ticket, including the contribution for the Guide, is 13,00 Euros.