Interviewing Micaela Pavoncello and Jessica Dello Russo

Interviewing Micaela Pavoncello and Jessica Dello Russo

Professor Estelle Shohet Brettman and Professor Bernadette J. Brooten, are two women scholars who have brought forth the earliest efforts in the scholarship and historic preservation of the Roman Jewish Catacombs and the Roman Jewish stone epitaphs. Both of these American women are pre-eminent scholars who brought forth this path-breaking research in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century 2022, there is Micaela Pavoncello “whose family tradition has it that their ancestors came to Rome at the time of the Maccabim,” before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (70 CE). Micaela Pavoncello, a native Italian Jewish art historian and licensed tour guide of Rome successfully “crossover” to English-speaking audiences. She has been educating international tourists and students for the past two decades about the history of her people—The Jews of Rome.

Jessica Dello Russo earned her Ph.D. in January of 2022 from the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome. Her dissertation is a historiographical analysis of the recovery of archaeological testimonies of Jews in Ancient Rome and how Jewish collective spaces were seen, studied, maintained, and valued over many centuries. By focusing on the complicated layers of setting, identification, interpretation, and presentation of these artifacts from antiquity to the present, Dello Russo considers how the objects fit within the larger picture of archaeological activity and site preservation in Rome. In the course of her research. Dello Russo became involved with the International Catacomb Society, established in 1980 by Jewish American art historian Estelle S. Brettman, and today serves on the society’s executive board. She is also a member of the editorial team of Sefer yuhasin – Review for the History of the Jews in South Italy and a Leon Charney Scholar at the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University in New York, where she is preparing her dissertation for publication in the E. J. Brill series on Jews, Judaism, and the Arts.

Tourism has returned, and, this hot summer of 2022, Pavoncello, founder of Jewish Roma and her team of historian-guides from the Jewish community of Rome explain, in great detail, the stone epitaph (facsimile) collection in the Jewish Museum of Rome. They educate others about Jewish religious law tradition from the Halacha, while sharing their personal insights and interpretations from a Roman Jewish perspective interpretations which are not Ashkenazi nor Sephardic.

The Jewish catacombs in Rome are a source of pride for the Jewish community, which is often referred to as one of the most ancient of the Diaspora, but most importantly they confirm the Jewish presence since antiquity. As a Roman Jew educating international visitors from all faiths about your ancestors, what are some of the questions you are asked by visitors?

Micaela Pavoncello. Some of the questions I am often asked are the following: if any objects were buried with the departed? Why would they use sarcophaguses in the larger burial chamber? Did they abandon the Kochim? How many people are buried here and do these labyrinth tunnels connect with other catacombs in the area?

Can you answer some of the following questions that visitors have asked Micaela Pavoncello? If any objects were buried with the departed?

Jessica Dello Russo. We have an eyewitness account by a Jesuit archaeologist, Raffaele Garrucci, about the closely-supervised opening of an intact tomb marked with an epitaph clearly identifying a Jew by the sign of the menorah and formulaic phrases including the term “grammateus”. There was great interest in looking at how Jews buried their dead to gain insight as to how Jesus might have been anointed and enshrouded – “as is the manner of the Jews to bury” (John 19:14). The burial in the catacomb had been made as a special “table” tomb inside of a chamber, not your ordinary catacomb burial. The skeleton was inside. Within what was left of the rib cavity was found a pendant made of glass in the form of a gorgon head! The same object has been found in graves in other parts of the Roman world, and illustrates that individual Jews of means could be buried along with personal possessions. In this example, perhaps it served also as a sort of amulet or lucky charm, according to Roman belief. The current whereabouts of this object is not known, as is the case for virtually all of the small finds recorded from the site, such as oil lamps made out of clay, which was so common that they used to be casually handed out as souvenirs. In one side gallery, you will still see fragments of glass and clay containers that were affixed to the fresh mortar that holds the tomb cover in place on the wall. These escaped pillage because they are in tombs very close to the pavement level. But we have records of similar objects being used to mark tombs in other Jewish catacombs. A vial or paten was a common token for Romans to leave at a grave site, maybe even as a rapid attempt at tomb decor, to show reverence for the act.

Why would they use sarcophaguses in the larger burial chamber?

Jessica Dello Russo. Coffins in stone, lead, or clay were used in Erez Israel as well as in sites of the Roman Diaspora. The greatest concentration of stone sarcophagi is actually found in the catacombs at Beth She’arim, a site more or less contemporary to the catacombs of Rome. Both here and in Rome, sarcophagi appear as workshop products, sometimes, but not always, customized to convey the Jewish identity of the deceased. This is why most of the sarcophagi still in place in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini are not distinguished as Jewish for their appearance – only because of their location (we don’t even know where the big tub near the entrance was originally found, nor is it at all clear that clay sarcophagi originally occupied the niches of the chambers outside of the present-day entrance into the site).

The sarcophagi in place today are found in an identical manner at the bottom of a trough below floor level in the back wall of a chamber, which is carved out in the shape of a giant niche, extending from floor level practically to the ceiling. I can only speculate that the purpose of this arrangement was to allow for other burial containers to be placed or constructed on top of the sarcophagus, as is sometimes found in other catacombs, specifically those of Villa Torlonia. The sarcophagus in the “menorah room”, currently open to visitors, was found virtually intact in 1859. From eyewitness accounts, we learn that the sarcophagus’ front panel was carved with allegorical scenes at each end of a man and woman. Both are receiving instruction from their idealized counterparts in the roles of philosopher and muse. At some point just a few decades after their discovery, these panels were cut away and stolen so that today you only see today loose slabs of marble with a strigil pattern, not seen as valuable enough to sell on the antiquities market.

On that note, one of the most significant and intriguing examples of Jewish visual culture in Ancient Rome was found in the catacomb of Vigna Randanini but most of it is no longer in the site. Reconstructed from many fragments, it turned out to be the front panel of a sarcophagus with figural carvings, but this time, they are of Jewish emblems including the menorah, lulab, ethrog, and shofar, plus two medallions at the far ends of the panel that have to date received no truly convincing interpretation. You’ll have to go to a museum in Berlin to see most of what remains of this piece after it was illegally brought off-site and sold in the early 1900s. This black market dealing is proven without question by the additional fragment that came to light in 2001, which I was the first to correctly identify and publish as coming from the object in question. Hopefully, the fragment still in the catacomb can be secured and displayed, maybe with a cast of the rest of the carved panel now in Germany. Better still, have the whole thing put back together and made widely accessible in a Roman museum, ideally, that of the main synagogue, or in the new one being built in the grounds of the Villa Torlonia on the via Alessandro Torlonia, which also will feature material testimonies of the city’s Jews.

Did they abandon the Kochim?

Jessica Dello Russo. The kokh tomb shafts in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini do not appear to have been used in quite the same manner as the majority of those found in tomb chambers in Israel. Specifically, there do not appear to be signs of the practice of secondary burial, when the remains of the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition were removed from the grave shaft and put into a smaller container, called an ossuary, or in a pit in the floor of the tomb. The original grave shaft could then be used again and again. If a death took place outside of Erez Israel, the bodily remains might even be brought to Israel for reburial – to lie “in peace among the just”, as echoed by a number of epitaphs to Jews in Rome.

In Rome, however, cases in which this phrase is used are often accompanied by the introductory formula “here lies… “ and, in fact, while stripped of almost all markers of identity, many of the kokh shafts in Vigna Randanini still contain bone fragments, including a very rare intact deposition that shows the corpse laid out, apparently supine, at the bottom of the ditch below floor level, not even in a casket of wood or other materials. The kokh design in the catacomb was strongly influenced by the lineaments of Roman-style tombs, maybe because the diggers themselves were used to local techniques and not this somewhat “foreign” fashion of creating ditches perpendicular to the wall surface, rather more laborious to hew out of the tuff and likely a special request by a client or clients who wished to evoke, perhaps, a tomb setting of the Middle East or North Africa, where rock cut or built tombs with kokhim are regularly found from the Roman era. Every now and again, an unusual or “ethnic” tomb form pops up as an isolated example or in very small numbers within the catacombs in Rome – for example, of the type with a “window” opening, or with a canopy or “baldacchino” above. But the Vigna Randanini kokhim are almost unique for their appearance and large numbers – I said almost!

How many people are buried here and do these labyrinth tunnels connect with other catacombs in the area?

Prof. Leonard Rutgers has estimated about 1,200 tombs on the site, but there are more of these below a number of the gallery floors covered today by dirt fill, plus others in cemetery areas that have long been closed off to the public, and even to scholars. If and when the terminal points of some of the galleries are finally freed from debris, no doubt the number of burials will go higher, but by how much is not clear. Garrucchi, our star witness to the excavations in the mid-nineteenth century, reported that work to uncover another stairwell had actually led to a lower floor, which would be big news even today, since the catacomb as we see it develops more or less on one level.

According to the nineteenth-century excavation reports, there are more catacomb galleries below the property, but their location and extent have not been mapped out and it was not possible to identify the religion of the tomb occupants from the condition of the galleries as seen around the year 1860. For a long, long time, the catacomb of Vigna Randanini seems to have been conveniently bundled together with other catacomb networks and just called by the name of the nearest large Christian cemetery. So I’d be willing to bet you that we would find Christians in some of those buried tombs. Who knows, maybe one of those saints the Roman Catholic Church is still trying to find.

‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ (Bereshit 3, 19) was fulfilled not by burying the dead in the ground, but in the loculi throughout the labyrinth of underground tunnels. What does this tell us about Jewish life of that time?

Micaela Pavoncello. First of all, as a Roman Jews, I do not interpret the Jewish catacombs as an archaeological site. These are sacred burial chambers of the first members of our Jewish community of Rome that continues to thrive today. I get emotional every time I see ancient frescoes and stone epitaphs depicting objects connecting to my Jewish life, culture and tradition. In addition, the stone inscriptions (epitaphs) found in Jewish catacombs tell us that there were at least 12 synagogues in Rome. From these inscriptions, we learn that our ancestors had many different occupations, in which my colleagues and I share with visitors. We like to point out the numerous inscriptions (epitaphs) from both the Jewish Museum of Rome’s collection and from inside the Vigna Randanini catacomb. There is evidence of sentiments of sorrow and affection inscribed by husbands, fathers and sons that give us insight into the deeply human devotion and tenderness in which our matriarchs of ancient Rome were loved and respected, and this is important.

Keep in mind that the Roman Jewish epitaphs are still the subject of many studies for art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, genealogists, cultural geographers, preservationists, folklorists, theologians, historians and tour guides. Scholars from all disciplinary fields are instrumental in conserving and saving Roman Jewish catacombs for future generations.

There are six catacombs in Rome. 1) Jewish Catacombs of Monteverde (found in 1602); 2) Jewish Catacombs of the Villa Torlonia (found in 1859); 3) Jewish Catacombs of the Vigna Cimarra (found in 1866); 4) Jewish Catacombs on the Via Labicana (found in 1882); 5) Jewish Catacombs of the Via Appia Pignatelli and 6) Jewish Catacombs of Vigna Randanini. Why is it that only one is accessible today in 2022 – the Vigna Randanini?

Jessica Dello Russo. The dates attached to the list of Jewish catacombs indicate the date when they were first reported to be “Jewish” from the presence of tomb markers that incorporated distinctively Jewish visual language and terminology – above all, the motif of the menorah. If only these sites had been really and truly discovered at those times, and by scholars committed to reporting on their existence!

In reality, virtually all the subterranean cemeteries known as “catacombs” in Rome, including the ones listed above, were repeatedly plundered over centuries by tomb robbers looking of course for buried treasure but also for building materials that they could recycle. This means precious evidence of Jewish identity was likely mutilated to suit the needs of the Roman populace at any given time. Catacomb exploration beginning in the early modern era really got the dregs, the stuff considered to be of no value because it could not be re-used or sold. Once in a while, a catacomb area buried in a landslide or otherwise hidden from marauders comes to light with intact tombs, and artifacts could get overlooked without systematic excavation to expose the original pavement level and other structural features. Overall, it’s a strange, maybe gruesome testament to Roman industry that the catacombs were effectively cleaned out. Gothic invading armies have been blamed, but it is really the Romans themselves who should take credit for this particular sacking. The upshot was that, minus their grave goods, most catacombs were conveniently “forgotten” once more. They remained in the popular imagination as the dangerous, sinister haunts of wild people, highway robbers, even demons, with little incentive to counteract this situation as the land above the catacombs became more valuable for cultivation and finally for urban development due to its proximity to the city walls.

Moving forward, a number of the catacombs on the list were first identified as Jewish right before Italian Unification in 1870, during the long reign of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). This pope supported the exploration of the catacombs to reconstruct an intimate history of Christianity in the city, obviously to bolster the tradition of having a Pope in charge. The catacomb research was directed by a new Commission for Sacred Archaeology (CDAS), approved in 1852 to care for the ancient Christian cemeteries and their artifacts. But the Jewish cemeteries were another story. To scholars, they were an important clue to the origins of Christianity in Rome, but their contents clearly illustrated a continuity of Jewish practice and belief well into the time the Roman populace was believed to have become Christian. The leading archaeologist for the CDAS, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, strongly advocated for the preservation of the ancient cemeteries of Jews, but he had his hands tied by the fact that according to the government, they were not as of yet subject to CDAS oversight because de Rossi himself had said they only pertained to Jews. Without the extra protection then afforded to Christian sites, the Jewish cemeteries were in fact so vulnerable that de Rossi went against his own principles in the case of the excavation of the catacomb of Vigna Cimarra and had the few remaining artifacts removed, no doubt because had he not done so at the moment of the catacomb’s discovery in 1866, they would soon have gone missing, because the cemetery was soon reburied, as in fact were most ruins, out of safety concerns because there was not any available funding to restore them. As a result, as in the case of so many other funerary artifacts of Jews in Rome, you must see today the bulk of the epigraphs from the Vigna Cimarra in a museum – in this instance, the lapidary of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology. We don’t know the whereabouts of artifacts from the Via Appia Pignatelli and Via Labicana sites – probably Prince Torlonia kept or sold what had been found on his property on the Appia Pignatelli, as his descendants did later with the Jewish artifacts on another family estate on the via Nomentana. From the recorded evidence, we can’t even prove this catacomb last seen in 1885 was even used by Jews. Likewise, the few fragments of clay tile that the archaeologist Orazio Marucchi recorded in the latter cemetery might have ended up in some study collection, as he later became a Professor of Christian Archaeology at the University of Rome.

After Italy’s Unification in 1870, the formerly suburban real-estate below which many catacombs lay increased tremendously in value because Rome was now expanding its urban plan beyond the old city walls. It took some decades, but by the early 1900s, this march of progress took over the slopes of the Monteverde and some areas of the estate of Princes Torlonia on the Via Nomentana. There was a published record of the first and none, apparently, for the latter. Nonetheless, the catacomb of Monteverde visited by Antonio Bosio in 1602 was only exposed in the early 1900s by a quarry company blasting into the hillside to reach the strata of volcanic material used in construction materials. This compromised the site excavation from the very start. The archaeologist who took on the task, Nikolaus Muller from the University of Berlin, described the place he had vainly sought to rediscover for so long as “ghastly”. Coming from someone who had dedicated a good part of his scholarly career to documenting the tombs of Jews in antiquity, one can understand why the rest of the catacomb was cut away as much as possible to ensure that with the government’s blessing, new housing could be built above and below the site. A memorial marker was proposed but never set up, possibly because the whole process of the cemetery’s destruction was not without controversy – Gabriele d’Annunzio was among those who stepped in, writing under the pseudonym Mario de’ Fiori, to condemn the looting of the tombs. Some influential Jews of the time like Ernesto Nathan, then mayor of Rome, were made aware of the situation but in the face of much financial and political pressure could not stop the ongoing demolition of the Jewish catacomb on what had become desirable land for building near the present Trastevere train station.

Ironically enough, to prevent further damage to the Jewish catacombs, the treaty that Italy made with the Vatican in 1929 put them in the care of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology (PCAS), maybe because past commission members like Giovanni Battista de Rossi and Orazio Marucchi and their close collaborators had been deeply concerned with these sites in the past. What’s more, the PCAS had at its disposal at the Vatican’s expense a specialized team of workers – in fact known as fossori, from the Latin “fossor”, diggers who were not archaeologists but rather skilled professionals in the techniques of reinforcing underground environments to prevent structural collapse. Doubtless, this solution did not please many Jews, but the catacomb issue was seen as one of antiquities preservation, not of religion. It is different today.

On that note, no new Jewish catacomb has been found since the announcement of the existence of the catacombs of Villa Torlonia in 1919. As in the case of the Vigna Randanini decades before, the actual digging in the site was bankrolled by Prince Giovanni Torlonia, with follow-up study and documentation by a team of German Lutheran scholars, Hans Beyer and Hans Lietzmann, as well as by the American Jewish Classicist, Harry J. Leon. They were among the very few to examine the site in detail before the Torlonia estate was leased out to the Fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini. The Villa Torlonia did not emerge from the war unscathed, and the property remained off limits to the public through the late 1970’s. Right around the time, the villa became a public park, quite pleasant to walk through today, and in the wake of a new season of excavation by the PCAS to uncover a second stairway that led to the Jewish site, the entire cemetery was filled in, presumably to protect it from vandalism. It was uncovered once more around 1984 when the Government of Italy retrieved it from Vatican control, but then determined to be unsafe to visit because of high levels of radon in many of its parts. In the decades since then, government money has been promised, and some actually spent on surveying and repairing the site. Archaeologists, restorers, and even rabbis have been involved in plans for its greater accessibility to the public. Maybe once the new Holocaust Museum of Rome is complete, this can be a reality for all of us. But as matters stand, only those individuals who have connections to circles of power and influence in Italy can get exclusive looks inside – rarely publicized, but possible for an exclusive few. I myself can’t figure out how Italy can justify this unfair practice after much public funding has been spent.

For the rest of us, there’s the Vigna Randanini catacombs for now, because the site of the Monteverde cemetery is all but blasted away, that of the via Labicana is not even securely known, and the Vigna Cimarra catacomb is a cluster of partially-obscured, badly-eroded galleries with muddy floors. But even in the case of Vigna Randanini, there is the issue of cost. To visit the Catacombs of Callisto, San Sebastiano and Domitilla a block or two away, you pay ten euros per person. The Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, however, can only be booked in advance by hiring a custodian and a guide. According to the internet, the price can range between a hundred and five hundred euros per group. Unless you have a group of maximum size – fifteen people – that is a costly affair. For many, the expense is well worth the experience of an intimate glimpse of a Jewish past. Others, however, will simply elect to do a low-cost trip to a Christian site, and I know Jews, many young Jews, who have been forced by economic necessity to do this. It seems a shame that they cannot have the same access to Jewish heritage as Christians do to monuments of their religious past.

You and your team of historian guides from the community focus on select nuances that yield a different way of reading, understanding, and interpreting sacred Jewish stone inscriptions (epitaphs) from the Jewish catacombs. Can you elaborate?

Micaela Pavoncello. I like to show how the stone carvers’ work identifies three important purposes: tell us about the individual who died; information about the society and culture from which the individual departed and understanding the ancient Jewish past. The carved symbols of a menorah or an open Aron HaKodesh and its inscription about the deceased on the stones are ancient documents that must be read and understood at the time it was inscribed and how it relates to our Jewish law (Halacha).

You know that for centuries, the task of interpreting the texts of the Torah and researching the Jewish catacombs has been almost exclusively the province of men. I am happy to say that now in my generation, this has changed and the voices of ‘women’ and their understandings of the Torah and archaeology have enriched our people. This double interview alongside Jessica Dello Russo is a valuable addition to Jewish tourism in Rome.

Today there is only one entrance into the Vigna Randanini catacombs. You have highlighted that a vast part of the site, as well as the original entryways, are not currently accessible, leaving scholars with many questions. Can you elaborate on this?

Jessica Dello Russo. To be exact, there are two entrances into the catacombs of Vigna Randanini that are currently exposed, but one is situated well within the estate grounds and is kept open only to stabilize the microclimate. It’s not safe to use, as the brick steps leading from the ground level to the galleries of the catacomb excavated at a lower level are covered with mud and quite slippery. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, this staircase was maintained because it was common to enter the catacomb from the Via Appia Antica. When the property, now the “Vigna di San Sebastiano” was commercialized in part with a restaurant and other new building features, the current access point on the Via Appia Pignatelli was preferred.

During the excavation of the Jewish burial complex by landowner Giuseppe Randanini at his own expense and carried out for the most part between 1859-1863, other connections between the ground level and catacomb were opened up but quickly reburied, even before scholars really had the opportunity to document them properly. As in the case of the stairway mentioned above, they would be difficult to secure and maintain over time. Unfortunately, blocking up these features once more frustrates our efforts to date the site more securely. The parts of the catacomb at or near the original ground level would likely have had to have been reinforced with masonry after their excavation. Structural features like these hold more clues to chronology than the excavation itself. This would especially be the case if the now-buried entrances to the Vigna Randanini catacombs had been themselves used for burials, or otherwise contained identifying markers of tomb ownership.

Let’s be clear that, as incredible as it might seem to us in 2022, this particular catacomb has not yet been subject to excavation with scientific criteria and supervision. Surveyed and inventoried, yes, many times. But still only partially. What’s more, the restoration work carried out in the actual site entrance around 1900 built over many features. There simply has not been a real investment in the preservation of the catacomb aside from essential maintenance to ensure visitor safety. Of course, that is paramount – and expensive! As matters stand, however, Rome’s Archaeological Superintendence, providing the scientific tutelage of all archaeological remains on the site, is blocked from allocating more funds to site study because it remains on private property. Priority is given to archaeological sites on state or city-owned land. Strict conditions are imposed upon landowners not to damage the archaeological testimonies on their grounds – vincoli archeologici. In consequence, the less open, the better!

If I can speculate for a moment, I will bet you that if and when the other entrance points into the catacomb are exposed, at least one will be shown to have been excavated from the lower level of a sepulchral monument of the type that in of itself held many tombs on one or more levels in the walls. The galleries and chambers which develop from this spot – including the so-called painted “duplex chamber” – conform to the typology of an underground extension of a conspicuous monument at ground level. Personally, I am much more curious to learn about the appearance of the original opening that led into the galleries of the so-called “upper catacomb” that contains almost thirty visible shafts of the type of tomb called “kokh” (pl. “kokhim”). This area also features a splendid painted room, the so-called “Palm Tree Chamber”. The unique, decidedly “ethnic” design of this region might also be reflected in its entryway, the location and appearance of which are still unknown. Italy’s Fine Arts Ministry is always eager to circulate news of discoveries – here is a chance to really make big news. Monumental testimonies of Jews in Roman antiquity are slim pickings indeed in a city where they once numbered in the many thousands. Where are they all buried? We need to understand more about the context in which their burials are found. To follow de Rossi’s footsteps and reinforce the story of their continued presence into Late Antiquity would be an important act on Italy’s part, not to mention one long overdue.

The Vigna Randanini catacombs date between the 3rd and the 4th century of the common era. Was there a pre-existing burial site on the same territory?

Jessica Dello Russo. Yes, the ruins of a monumental sepulcher of the second century CE visible today on the grounds, close to one of the catacomb skylights, point to a much more extensive cemeterial topography now hidden below the modern landscape of the Villa di San Sebastiano. We also know that additional catacomb galleries came to light in Randanini’s excavations, along with other types of grave markers that typically would not have been employed in a catacomb setting, and therefore came from other forms of burial architecture – for example, columbaria, mausolea, temple-tombs, altars, stelae, and even simple holes in the ground. You can see a few of these – especially cinerary urns – in museums. A good deal more of the evidence is not on display – sadly dispersed. The Jewish cemetery grew thanks to the presence of pre-existing structural features on and below the grounds. Not all these were originally funerary in nature, but the dig reports from the 1860’s, other archival testimonies, and later, incidental finds all point to the existence of burials in the Vigna Randanini at least from the second century CE if not earlier. As you note, the Catacomb of Vigna Randanini was developed at least a century later, in the third century – and that is an approximate date of its origins, even if we accept that the region with the duplex chamber was originally created for Jews. As a network of cemetery galleries, I’d push the dating further forward, to the fourth century and why not into the fifth? The catacomb’s so crowded in parts, and, as it exists today, containing largely if not exclusively Jewish tombs in all of its regions (I hedge on this last point precisely because we don’t have adequate documentation of the points where cemetery excavations began from the level of the grounds).

Another way to address your question is: were there tombs of Jews in this site, or in the Appia region, before the creation of these catacombs? The truth is tomb styles in Rome earlier than the third century CE do not seem to have incorporated Jewish markers. Before then, it’s quite possible that the Jews who lived and died in Rome were either buried as Romans, and therefore would be all but indistinguishable from the general population save for a name of Semitic origin – which of course would not necessarily refer to a Jew – or were interred in a type of communal tomb arrangement very difficult to identify after nearly two thousand years. Keep in mind that the catacombs provide a unique type of environment for very basic tombs that on the ground level would have even more damage and decay. Also, the examples of Jewish art and epigraphy that come from Rome often signal the elite of a community, people who wanted to be remembered for their strong identification with Judaism and its teachings. The find spots of a number of these pieces are not known, and in all probability not every Jew in Rome would have been buried in a catacomb – the numbers themselves don’t add up, there were many more Jews in Rome than available space for burial in the catacombs of which we are currently aware. We should keep digging with scientific aims to properly document these curious, extremely complicated subterranean networks and also consider that a large array of tomb structures around Rome might well have held Jews. Theirs was a Roman reality: their testimony is not only to Ancient Judaism but to Ancient Rome.

 

 

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