Builders in Vatican City were hard at work on a parking garage when they made a strange discovery: a well-preserved necropolis that is thousands of years old. As of last week, it is on display as a museum that gives people a window into society and religion in Rome during the time of the emperors. Walkways overlooking the dig allow visitors to view the city of the dead.
Archeologists took three years to uncover about 250 tombs of different shapes and sizes. The tombs range in age from a few years before the life of Jesus Christ to the early fourth century, under the emperors Augustus through Constantine.
The archeologists tried to leave much of the site alone, so that the necropolis can be seen almost exactly how it was found. There are tombs with urns that still hold ashes, and skeletons still lying in the places carved out for them.
Coffins belonging to wealthy families lie alongside humble, giving clues to social classes, daily life and the religious upheaval that was rocking Rome at the beginning of Christianity.
Among tombs covered with scenes of hunting lies the simpler tomb of a young horseman who died at age 17. On it are pictures of a philosopher, a woman at prayer under a tree and a bird. Archeologists believe this suggests that the youth and his family belonged to the first generation of Christians.
The site may be visited by appointment on Friday and Saturday mornings.