Italian archaeologists have discovered the remains of 38 skeletons buried in a Jewish cemetery in Rome more than 500 years ago, offering further evidence of their ubiquity and persecution under papal rule.
The well-preserved skeletons were found during excavations beneath a building in an area identified on ancient maps as “Campus Iudeorum” – Latin for “Field of Jews” — in the Trastevere quarter of Rome just across the Tiber River from the Italian capital.
The bodies were believed to have been buried there between the mid-14th and mid-17th centuries, and the discovery is giving archaeologists new insights into how the community lived and died in the medieval era.
The skeletons were discovered during excavations nearly 20 feet beneath a large modern building undergoing renovation. Apart from the cemetery, archaeologists also found the remains of an ancient tannery at the site dating back to the era of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in the third century.
Rossi, from Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency, said the graves confirmed customary Jewish funeral practices: The bodies were buried in plain wooden caskets without any objects and were only identified after a fragment of a Hebrew epigraph was found at the dig.
She said the absence of headstones was a result of decrees issued by Pope Urban VIII, who ruled in 1625 that Jews be buried in unmarked graves and ordered headstones to be removed from existing graves.
The only Hebrew inscription, a fragment, came from a layer where the graves were obliterated so without a doubt that was the result of Pope Urban VIII decrees in October 1625.
Experts said the skeletons were predominantly adult males and there were few children. Scientific analysis also showed signs of a poor hygiene and inadequate diet lacking in protein.
The first recorded news about the Field of Jews on ancient maps dates back to 1363 when the Company of Death, a military corps, ordered a cemetery to be set aside on a plot of land in Trastevere.
Rome’s Jewish community has welcomed the discovery and pledged to rebury the 38 bodies with the prayers and rituals of a Jewish funeral.