Jessica Dello Russo, "Jewish Shadows of Subterranean Christian Rome," Ph.D. dissertation, Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, 2017.
My research for the doctorate from the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute for Christian Archaeology concentrates on the material testimony and modern discovery accounts of burials dating to the Ancient Roman era. Whether for reasons of context or content these tombs are identified as belonging to Jews.
My work spans many centuries of scholarship on different types of archaeological finds. What really interests me is this: from the two types of data, literary and archaeological, what are the “essential differences”, if any, between Jewish and contemporaneous non-Jewish, notably Christian, burial arrangements and tomb monuments?
I continue to hear different answers to this question and believe that the conflict in addressing it stems in part from deeply-rooted ideological systems linked to religious beliefs. The Italian government maintains the ancient burial grounds perceived as Jewish in consultation with representatives from Italy's Jews. The Vatican exerts even greater autonomy over grave sites associated with Early Christian martyrs and popes. Archaeologically speaking, this responsiveness from faith-based organizations is a good thing, enforcing the conservation of features that all too often disappear after an excavation in a dense urban setting like Rome. Yet over time it has privileged artifact displays that lend themselves to interpretive readings of the practices and teachings of these religions. The logistical challenges of studying much of the material also has led to generalizations about tomb creation and use. Two of the known Jewish cemeteries below private property have not been accessible for over a century. One is in perpetual restoration, and yet another is on but partial display.
To meet these challenges head-on, my dissertation goes down a number of paths of inquiry freshly-laid from recent and ongoing study projects, including my own.
To begin, I look for analogies in non-Jewish cemeteries to what has been marked in the past as “distinct” or “unique” in the Jewish sites. In documenting these structural elements, I want to better articulate what tomb-makers were doing, not what they “should” have been doing for their Jewish clientele. Even today, many assume that communal burial grounds for Jews and Christians, visible in the area by the third century CE, must have been established by organized religious corporations, like a church or a synagogue, which would have the final say, or at least leverage, over who and what could go in a tomb. But sustained on-site study underscores the similarities, rather than the differences, between sites that preserve testimonies of Jewish or Christian beliefs.
My research also explores the widely held belief that burial sites were religiously exclusive. I have tested this assumption by considering a wealth of documentation on the medieval and modern excavation of ancient cemeteries in Rome that in many instances makes no reference to the Jewish sites. What this literature does reveal are the policies and actions in place at the times Jewish tombs were seen. It illustrates, beyond polemical reactions, a broader narrative of tomb discovery and conservation in Rome. My research thus supports the longstanding assumption of religious homogeneity in burial spaces, but adds further nuance to our understanding. Within this framework is clarification of the perceived neglect and abandonment of Jewish burials in favor of those believed to be of Christians.
Taken together, these approaches bring into sharper focus a number of issues concerning the sources and limits of our knowledge of Jews in Ancient Rome.
The primary data source that my dissertation examines, funerary artifacts, in situ or otherwise, indicates a range of forms and materials that could be employed to mark out and seal a tomb. The purchasing preferences of consumers who included distinctly Jewish motifs or expressions on their graves appears to have been influenced first and foremost by local mortuary services and modes of expression.
Yet, for all the structural similarities between sites, there are instances of unique tomb architecture and signage. These I look at closely for indications of how cultural variables like religion, ethnicity, and other types of group affiliation could have influenced their creation. One or more of these factors no doubt explains the conscious effort on the part of many Jews in Rome to seek burial near other Jews.
What also bears upon the situation is that by accident or by dint of circumstance, virtually all of the extant evidence of burial practices employed by Jews is found in systems of Roman-era tunnels and chambers that run below areas of Rome’s periphery. These artificial caverns, or, to use their unique title, "catacombs", still preserve in many locations dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of tombs. Today they appear isolated below the modern city streets and building foundations (only a few are preserved below public land). Yet we know they were linked from the start to arrangements of tomb monuments extending back from ancient roadsides. The richest harvesting grounds for artifacts related to Jews in Ancient Rome exist alongside the tombs of individuals, families, and other group entities that, contemporary or not to the “catacomb era”, roughly the late second through early fifth centuries CE, reveal no affiliation to Jewish beliefs or ancestry.
The very appearance of the catacombs – extensive, interconnected, yet to all effects invisible – inspired romantic theories about their formation and use by early Christians in Rome. A clandestine "Church in the Catacombs" revealed, it was thought, authentic expressions of Christian piety and devotions. Ironically enough, at the time these stories, literally, made history, the catacombs for Jews remained "secret" and known to a minimal extent. Nevertheless, they, too, were seen as collective responses to ritual needs and distinctly Biblical traditions.
To trace the development and impact of traditional ideas on the modern study of these sites, I not only evaluate the literary record but also introduce archival materials from different times and places concerning historic excavations in the known Jewish cemeteries of Rome and scattered sightings of Jewish artifacts in other areas of the city. The goal is to create a fuller account of the circumstances of the discovery, processing, and conservation of a cemetery's finds, the site’s preservation or eradication, and the singular, at times controversial, role the Jewish evidence plays in studies of “Roma Sotterranea,” which for many centuries had a near-exclusive focus on defining a Christian context for catacomb burial in Rome.
The original contributions of this research to a growing body of scholarship on Jews in the Roman era are threefold. My thesis integrates the Jewish cemeteries more thoroughly into traditional accounts of the study and exploration of "subterranean Rome." In the process, I introduce unpublished archival data that clarifies the location and appearance of the known Jewish tombs. And, to return to the big question, I try to draw out and better define what is meant when modern scholars label these sites as “Jewish.”
For all these efforts, I think I shall continue to find different answers to my question, at least until new excavation work is carried out. The important thing is to see each development as a learning moment, and keep the lines of communications open between all parties involved. As one great 20th-century Jewish catacomb scholar, Fr. Antonio Ferrua, SJ wrote to Erwin R. Goodenough: “Much ink remains to be spilled on the catacombs… (but) is it not fortunate that every now and then archaeologists can renew the material of their discussions?” On this, at least, we can all agree.*
*Many thanks to Prof. Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, my thesis supervisor, and to Prof. Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University, for their critiques of my dissertation summary.