Italian archaeologists have discovered 38 graves, with skeletal remains intact, from the cemetery used by Rome’s Jewish community from medieval times to the 17th century.
The discovery of the so-called Campus Iudeorum was announced during a news conference held in Rome on March 20 at the National Roman Museum at the Baths of Diocletian. The location of the cemetery had long been known from old maps and archival sources, but the physical site had disappeared under centuries of urban construction.
Archaeologist Marzia Di Mento was quoted in the Rome daily Il Messaggero as saying that in addition to the 38 graves, a stone with a partial Hebrew inscription had also been found. Archaeologists said most of the skeletal remains recovered were of men, with one man buried along with a set of iron scales, possibly related to his profession. The remains of two women, they said, were found wearing golden rings.
Archaeologist Daniela Rossi told JHE that the archeologists were in contact with rabbinical authorities, including Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, about the skeletal remains.
Pictures published by Il Messaggero showed trough-like graves arranged in rows. Di Mento said that recovered nails and wood fragments indicated that the bodies had been buried in wooden coffins.
The site was revealed during four years of excavations that were carried out during work to restructure a building, the Palazzo Leonori in Rome’s Trastevere district, to become the new headquarters of the Assicurazioni di Roma insurance company — the company moved into the building at the end of February. The excavations also uncovered remains of an ancient Roman tannery.
According to the reports, parts of the discoveries have been preserved to form a small museum that interested people can visit on appointment.
An extensive restoration of the structure provided the opportunity to dig deeper not only into the building’s history, but also into that of the surrounding area close to the Tiber docks in Trastevere, today outside the walls, but once a threshold to Rome from the ancient Porta Portuensis, the fifth-century CE city gate demolished and rebuilt in its present location as Porta Portese by 1644.
The Campus Iudeorum operated from at least as early as the 13th or 14th century, when the Trastevere district was Rome’s main Jewish quarter. About three centuries later it was taken over by Rome’s Papal rulers and dismantled.
In an article, the International Catacomb Society provides its history:
Before and after the rebuilding of the Trastevere defences, a plot of land on the right side of the street, behind S. Francesco a Ripa and San Biagio, was known as the “Campus Judaeorum” (or Campo/Orto dei Giudei, etc.). This “Field of the Jews” on the city’s extremity was a Jewish cemetery, in use by the thirteenth century, and expropriated three centuries later in 1587 by Pope Urban VIII, not long after the institution of the Roman ghetto on the Tiber’s left bank. Remaining graves and other artifacts were uprooted during the completion of a new wall circuit in 1644, during the pontificate of Innocent X, which seem to have used commemorative stones from the graveyard in their construction, while collectors pocketed the smaller goods […] the uprooting of the Jewish cemetery itself might not have been all that systematic, as pieces of epitaphs in Hebrew (or reused grave markers in Greek and Latin, for Jewish burials during the Late Antique and Medieval periods) continued to turn up in subsequent building activity well into the 19th and early 20th centuries, though most of these inscribed rock tablets no longer seemed to be in situ to mark a grave.
After this cemetery was razed, Rome’s Jews were obliged to move their cemetery to a site on the Aventine Hill, next to the Circus Maximus. This in turn was destroyed in 1934 by the Fascist regime, and burials were moved to the current Jewish section of the sprawling Verano cemetery.
On the 28th of October of this year, the thirteenth after the Fascist revolution and Mussolini’s march on Rome, a beautiful promenade stretching along the historic Aventine Hill and the neighborhood of the famous Circus Maximus, where in the ancient Roman imperial days the gruesome gladiatorial games were held, will be formally opened.
In order to carry out the project, which is part of Mussolini’s plan to beautify the city of the Caesars and to show the world the colossal monuments of ancient Rome in all their glory, the ancient Jewish cemetery of this archeological area is being destroyed. […]
the work of excavation is in full swing, and goes along at a truly “Fascist” tempo. Several hundred workers are engaged in excavating the graves, collecting the bones and moving them in locked chests to the Verona [Verano] cemetery.
Despite the great heat of this summer, little groups of relatives of the dead stand about the open graves and with endless sorrow in their eyes gaze upon what is left of their dearest relatives, their mothers and their fathers, and feel the tragedy of their present wandering, after years of death, to find a new resting place.
The area on the Aventino overlooking the Circus Maximus today is the site of the city’s Rose Garden, with just a small memorial commemorating it as the former site of a Jewish cemetery.