Today in Catholic History – Paul VI announces that the bones of Saint Peter have been discovered

On 26 June 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of Saint Peter were discovered.

It was during the Papacy of Pius IX that a necropolis and a second-century victory monument was discovered unter the Basilica of St. Peter. This victory monument had been described in ancient sources as standing over the grave of St. Peter.

Below the monument some bones were discovered that some thought might be the bones of the Saint. However, it was later determined that the bones were those of a woman, two men and some animals. The bones of the two men were of people around fifty years of age which would make them too young to be St. Peter. Later, behind a buttressing wall covered with inscriptions dedicated to Peter, Christ, Mary and everlasting life was found a marble-lined repository that contained a box with bones thought to be those of a pope. Inside the box was a piece of red plaster with the words Petr(os) eni. The archeologist responsible for examining the box asserted that the inscription meant “Peter is here” and asked to have the bones analyzed.

It took six years to analyze the bones. When the conclusions of the examination were published, it was determined that the bones were of a man who died between the ages of 65-70, the man was 5’6 ½” tall, all the bones were present except the foot bones, the bones were covered with a gold and purple cloth.

The bones seemed to fit with the traditional understanding of St. Peter as someone who died around sixty years of age. Since St. Peter was crucified upside down with nails through his feet, that would explain the lack of foot bones with an otherwise complete skeleton – since normally the hands decompose faster than feet. The purple cloth had been placed on the bones of the skeleton, not the skin which indicated that the relics were considered particularly special.

Based upon this information, Paul VI announced to the world on 26 June 1968, that “very time-consuming and accurate studies” and ” the judgment of the talented and prudent people” had convinced him that the relics of St. Peter had been identified.

An informative series of articles on the excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter can be found here, here, here, here, and here. A visual visit to the tomb of St. Peter can be seen here.

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