The International Catacomb Society (ICS) was founded in 1980 by Estelle Shohet Brettman. The Society is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of the Roman Catacombs - those rare vestiges of history that illustrate the common influences of Jewish, Christian, and Pagan iconography and funerary practices during the time of the Roman Empire. The Society also strives to increase knowledge of the catacombs and understanding among faiths by circulating exhibits, sponsoring lectures, and disseminating information and publications. The exhibition, "Vaults of Memory," created by Estelle Brettman and owned by the ICS, consists of photographs, inscriptions, and objects that present a visual essay of shared symbols of Jewish, Christian, and Pagan funerary art in the catacombs of Rome. The exhibition has been met with enthusiastic responses at the Boston Public Library, the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, and the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, among other venues.
Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991) was the daughter of a doctor who inspired in her a love for Judaic Studies and the ideals of ecumenism. Although she majored in sciences at Radcliffe, from which she was graduated in 1945, and began her career as a marine biologist, an interest in antiquity led her to become an expert on the iconography of ancient gems and seals, and a docent and lecturer on the subject at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Becoming a dealer in antique jewelry, she made frequent trips to Italy, where she was impressed by the wealth of information about the Roman catacombs and the people buried there. Not only was a great deal to be learned from the life of that time through the study of funerary inscriptions, but she was struck, as well, by her observation that the decoration of early imperial Roman burial sites, whether Pagan, Jewish, or Christian, apparently shared the same artistic sources and influences. Disturbed by the fragility of the remains, and the losses effected by time and nature, she set about trying to draw attention to the catacombs and their valuable remnants of the past, founding the International Catacomb Society, developing the exhibition "Vaults of Memory", and researching and writing her book, which presents the study of the catacombs, especially the little-known Jewish catacombs, from an art historical and ecumenical point of view.
Amy K. Hirschfeld holds a B.A. in Classical Archaeology from Tufts University, and M.A. in Archaeology from Harvard University, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She has been a staff member of archaeological excavations at Roman sites in Israel and excavations in the Sultanate of Oman focusing on the pre-Islamic frankincense trade. She has worked in professional publishing and editorial services since 1985 at Little, Brown and Company, the International Catacomb Society, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, among other institutions. Ms. Hirschfeld has been involved with the International Catacomb Society since 1989 and worked closely with Estelle Brettman on the research and editing of the present publication, Vaults of Memory, before Mrs. Brettman's death in 1991. Mrs. Brettman specifically selected Ms. Hirschfeld, along with Florence Wolsky, to complete the work on the publication. Ms. Hirschfeld has also initiated and overseen such ICS projects as an internship program and the digitization and cataloging of the Society's extensive photographic and reference archives.
Florence Z. Wolsky (1923-2018) received a B.A. and M.A. in Art History, with a concentration in Classical Art, from Boston University. She joined the Department of Classical Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1974, and was a member of the Department until 1991, when, at Estelle Brettman's request, she became the co-editor, with Amy Hirschfeld, of the unfinished publication, Vaults of Memory. With Prof. Emily Vermeule, Ms. Wolsky is the co-author of Toumba tou Skourou, the publication of the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston archaeological excavation in northwest Cyprus. Ms. Wolsky was a founding board member of the International Catacomb Society, and for over two decades served on its Executive Board as Secretary.
Jessica Dello Russo became executive director of the International Catacomb Society in 2015. Among the projects she has created and launched for the ICS are its DAPICS image archive, the BiblioSelect indices of studies on the Ancient Mediterranean, the "Luminaria" blog, and the on-going digitization of ICS founder Estelle Shohet Brettman's rich archive of manuscripts, letters, and notes. Jessica is also a doctoral candidate at the Vatican's Institute for Christian Archaeology in Rome as a specialist on Roman topography, funerary archaeology, and history of antiquarianism and archaeology from the Middle Ages to the present. Among her archaeological and archival discoveries are pieces of the so-called "Sarcophagus of the Menorah" from the Jewish Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, the Jewish catacomb of Vigna Cimarra, long believed inaccessible, and the unpublished documentation of the original excavations of Jewish catacombs in Rome from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, all of which the International Catacomb Society has published in its "Roma Subterranea Judaica" series. Dello Russo's doctoral thesis, "The Doubtful Catacombs: Jewish Shadows of Subterranean Christian Rome", confronts long-standing issues of Jewish tomb location, layout, and style in Ancient Rome.