Builders of the Catacombs

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

So unending and extensive were the labors of excavating and maintaining the catacombs, it is not surprising that the occupation of grave-digging achieved the dimensions of a career in ancient Rome. A guild of fossores, or "diggers," was formed to manage the cemeteries. The position was a humble one, but by the fourth century, the ranks of this guild included a chief fossor, or mensor, a position combining the skills of an engineer and a master builder, who administered and scheduled the work on a catacomb. The many benefits and privileges of the fossores grew to such an extent that, around the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, they became property managers and vendors of tombs (padroni). Their business ventures ceased by the mid-fifth century, however, following abuses of this privilege.[i] The burial grounds used by Jews probably operated in a similar fashion to that described, perhaps in collaboration with congregational officials responsible for some oversight of the burial grounds.

In the large grotto of the Monteverde catacomb, Muller found the head of an ascia or pickaxe, one of the most important tools of the fossor.  The head was twenty-five centimeters long and three centimeters wide at its greatest width; in the center of the head was a hole into which a wooden handle must have been inserted. While this implement figures widely in frescoes and reliefs in the Christian catacombs, only three representations of it have been found in the Jewish catacombs of Rome; one each in the catacombs of Villa Torlonia and Vigna Cimarra, and one carved out of travertine in the Vigna Randanini catacomb.

Specific groups of fossores seem to have operated in particular areas of the city. This would account for similarities in ornamentation and styles of lettering of the inscriptions within single catacombs or groups of catacombs. Epitaphs of purchasers of tombs from the catacombs of San Lorenzo and Commodilla corroborate these connections.[ii] In certain cases, however, as in the Torlonia catacombs, different groups of fossores worked at the same time on one site, using their own particular construction methods in the catacombs and adjoining burial grounds.[iii]

[i] The fossores, along with gladiators and charioteers, participated in the protests against the election of Damasus as Pope in 366; P. Testini, Archeologia Cristiana. Bari, Edipuglia, 1980, p. 153.
[ii] P. Testini, Le catacombe romane e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma. Bologna: Cappelli Editore, 1966, p. 223.
[iii] U. M. Fasola, “Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, 52 (1976), p. 62.

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