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 (rev. ed. 2024).

Fig. 1. Detail of a wall painting of an ax in the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, Rome. DAPICS n. 0566.

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 the 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 may have operated in a similar fashion, perhaps in collaboration with congregational officials who had some oversight of the burial grounds.

Fig. 2. Relief of an axe head found in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini in Rome. DAPICS n. 1315.

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.

Fig. 3. Wall painting of a digger in the Catacombs of Ss. Pietro e Marcellino, Rome. DAPICS n. 1369.

Distinct groups of fossores seem to have operated in specific regions 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] However, in certain instances, such as in the Torlonia catacombs, multiple groups of fossores are believed to have worked concurrently at a single site.[iii]

[i] The fossores, alongside gladiators and charioteers, took part in the protests against the election of Damasus as Pope in 366; see 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.

PCAS technician Fernando Gentile in the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, Rome (DAPICS n. 0626).

PCAS fossor Alberto Marcocci in the courtyard outside of the Catacomb of Vigna Randanini, Rome (DAPICS n. 0072).

PCAS fossor Alberto Marcocci in the Cubiculum "of the Five Saints", Catacombs of Callisto, Rome (DAPICS n. 0955).

PCAS fossor in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome (DAPICS n. 1789).

A modern gravedigger (Alberto Marcocci) stands next to his 4th century counterparts in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellinus (DAPICS 1274).

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