Dating of the Catacombs

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

The Christian catacombs of Rome were recorded in Church annals and remained alive in tradition, bit the Jewish catacombs seemed to be virtually forgotten by the early Middle Ages.  Since Bosio's discovery of the Monteverde catacomb in 1602, little ancient literary documentation of the Jewish cemeteries has been found and hardly any useful epigraphic dates are available to researchers.  Yet recently, archaeologists and scholars have been coming to new conclusions about some of the historic problems, including the dating of the catacombs.

Among the few chronological indicators available from the catacombs have been the maker's marks on the Roman-era bricks used in their construction.  The marks give clues as to the dates when the bricks were produced, but they cannot be relied upon to furnish exact dates, because the bricks could have been reused or not used until quite a while after they were made.  The brick stamps, however, do provide a "terminus ante quem non" for the use of the stamped bricks, because, as Rutgers pointed out, the practice of stamping bricks did not begin until Augustus' reign (27 BCE - 14 CE) (1).

It is difficult as well to establish firm dates based on inscriptions inside the catacombs because "the styles of carving often persisted for considerable periods" (2), and some inscriptions might not have been set in place until well after the earliest use of a catacomb.  Thus, neither brick stamps nor epigraphy are considered chronologically definitive by today's scholars.

Other clues for dating have been sought in the styles of construction and painted decoration, names in the inscriptions, coins, glassware, and the shape, design, color, and manufacture of the clay lamps found in the catacombs (3).

It must also be borne in mind that any chronology advanced for the catacombs on the basis of material finds will be affected by accidents of discovery, the recycling of materials, persistence of older styles and techniques, ad fragmentation and deterioration, all of which can lead to distorted conclusions.

  1. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 98.
  2. Estelle Shohet Brettman wrote: "I am grateful to Prof. Mason Hammond of Harvard University for this information in a letter of September 8, 1982, as well as for other assistance from him with difficult epigraphic questions."
  3. Muller, Il cimitero, pp. 244-248.  U. M. Fasola, "Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia," Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52 (1976), pp. 59-60.