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St. Peter's Bones by Thomas J. Craughwell

St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found . . . and Then Lost and Found Again - Thomas J. Craughwell

According to the New Testament, St. Peter was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, the apostle that Jesus called the “rock” on which he would build his church. Church history holds that Peter travelled to Rome to spread Christianity after Jesus died. Peter was eventually martyred, probably while in his mid 60s, as part of the Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians after the Great Fire of Rome. According to legend, Peter was crucified upside down because he told his executioners he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.


Peter was executed in Nero’s arena. The Egyptian obelisk that stands in St. Peter’s Square was the turning point on the arena’s chariot track.

The Roman Catholic church considers Peter to have been the first Pope and a saint. After Peter died, early Christians buried his body near the site of the execution, in a cemetery on the Vatican hill outside the walls of Rome. Because it was the location of St. Peter’s grave, the site was considered holy. It was the site of a shrine created to honor him, and eventually the Emperor Constantine built a basilica over it. Much later, in a construction project that took over a hundred years, the basilica was built that stands there today. The altar of St. Peter’s Basilica is said to be directly over the tomb of St. Peter. 

Bernini’s bronze baldacchino (canopy), something of a Baroque monstrosity, marks the high altar of the basilica and St. Peter’s tomb below.

St. Peter’s Bones tells the story of the search for the tomb and the remains of St. Peter. In 1940, excavations were begun in the grottoes below the basilica. Work was slow and painstaking, since the grottoes are the location of numerous graves, both Christian and pagan, going back more than 2,000 years. As with many archaeological sites in Rome, evaluation required delving through layer after layer of history, identifying medieval coins and deciphering pagan graffiti, while workers tried to make sense of it all.

Over the course of decades, the exploration of the tomb proceeded with contributions from archaeologists, anatomists, historians, theologians, and an expert in ancient inscriptions, working together (and sometimes against each other) to determine which remains, if any, belonged to the saint. Thomas Craughwell weaves together the story of the historical Peter with the modern-day search for his tomb in an intriguing mystery. The truth will likely never be known with certainty, but contemplating the puzzle makes for an absorbing story.

If this guy knows, he isn’t telling (mosaic in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica).


"To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate" (inscription in the dome of the basilica, directly over the baldacchino, altar, and tomb).

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Crown Publishing.