Clue in Hebrew to a Vanished Cemetery

The following post is based on an article in The New York Times by the same title that appeared in April 2017.  My friend, Jean Perloff, translated the article into Italian. A sister student and an Italophile, Jean is a retired attorney who lives in Santa Barbara (with frequent sojourns to Palm Springs and Cape Cod), and a former teacher of Italian.

Archaeological excavations that unearth artifacts are common in Rome, but the archaeologists who are monitoring a building under restoration were surprised when they found 38 well-preserved skeletons that they believe had been buried in the long-vanished Campus Iudeorum, or Field of Jews.

Scholars knew that Jews were buried in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome from 1363 to 1645, when the cemetery was moved to make room for the new city walls.  However, the recovery of the remains was the first tangible sign—at least in recent times—of one part of the burial site near the Tiber river.

“We didn’t understand who the skeletons belonged to at first,” because there were no markers to explain their provenance, said Daniela Rossi, an archaeologist who led the excavation.  The dig began 6 years ago when work began on the renovation of a building from the early 1900s.  After scrutinizing historical maps that showed the cemetery and after using carbon dating technology, the archaeologists estimated that the skeletons dated from the mid-14th to the mid-16th century, which also coincided with the dates when the cemetery existed.

Except for two women who were buried wearing gold rings, and a man buried with a scale, the corpses had been buried without funerary goods, “which is typical of Jewish funerary practices” said Ms. Rossi.  Further proof came via a fragment of travertine marble found nearby with Hebrew writing unmistakably associated with a cemetery.  All the elements converged to identify this as the Campus Judeorum.

Jews first came to Rome in the second century B.C., and for centuries lived in the Trastevere neighborhood, according to Claudio Procaccia, the director of the culture department for the Jewish Community of Rome.  Under Pope Paul IV in 1555, Jews were forcibly confined to a ghetto and lived in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in an area that often flooded.  In previous centuries, “the condition of the Jews in Rome was more acceptable than in other cities,” said director Procaccia.

In 1645, when Pope Urban VIII built new city walls, the cemetery was moved to the Aventine Hill, where Jews were buried until 1934.  Tombs were upended during the construction of the walls, but the cemetery may already have been ruined after Urban VIII in 1625 decreed that Jews had to be buried in unmarked graves, while pre-existing gravestones had to be destroyed.

The skeletons showed signs of malnutrition, but Ms. Rossi said that such malnourishment was typical of lower-class citizens of the times, regardless of their religion.  Trastavere was once a seaport, and was mostly populated by artisans, traders, and workers of different religions and communities.  The excavation was documented and the skeletons will be entrusted to Rome’s Jewish community, which will bury them in a more correct manner, according to Mr. Procaccia.

As archaeologists dug deeper, they also found the monumental foundations of tanneries—the so-called Coraria Septimiana—built in the third century by the emperor Septimius Severus to equip the Roman army, as well as various artifacts and animal bones.

 

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