© 2022 Robert Sickles
I was the youngest child among a large group of tourists, shuffling through narrow, gloomy passageways carved into solid rock, deep underground. The walls were clammy with condensation. The air, muggy and stuffy. There was an earthy smell of moldy decay. “Too many people, not enough air,” I thought. It was a most uncomfortable place, why would anyone want to go down there? What was this eerie place about? A vision of hell?
No, in fact I was thrilled to be there! We were being guided through the Catacombs of Rome!
Rome's catacombs are man-made tunnels of underground cemeteries, in this case used by residents of Rome when the city was too crowded and the use of above-ground tombs was forbidden. Anyone who didn’t accept cremation—such as Christians, Jews, Egyptians, and foreign slaves—would be buried in one of the many catacombs outside the city. Some of the Catacombs were used by early Christians and other cults as secret meeting places
There were main corridors and shrines, even a small chapel. These were decorated with mosaics, inscriptions and figurines. Penetrating out in every direction, there was a vast maze of uneven hallways, lined floor to ceiling with large and small burial niches, rough-cut right into the rock. We were told that over the centuries, especially during times of epidemic or war, older bones were swept to the rear to make room for new bodies. There could be several generations of a family or even unrelated individual bodies in each niche. Can’t you just see why I was so intrigued?
The guide was too far ahead of the line of tourists for me to hear clearly, so I went exploring on my own. (It was the same trip when I climbed around the Colosseum, in 1963.) I wondered if the catacombs were really like a maze—if I made a couple of random turns, could I get lost and never be found? How exciting!
Moving away from the lighted passageway for tourists, I found myself walking nervously into a very dark area. I had a macabre thought: maybe no one comes down this way and lives to tell of it. The dankness and musty smell were stronger in there; I got a creepy chill up my neck and decided to turn around.
But I stumbled slightly on the mossy floor, and grabbed out to catch myself on the edge of a large niche. There it was right in front of me, like the hollow eye of a skull, compelling me to look in deeper. Chinning up closer to the damp surface of the rock wall, I put my hand into the dark niche to feel around. My fingers touched something solid and moist, and I recoiled. It called me to reach back in, and I pulled out a bone about the size of a man’s upper arm. The bone was brown and soft, like I could almost squish it apart in my hand. What a treasure!
I carried my discovery out for my parents and everyone to see. I was such a budding archeologist. “Mom! Dad! Look at this ancient Roman bone I found!”
“Bobby, Oh… my gaa-aa…!” Mom couldn’t find her words; she turned to Dad.
“For Chrissake, Bobby. Put that filthy thing back!” At least Dad was able to form a sentence.
The other tourists reacted, ranging from “Weird kid!” to “Disgusting!” to “Desecration!” I looked for the reaction of the pretty American girl in the group, and she had her face buried in her mother's sleeve. Fortunately, our guide was busy and wasn’t aware of the foofaraw about the bone.
I really wanted to keep my bone. But it wasn’t that people reacted to it with such disgust that made me go chuck it into some random niche. It was simply that the rotten thing was going to fall apart in my hand—it would end up looking like a clump of damp bran flakes before I got it home.
To finish this essay, I had to find out if it actually could have been an ancient Roman’s bone. Four minutes of research later, I know it was definitely not. Nothing that old would have survived in an open niche in those humid conditions. It was probably less than 100 years old. Just think of the diseases I could have carried home with that object!
Ah well, it was a lot of fun anyway!