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In cemetery, clues to ancient Rome's middle class

VATICAN CITY -- Visitors to the Vatican soon will be able to descend into an ancient world of the dead, a newly unveiled necropolis that was a burial place for the rich and not-so-affluent during Roman imperial rule.

The necropolis, which was unearthed three years ago during construction of a parking lot, will open to the public this week. One archeologist said yesterday that sculptures, engravings, and other objects found entombed with the dead made the find a ``little Pompeii" of cemeteries.

The burial sites, ranging from simple terra-cotta funerary urns with ashes still inside to ornately sculptured sarcophagi, date from between the era of Augustus (23 BC to 14 AD) to that of Constantine in the first part of the fourth century.

From specially constructed walkways, visitors can look down on some skeletons, including that of an infant buried by loved ones who left a hen's egg beside the body. The egg, whose smashed shell was reconstructed by archeologists, might have symbolized hopes for a rebirth, officials at a Vatican Museums news conference said yesterday.

The remains of the child, whose gender was not determined, were discovered during the construction of the walkways, after the main excavation had finished, said Daniele Battistoni, a Vatican archeologist.

Buried there were upper-class Romans as well as simple artisans, with symbols of their trade, offering what archeologists called rare insights into middle- and lower-middle-class life.

``We found a little Pompeii of funeral" life, said Giandomenico Spinola, a head of the Museums' classical antiquities department.

``We have had the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus," Spinola said, referring to majestic monuments along the Tiber in Rome, ``but we were short on these middle- and lower-class" burial places.

The burial sites help ``document the middle class, which usually escapes us," said Paolo Liverani, an archeologist and former Museums official who worked as a consultant on the site. ``You don't construct history with only generals and kings."

Among those buried in the necropolis was a set designer for Pompey's Theater, notorious for being near the spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. Decorating the designer's tomb were some symbols of his trade -- a compass and a T-square.

An archivist for Emperor Nero's private property and mailmen also were buried in the necropolis.

Unearthed were black-and-white mosaic flooring and other decorations, including figures of a satyr and Dionysus, an ancient god of fertility and wine, along with a scene of a grape harvest.

A male member of ancient Rome's class of knights, who died as a teenager, was remembered in death with a sculptured figure with hands outstretched as though in prayer. The kind of figure, known as an ``orante," was widely taken as an early symbol of Christians.

However, Liverani noted that the necropolis spans an era ``when it was difficult to document Christianity" as the religion of the deceased because Christians were still persecuted in the empire. Thus mourners were unlikely to leave clear Christian symbols for fear of persecution.

Battistoni pointed out a layer of churned-up stone running horizontally through the upper part of the necropolis, a sign of a second-century landslide that covered part of the hilly burial ground.

The necropolis ran along the edges of an old Roman road, Via Triumphalis, and is distinct from another necropolis that followed the lines of another ancient road, Via Cornelia, whose ruins can be seen under St. Peter's Basilica.

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