The catacombs of Rome are a series of underground Christian, Jewish and pagan burial sites, which date back to the 2nd century AD, when the Christians of Rome began to bury their dead underground. There are over 40 catacombs in total, which extend over 170km (105 miles). In the 16th century, Antonio Bosio (1575-1629) explored the catacombs for the first time and research continued to the present day. Nevertheless, the catacombs have not yet been fully documented and, although the general lines of their development and origins have been studied, the individual history of each catacomb remains unknown. Due to safety concerns, only approximately 500 metres of the galleries are currently accessible to the public.
At the beginning of this year, however, a team of ten Austrian and Italian computer scientists, archaeologists and architects completed the first part of a three-year project to construct a virtual model of the catacomb of Saint Domitilla. The model enables you to travel through walls, down corridors and into chambers and to view some of the vivid paintings on the walls of the burials.
In an article published on the website of the BBC, Dr Norbert Zimmerman, the leader of the project, from the Vienna Academy of Sciences, described the model:
‘It is not a virtual image, it is not animation - what you are seeing is real
data […] Its moving, 3D flexibility, gives you the chance to compare areas, to
assess the ways the Catacombs were developed over time, to analyse how and why
those who built them did what they did. That's never been possible before.’
Saint Domitilla is the largest catacomb of Rome with tunnels, caves, galleries and burial chambers stretching over approximately 15km (9 miles) on a number of levels. It comprises a series of isolated pagan tombs and early anonymous community burials, which date back to the 3rd century. Burial activities ceased in Saint Domitilla in the 5th century, but, the catacomb was thereafter used as a pilgrimage sanctuary with the graves of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, until the Middle Ages. The catacomb includes 80 painted tombs, representing one of the largest inventories of catacomb paintings.
The project began in January 2006 in an attempt to create a three dimensional model of the catacomb using laser scanners. Between January 2006 and the beginning of 2009, nine separate scanning campaigns were carried out documenting the entire accessible area of the catacomb. Following the completion of the first part of the project, the images have now been returned to Vienna to be studied in more detail and scientists are currently working on the repertory of the paintings. In October 2008, it was decided that the project would be extended for a further three years.
Dr Zimmerman explained that there were no current plans to scan the whole of the complex:
‘That is a big job, but it may well be needed if we are to really understand
this incredible historical phenomenon and if we are to make a proper detailed
study whilst these caves are still intact.’
He also confirmed plans to make most the results of the project available to the public:
‘We will publish our findings to reveal, for the first time, just how impressive
these tombs were and how the people of that time went to so much effort to bury
For further information, visit the website of the project http://www.oeaw.ac.at/antike/institut/arbeitsgruppen/christen/domitilla_engl1.html