Bones Abroad: What to see in Rome

While in Rome, I went to a number of sites that were mortuary or osteologically related. Doing archaeo-tourism is one of my favorite pastimes, so I want to share my top places to visit in Rome for seeing the funerary side of the city.

I visited a number of museums with the most impressive collection residing at the Capitoline museum found in the Capitol area of Rome just West of the Forum. The museum has a number of statues that are extremely famous in Rome, including the head of Justinian and the She-Wolf statue. One interesting section of the museum had death masks, and discussed the importance of these pieces for Roman mortuary traditions. A death mask is a wax or plaster cast of made of an individual’s face, called imagines, after their death. Sometimes portraits are made from the death masks as a way to memorialize the person. The Roman funerary masks were part of the mortuary tradition of the mos maiorum, the ancestral custom of respecting time honored traditions. The Romans had cupboards which held the masks of their ancestors, which were removed and worn by professional actors during the funerary processions. This tradition was reserved for the aristocracy, and was a way of showing their elite past. While the masks themselves are rare to find, there is secondary evidence in museums of these masks. Reliefs of Roman life show death masks sitting in cupboards, and statues like the patrician with death masks. In the basement were a number of impressive funerary stelae which clearly show the traditions of Rome. The stones reveal the tradition of the head of the house purchasing burial tombs for not only their family but also their slaves. Regardless of whether they were inhumated or cremated, these stones were a marker of the individual and tells a story about them. It is interesting to see the information that people leave behind, such as their generosity in giving the burial space to others, or even the deeds done against them (such as the gladiator who was wrongly killed).

The Capuchin crypt is a must for anyone with an interest in bones. The crypt lies hidden away naxt to the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. The crpyt contains a number of small rooms which house the skeletal remains of over 4,000 bodies that are said to belong solely to the Capuchin friars. When the friars came to the church in the early 17th century, they brought soil for Jerusalem for the tomb and 300 skeletons. As monks died, they were buried in the soil. The longest dead individuals would be removed for the most recent death, and the skeleton of the long dead person was made part of the decoration. There are six rooms, each of which has a specific theme. Of these my favorite was the final room containing a child’s skeleton made to look like the grim reaper with a scythe made of scapulae.

As an osteoarchaeologist, the tomb is fascinating because it gives me the chance to test out my skills and also see the creativity of people to memorialize life through death. If you are going, and have some osteological training, check out the skulls and ilia and let me know if you see any female remains… I think a few might have slipped in there! If you do go, make sure you wear something that covers your knees and your shoulders. It is a Catholic monument, so you need to be respectful.

Rome in general is a great city to visit, and has a lot of great sites beyond the most obvious ones (the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Palatino). If you get a chance to visit, check out Tempio de Mecenate for great pasta, Il Chianti for great minestrone, and try to experience more than just the most tourist ridden areas. There is a lot to see and it is definitely worth it!

What would you suggest for people to see in Rome? Any secret mortuary sites to see?

4 responses to “Bones Abroad: What to see in Rome

  1. Other things to see in Rome: The Vatican museums (of course) and the Sistine Chapel (even though the line is insane). Half-day trip down to Ostia Antica (1 euro train ride from Rome!) – like Pompeii, but a heck of a lot closer (and there is a street of tombs). Markets of Trajan.

    Things to eat in Rome: coconut gelato; granita di caffe con panna; potato and rosemary pizza (at one of those shops where they cut the pizza with scissors).

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  3. Pingback: Bones Abroad: Buon Giorno from Rome! « Bones Don't Lie·

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