Judeo-Christian ties buried in Rome

The walls of one of ancient Rome’s huge underground cemeteries have yielded surprising clues about links between two major religions. Rather than arising as a strictly Christian tradition, as many researchers and scholars had assumed, subterranean graveyards, known as catacombs, originated in Rome’s Jewish community more than 100 years before Christians began to build similar structures, say Leonard V. Rutgers of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his coworkers.

Early Christians apparently drew on Jewish influences in catacomb construction, the investigators argue in the July 21 Nature.

Rutgers’ group measured the abundance of specific carbon isotopes to estimate the age of charcoal bits extracted from a lime-based wall coating used throughout one of two surviving Jewish catacombs in Rome. From the isotope data, the researchers determined that an entrance area to the two-level catacomb, which stretches longer than a football field, was built in 50 B.C. Other sections were added over the next 450 years, the team found. To verify the sequence of catacomb construction, the researchers plan to measure the age of carbon in Christian catacombs.

Until now, age estimates for Rome’s 62 intact catacombs ranged between A.D. 200 and A.D. 400, based largely on the types of artifacts found at these sites.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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