Skip to main content

Catacombs

Catacombs

Burial places for the dead come in a variety of forms. One ancient form is the catacomb, an underground city of the dead consisting of galleries or passages with side recesses for tombs. A related form is the ossuary, a Native American communal burial place or a depository (a vault, room, or urn) for the bones of the dead.

Catacombs originated in the Middle East approximately 6,000 years ago. These earliest examples were often secondary burials where the bones of the dead were placed in ossuary containers. Initially, the dead were buried within settlements, but with the progressive urbanization of the ensuing millennia, burials moved outside of the towns. From 3300 to 2300 b.c.e., several generations of one family were typically buried in a single cave, whether natural or artificial. Pastoral nomads also used caves that were entered through a vertical shaft. Multiple interments in caves continued over succeeding millennia, together with other forms of burial. There is evidence of the use of long subterranean channels and spacious chambers by about 1500 B.C.E. By the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, some burial caves were quite large and elaborate.

After the Roman conquest of Palestine, many Jews settled in Rome and adapted the burial customs of the Middle East to their new environment. In contrast to the Roman practice of cremation, the Jews buried their dead in catacombs they created for this purpose. Jewish catacombs can be recognized by inscriptions of the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, on gravestones and lamps. Used only for burials, they are not as elaborate as the later multipurpose Christian catacombs.

Early Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect, and their dead were buried in catacombs modeled on those of the Jews. Early Christian martyrs buried in the catacombs became objects of veneration, so that the wish for burial near these martyrs ensured the continued use of the catacombs until the early fifth century C.E., when the Goths invaded. In the eighth and ninth centuries the remains of the martyrs were moved to churches, and the catacombs fell into disuse; by the twelfth century they were forgotten. Since their rediscovery in 1578, they have been the object of constant excavation, exploration, and research. Although the Roman catacombs are the best known, others have been found throughout Italy (in Naples, Chiusi, and Syracuse), in North Africa (in Alexandria and Susa), and in Asia Minor.

A vast literature describes and discusses the Roman catacombs. Because interment was forbidden within the boundaries of the city, these catacombs are all found outside the city. From the fourth century, consistent with the cult of martyrs, the catacombs served not only as tombs but also for memorial services.

A first level of the catacombs is from thirty-three to forty-nine feet below the surface, with galleries ten to thirteen feet high; sometimes there are three or even four levels. Niches for the bodies line the passages. The walls and ceilings, made of plaster, are generally painted in the fresco manner with watercolors before the plaster is dry. From about the fourth century C.E., shafts were dug from the galleries to the surface to provide light and air.

The inscriptions reflect the changing values of society. As conversions to Christianity became more common, nobler names appeared more frequently. With the gradual decline of slavery, there were fewer distinctions noted between slaves and freed men.

Catacombs, primarily a curiosity and tourist attraction in the twenty- and twenty-first centuries, are sparsely written about in fiction. However, one example by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is "The New Catacomb," a story of two young colleagues, one extremely shy, the other a womanizer, both noted experts on catacombs. The womanizer has enticed a young woman away from an unknown fiancé, then abandoned her. The shy one tells the other of a new catacomb he has discovered, which will make him famous, and offers to show it to him. Deep in the labyrinth he leaves his colleague to die in the dark, informing him that it was his own fiancé who had been abandoned.

See also: Burial Grounds; Charnel Houses; Christian Death Rites, History of

Bibliography

Avigad, Machman. "Beth Shearim." Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The New Catacomb." In Tales of Terror and Mystery, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000586 b.c.e. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Murphy, F. X. "Catacombs." New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Rabello, Alfredo Mordechai. "Catacombs." Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972.

SAM SILVERMAN

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Catacombs." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Catacombs." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catacombs

"Catacombs." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catacombs

catacombs

catacombs (kat´əkōmz), cemeteries of the early Christians and contemporary Jews, arranged in extensive subterranean vaults and galleries. Besides serving as places of burial, the catacombs were used as hiding places from persecution, as shrines to saints and martyrs, and for funeral feasts; it is doubtful that they were ever regularly used for religious services. Catacombs exist at Rome and also at Naples, Venosa, Chiusi, and Syracuse, Italy, and at Alexandria, Carthage, and Susah in N Africa as well as in Asia Minor and other areas. The cemeteries at Paris that were once thought to be catacombs are actually depleted stone quarries and were not used for burial until the late 18th cent.

Human burial in subterranean rock chambers is an ancient pre-Christian, pre-Roman custom in the Mediterranean. Although cremation was the rule among Greeks and Romans, there was no bar against burial for Christians or Jews, and the catacombs were not constructed in secrecy. Ordinances forbade interment within the city limits. All the Roman catacombs consequently are outside the city gates.

The Roman catacombs lie from 22 to 65 ft (6.7–19.8 m) beneath ground level in a space of more than 600 acres (243 hectares); much of this is in several levels. They date from the 1st cent. AD until the early 5th cent. Lining the walls of the narrow passages, generally 3 ft (91 cm) wide, are the recesses for the bodies. Some passages contained separate chambers or cubicula, usually about 12 ft (4 m) square but sometimes circular or polygonal, which were privately owned family vaults or contained the tomb of a martyr. In these the bodies were often placed in carved sarcophagi that stood within arched niches. In some catacombs rooms are arranged in groups; in the catacombs of Sant'Agnese such a group forms a miniature church. The spreading of the catacombs eventually produced burial places of labyrinthine character. The walls and ceilings of plaster were customarily painted with fresco decorations, and in these can be studied the beginnings of Christian art.

Even after official recognition of Christianity in 313, burials continued, through a desire for interment near the martyrs. The invasions of Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Saracens brought about the plundering of the catacombs and the robbing of their graves for the bones of saints. Several popes worked at restoring these sacred places, but by the 8th cent. the bodies had been mainly transferred to churches; by the 10th cent. the catacombs, filled with debris, were forgotten.

In 1578 the catacombs were rediscovered. Exhaustive publications based on researches in the catacombs were produced by the archaeologist Battista de Rossi (1822–94). The catacombs discovered in the vicinity of Rome in 1956 and 1959 contain frescoes of notable historical interest. In the Roman liturgy the requirement that Mass be said in the presence of lighted candles and over martyrs' relics is in conscious reminiscence of the catacombs.

See W. H. Adams, Famous Caves and Catacombs (1886, repr. 1972); S. Benko and J. J. O'Rourke, ed., The Catacombs and the Colosseum (1971).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacombs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacombs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catacombs

"catacombs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catacombs

catacomb

catacomb.
1. Single subterranean crypt, gallery, or passage cut into and hollowed out of rock and lined with rectangular recesses (loculi) or arched niches (arcosolia) for the entombment of corpses. Catacomb is properly the name given to the public underground cemetery beneath the basilica of San Sebastiano, on the Via Appia, outside Rome, but may also relate to the atrium in front of an early church portico in which the dead were permitted to be buried. It is also used to describe any built basement used for the entombment of coffined bodies, usually associated with C19 cemeteries or cemetery-chapels. There is a good example of a brick-vaulted catacomb under the Anglican chapel at the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, London (1837). A small underground burial-place with rock-cut loculi, etc., intended for one group or family, was called hypogeum in Antiquity, while a large chamber (often elaborately decorated) in a public catacomb was called cubiculum.

2. The plural, catacombs, is the term for a large subterranean public cemetery of great size, labyrinthine, and on many levels, such as those in the vicinity of Rome.

Bibliography

Colvin (1991);
J. Curl (ed.) (2001);
Krautheimer (1986);
Toynbee (1971)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacomb." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacomb." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb

"catacomb." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb

Catacombs

Catacombs (Gk., kata kumbas, ‘by the hollows’, an area south of Rome). In these long underground burial chambers (outside the city walls as burial was not permitted within) the bodies of the departed were placed in coffin-like recesses, in rows usually about four deep. Christian catacombs seem to be copied from Jewish ones. Six Jewish catacombs have been found in Rome. Cȧtacombs are found outside many cities, but the most famous and extensive—several hundred miles of them—are at Rome. Services commemorating martyrs buried there were held, and they became centres of pilgrimage as the cult of martyrs developed.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacombs

"Catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacombs

catacomb

catacomb an underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans. Recorded from Old English, the word comes from late Latin catumbas, the name of the subterranean cemetery under the Basilica of St Sebastian on the Appian Way near Rome, in or near which the relics of the apostles Peter and Paul were said to have been placed in the 3rd century.

The term catacombs was subsequently given to other subterranean cemeteries in Rome (rediscovered in the late 16th century), especially as traditional places of refuge for early Christians in times of persecution.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacomb." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacomb." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb

"catacomb." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb

catacombs

catacombs subterranean cemeteries in Rome, and hence gen. XVII. — F. catacombes — late L. catacumbas, specific name from c. 400 of the cemetery of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way; the word seems to be orig. invariable, but later was treated as acc. pl., from which a sing. catacumba was formed, whence the occas. use of the sg. in modern langs.; the ult. orig. is unkn.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacombs

"catacombs." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacombs

catacomb

cat·a·comb / ˈkatəˌkōm/ • n. (usu. catacombs) an underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans. ∎  an underground construction resembling or compared to such a cemetery.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacomb." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacomb." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb-1

"catacomb." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb-1

catacomb

catacombabloom, assume, backroom, bloom, Blum, boom, broom, brume, combe, consume, doom, entomb, exhume, flume, foredoom, fume, gloom, groom, Hume, illume, inhume, Khartoum, khoum, loom, neume, perfume, plume, presume, resume, rheum, room, spume, subsume, tomb, vroom, whom, womb, zoom •catacomb • heirloom • broadloom •taproom • guardroom • staffroom •darkroom • classroom • bathroom •bedroom, headroom •legroom • restroom •dayroom, playroom •saleroom • stateroom • salesroom •tearoom • green room • sickroom •anteroom • bridegroom • stockroom •strongroom • box room • washroom •storeroom • boardroom • ballroom •courtroom • houseroom • showroom •cloakroom • elbow room •poolroom, schoolroom •newsroom •gunroom, sunroom •mushroom • common room •workroom • hecatomb • vacuum •legume • volume • costume •Leverhulme

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"catacomb." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"catacomb." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb-0

"catacomb." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/catacomb-0