Archaeology, Architecture and Art History of a Late Roman Cemetery

Project leader: N. Zimmermann (associated) (DAI Rom) 

Scientific staff: Mag. Dr. V. Fugger, ÖAW (archaeologist); Univ.-Ass. DI Dr. G. Eßer, TU Wien (supervisor of the documentation, architectural history); DI I. Mayer, TU Wien (project assistant, 3D-scanning and processing) 

Independent Contractors: Prof. Dr. V. Tsamakda (archaeologist); Prof. Dr. A. E. Felle (archaeologist); Prof. Dr. S. Schrenk (archaeologist); Dr. Eng. A. Abdelhafiz (Automatic texture mapping); M. Ganspöck, TU Wien

The catacomb of Domitilla with its 12 km of subterranean galleries is not only the largest catacomb of Rome , it also provides an extensive insight into all phases and phenomena of an Early-Christian necropolis. Isolated pagan tombs and early anonymous community burials of the 3 rd century grew together during the 4 th century to form a huge net of galleries. After the end of the burial activities in the 5 th century, a subterranean basilica was the centre of a pilgrimage sanctuary with the graves of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus up until the Middle Ages. With about 80 painted tombs, the Domitilla-catacomb also comprises one of the largest inventories of catacomb painting.

Even after almost 400 years of research resulting in several studies from various disciplines, the catacomb is still insufficiently examined. With this, it represents a typical case of today's status questionis for the majority of the Roman catacombs: While the general lines of their origin and development are known, the individual history of every single catacomb has hardly been elaborated in detail because they have only rarely been dealt with as entire archaeological monuments. Mostly lacking is a complete documentation as a prerequisite for a scientific debate of modern methodical questions. Until now, the good preservation of the catacombs stand in a stark contrast with their scientific availability and research.

The goal of the Domitilla project

On the basis of a digital documentation using the newest 3D-laserscan techniques, a virtual model is being generated for the first time. This will provide a totally new framework for the research on the catacomb. For instance, the topographic development can be reconstructed and extensively analysed. As a first focal point, the long overdue corpus of the paintings of the Domitilla-catacomb will be developed: many of the paintings that reach from pagan images of the early 3 rd century to the theologically fully developed Christian iconography in the tombs of the late 4 th century have not been published yet or have been disregarded in the scientific debate. In the three-dimensional model the tombs can be considered for their amount, distribution and appearance for the first time. The catacomb will be accessible for many different questions in a so far singular complexity. An international research team is analyzing the data in context with archaeological, art- and social-historical methods. In its micro-history, the Domitilla-catacomb reflects the general changes of the late-Roman society, which shall be depicted in a vivid and multi-faceted way. 

Status and Progress of the Project

2006— the first year

2007— the second year

2008— the third year

2009— the fourth year

The Domitilla-Team

Cooperation partner

FFG-Project „ Terapoints
Ass. Prof. Dr.  M. Wimmer
DI C. Scheiblauer (project assistant)

We thank the following for their support



PCAS, Rome

DAI Rome

ÖHI Rome


Those responsible as well as the employees of the Domitilla catacomb

RIEGL Laser Measurement Systems GmbH