A maintenance worker has discovered bone fragments believed to belong to St. Peter during a routine restoration of a nearly 1,000-year-old church in Rome.
According to The Telegraph, the clay pots containing the bones were discovered when a worker lifted up a large marble slab near the medieval altar of the Church of Santa Maria in Cappella.
The church, located in the district of Trastevere, a medieval warren of cobbled lanes on the banks of the Tiber River, has been closed to the public for 35 years due to structural problems.
Apart from the bones of St. Peter, the inscription on the two Roman-era pots indicated that it also contained the bone fragments of three early popes — Cornelius, Callixtus and Felix — as well as four early Christian martyrs.
"There were two clay pots which were inscribed with the names of early popes – Peter, Felix, Callixtus and Cornelius," the worker told Italian television channel Rai Uno.
"I'm not an archaeologist but I understood immediately that they were very old. Looking at them, I felt very emotional," he added.
The worker immediately notified the deacon of the church, Massimiliano Floridi, who turned over the relics to the Vatican.
"We're waiting for a detailed study to be undertaken. A DNA comparison between these bones and those kept by the Vatican would shed light on the issue," said the deacon.
Angelus News noted that the existence of the bone fragments have been known for centuries, but the relics had never been found. A stone inscription inside the church indicated that the relics were kept alongside a piece of fabric taken from the dress of the Virgin Mary.
Santa Maria Church in Cappella is home to many other artifacts, including ceramics and murals dating back to the fourth century, as well as a fragment of the episcopal chair that was once a temporary seat of the Papal Consistory.
Some have theorized that the bones of St. Peter were brought to the church for protection under the rule of Pope Urban II, whose legitimacy was being challenged at the time by Clement III, an anti-pope backed by Emperor Henry IV.
According to tradition, St. Peter, who is considered by Roman Catholics to be the first pope, was crucified upside down in Rome in the first century A.D.
His remains were believed to have been interred in a tomb on a Vatican hill, where Emperor Constantine later built a church, which was replaced by St. Peter's Basilica in the 16th century.
During excavations under the basilica after World War II, archaeologists found a funerary monument with a casket built in honor of St. Peter and an engraving in Greek that read "Peter is here."
Experts who forensically examined the relics found in the casket in the 1960s concluded that the remains belonged to a man in his early sixties who lived in the first century A.D., prompting Pope Paul VI to declare them the bones of St. Peter in 1968.