Relics: crypt, loculus, confessio, martyrium. We have said that the altar could surmount or mark the position of one or more holy tombs or of a mere cenotaph commemorative monument. This was above all the case of St. Peter’s in the Vatican and the majority of martyrial buildings. In N Africa burials are often found under or in proximity to the altar: in most cases we cannot say whether the tomb motivated the construction of the altar or vice versa burial ad sanctos. It was soon sought to make the burial accessible to sight and touch, either through a simple conduit at the Vatican or in a pit under the altar often called a confessio or in a room beneath the apse, when there would be built, to make possible at least the sight of it, an opening provided with a grill of metal, wood or stone, often called fenestella confessionis: some inscribed and decorated examples of these have been found.
At Rome and in Italy, crypts intended to permit direct pilgrimages to the holy tomb, flanking the foundations of the apse annular crypt, do not seem to predate the 6th c. St. Peter’s, but earlier crypts have been found, esp. in Africa, which seem to be intended for venerated burials Dougga in Tunisia, Djemila in Algeria and sometimes organized for pilgrimages with a complex route Djemila. But in general the relics, which were rarely bones but more often material mementos like earth or an impregnated cloth, and which were enclosed in one or more caskets generally a box of precious material enclosed in a coffer of stone, marble or terracotta, were under the altar slab not inside it, as has been the case since the Middle Ages. The position varied according to the type of altar and the region. The coffer might be inside the molds in block altars, inside the support in onefooted and cippus altars, usually in the base often in Africa, but sometimes under the base in an inaccessible cavity sometimes in a column shaft or a stone hollowed out to receive it.
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