In 1921 Franciscan archaeologists uncovered a 5th century building made up of three co-centric octagons that was, by tradition, built over the site of Peter’s house. It is only 84’ from the synagogue in Capernaum. It was not until excavations were renewed in 1968 that they found an apse and a baptistery, making it possible to identify this structure as a basilica.
Excavations revealed three strata of occupation at this site:
- The first strata was an octagonal church built over the house and house church.
- The second strata contained adaptations for a house church. The atrium was 10’ x 27’.
- The third strata was a private house built in the 2nd century BC. It was in use until the 4th century AD.
Coins, oil-lamps, and fish hooks were discovered inside that date to the 1st century AD.
The third layer of occupation contains pottery typical of the average household from the mid-2nd century BC to the mid-1st century AD (cooking pots, bowls, pitchers, etc.), but then, strangely, after the mid 1st-century AD there is an absence of such household pottery, particularly in one room—the central and largest room (21’ x 20’). That room also has plaster on the walls, floor, and ceiling (the only building in Capernaum like this). The plaster was added sometime around the mid-1st century AD. In Roman times, the only time a poor man’s house would be plastered is if it had some public use. This, coupled with the fact that it lacked household pottery after the mid-1st century AD, suggests that it was only used for the public beginning at that time.
In the 4th century walls were added to surround the house. Each wall is about 88’ long. A new floor and roof was installed. A new wall was put up as well. It resembled a place of religious worship more so than a house now.
This development was recorded for us by a pilgrim to the Holy Land, a Spanish nun named Egeria, writing towards the end of the fourth century (sometime between AD 381-395). She wrote, “And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the apostles [Peter] has been turned into a church, leaving its original walls however quite unchanged.”
There are more than 125 etchings in Greek (111), Aramaic (9), Syriac (6-9), Latin (2), and Hebrew (1) that have been left on the walls by pilgrims. Examples of such etchings include “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant” and two that possibly record the name “Peter” (this is disputable).
Towards the second half of the 5th century the house church was completely covered over by a new octagonal church. The center of the octagon was built directly over the main room of the old church. An unnamed pilgrim who passed through Capernaum sometime around AD 560-570 wrote about this change: “And so we came on to Capernaum to the house of Saint Peter, which is now a basilica.”
This basilica continued to be used until it was destroyed by the Muslims in the 7th century.