|18 June 2006
Oldest known frescoed tomb found in Italy
Archaeologists in Italy have identified the oldest known frescoed burial chamber in Europe after being led to the site by a 'tomb raider'. The robber, who is on trial for trafficking hundreds of illegally excavated antiquities, revealed the location of the tomb - a wheat field in Veio, about 30 km north of Rome - in the hope of gaining leniency from the courts, police said.
Experts believe the underground burial chamber, the Tomb of the Roaring Lions, dates from around 690 BCE and belonged to a warrior prince from the nearby Etruscan town of Veio. Decorated with fierce lions and birds, it has been hailed as the earliest example of funerary decorations in the Western world. Archaeologists said looters had already taken away urns containing the cremated remains of the occupants but had missed some objects. Among the items recovered are decorated vases imported from Greece, a sword, a two-wheeled bronze chariot and metal spits used for roasting meat for the prince's table. Brooches and a wool spindle suggest that at least one woman, probably the prince's wife, was also buried in the tomb.
The recovery of elegant broaches, a wool spindle and other objects usually used by females suggests that at least one woman, possibly the prince's wife, was buried in the tomb, said Francesca Boitani, the lead archaeologist on the dig. The urns containing the cremated remains of the tomb's owners are believed to have been taken by looters, Boitani said.
The images of birds and fang-bearing lions in colours of black and red, made with paints produced from minerals and fixed on the wall using a compound creating by crushing fossils, are the most important discovery, according to archaeologists. The birds represent the journey to the afterlife while the lions represent the fear of what awaits those who arrive there. Although decorated prehistoric caves predate the Etruscan tomb by millennia, experts say the Veio site is at least a century older than previously discovered Etruscan burial chambers. "Prehistoric paintings are something else," Boitani said. "Here we see used for the first time the techniques described in ancient texts and used in Western civilization in the following centuries."
Veio was captured in 396 BCE after a ten-year siege and razed by the Romans. Its remains are nowadays hidden in undergrowth in an archaeological park off the busy Via Cassia, the main road leading north from Rome, little visited by tourists and familiar mainly to classical experts. The Etruscan ruins are also well-known, however, to tomb robbers, or 'tombaroli', who plunder them for antiquities to sell illegally on the international art market. Although most of the tombaroli are uneducated country people, they acquire an expertise which rivals that of archaeologists, collectors and dealers.
The Etruscans were one of the original and most cultured civilisations of central Italy until they were conquered by the Romans. Despite being wiped out, they left behind rich evidence of their sophisticated life. Archaeologists working to restore the frescoes hope the tomb will eventually be opened to the public.
Sources: The Times /16 June 2006), Associated Press, Chron.com (17 June 2006), The Observer (18 June 2006)
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