June 16, 2006

Tomb raider leads Italy police to ancient paintings

By Robin Pomeroy

FORMELLO, Italy (Reuters) - Italy unveiled on Friday a new
archaeological site that some experts say houses the oldest
paintings in the history of Western civilization.

Italy's culture minister took reporters to an unremarkable
field outside Rome under which they were shown a room carved
into the hillside, decorated with colorful frescoes which
archaeologists said were 2,700 years old.

"It's a prince's tomb that is unique, and I would say is at
the origins of Western art," said Minister Francesco Rutelli,
standing on what, until two weeks ago when the site was found,
was just a field of barley.

Authorities were led to the spot -- in an area known for
its remains from the Etruscan civilization that thrived in
Italy before the Roman Empire -- by an 82-year-old Austrian
tour guide who police were questioning for looting ancient

Archaeologists were amazed at what they found once the
earth was removed -- a large, square room, with niches that
would once have stored cremated remains, remnants of a bright
red painted ceiling and colored frescoes of birds and roaring

"There are thousands of tombs here," said Francesca
Boitani, a culture ministry archaeologist, pointing to the
rolling hills north of Rome which were once home to the
Etruscan city of Veia.

"But this one, it's the pictures that that are stunning.
They give a sense of the primitive."

It is the primitive nature of the paintings that has
convinced the experts that they are at least a generation older
than any others yet found -- dating from 700-680 BC.


Giovanni Colonna, a professor at Rome's Sapienza
University, said although the frescoes were not as old as
Egyptian art or some cave paintings, they had to be the oldest
examples of the Western tradition of art that was then
developed by the Greek and Roman civilizations.

Fragments of decorated pottery found in the tomb, and the
clearly visible remnants of a wheel which once was part of a
cart buried along with the bodies, indicate the burial site was
that of a nobleman or prince.

In Etruscan art, the birds would have symbolized the
passage between life and death and the lions represented the

While art historians salivate at the finding, it
illustrated two serious problems for Italy -- the constantly
rising cost of excavating and managing ancient treasures and
the fight against organized criminals who plunder the country's

Ironically, police were led to the "Roaring Lions" site by
a tomb raiding suspect who hoped to receive lenient treatment.