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Arrests lead to “oldest” paintings of Western history

June 17, 2006
Special to World Science

A suspected grave looter led Italian authorities to a princely tomb housing Western civilization’s oldest known surviving paintings, authorities have announced.

(Courtesy Italian Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities)

Italy’s culture minister, Francesco Rutelli, revealed the tomb June 17 in a field outside Rome that he said probably covers many ancient graves.

The paintings date to about 680 B.C., the ministry said in a statement. 

Archaeologists said the tomb heralds from the Etruscan civilization that thrived in ancient central Italy. The culture was ultimately eclipsed by Rome, which according to tradition was founded in 753 B.C.

Authorities dubbed the site the “Tomb of the Roaring Lions” for what appeared to be its primitive renditions of felines, alongside colorful birds. In Etruscan art, birds symbolized life and lions, the underworld, experts said.

“Here we’re at the origins of the history of painting,” said Rutelli on Italian state TV, as he stood on the site.

The discovery was a result of a series of arrests last fall by Italy’s Carabinieri police, authorities said. The operation, they added, included the apprehension of a suspected looter who led authorities to the tomb. 

The circumstances of the find highlight Italy’s difficulties in protecting its vast, and growing, cultural heritage.

The find “takes your breath away,” Rutelli said, “but we have to get our breath back and work to manage our resources better.”

The country’s superintendent of archaeology, Anna Maria Morettti, said that the Etruscans are the only peoples of the Mediterranean basin, other than areas such as Egypt, to have left surviving paintings this old.

Ancient Greek and Phoenician pictures are lost, she said. And famous Roman frescoes at Pompeii, the ancient resort town devastated by a volcano, are from several centuries later.

The riches interred in the Roaring Lions tomb indicate it came from a wealthy personage or prince, authorities said. 

Its architecture is characteristically Etruscan, with an access corridor and arched entrance, they added. Apart from the wall paintings, it also yielded a sword, jewels, fragments of a war cart and decorated pottery, the officials said.

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