for National Geographic News
The ashes of an ancient chief or priest who lived three centuries before the legendary founding of Rome have been unearthed in the heart of the city, archaeologists report.
The remains were discovered late January inside a funerary urn at the bottom of a deep pit, along with bowls and jars, all encased in a hutlike box.
The artifacts date to about 1000 B.C. The size and richness of the tomb suggest that the ashes are the remains of a high-ranking individual, said the researchers who made the discovery.
A team of archaeologists with the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality discovered the prehistoric tomb under the sprawling ruins of ancient imperial forums that still lie in the center of modern Rome. (See photos of Rome.)
Between 1999 and 2000 the researchers had found two smaller, barer graves near this latest pit that date to the same period.
On an unusually cold January morning, archaeologist Alessandro Delfino and colleagues were working just steps away from a traffic-jammed highway in Rome's city center.
The team had been excavating the floor of Caesar's Forum, the remains of a square built by Julius Caesar around 46 B.C. There they found heavy stone slabs covering a pit dug in a layer of clay.
"We knew there should be very ancient tombs [at the site]," Delfino said. "We had previously found two graves in the same site. They were small, less than a meter [about 40 inches] deep."
The funerary urns and vases in these graves were found uncovered on the bottom of the pits.
Both smaller tombs contained bronze miniatures of spears and shields, "symbolic references to the rank of the dead," Delfino said.
The newly found pit is six feet (two meters) deep and four feet (one meter) wide.
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