Tomb of Prehistoric Leader Unearthed in Modern Rome

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2006
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.

Rich Burial

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.

"It was a great surprise to find a tomb so large and, most of all, the hutlike case," Delfino said.

"We didn't find any weapon in this new grave, but we are still searching in the walls of the pit," he continued. "We could find miniatures also in the funerary urn mixed with the ashes."

Shepherd Villages

Roberto Meneghini, of the Department of Cultural Heritage, is directing the excavations at Caesar's Forum.

He says several shepherd villages rose on the hills of Rome before the city was founded.

"We have evidence of settlements in the area dating back to the 14th century B.C. They were small tribes of a few dozen people," he said.

"They federated in the eighth century B.C. under the rule of a leader remembered as the legendary Romulus." Roman myth holds that Romulus, son of the war god Mars and a human woman, founded Rome around 800 B.C.

The prehistoric tribespeople "probably placed the ashes of the low-rank dead in surface buildings and buried in the ground only the ashes of the notables," Meneghini continued.

"We don't have any remains of surface structures, so all the graves we found belong to high-rank people: chiefs or priests.

"The owner of the tomb just unearthed should be a particularly important person," he added.

Layers of Buildings

According to Meneghini, the presence of the tombs was probably marked on the surface before the construction of Caesar's Forum.

"Every culture has its way to mark the graves," he said. "We use stones or crosses, the ancient Lombards used poles and wooden birds. We don't know what this people used."

But now only the imprint of the tombs remains under the floor of the forums.

Archaeologists began to excavate the floor in 1998. They were surprised to find the first two tombs. Later scans of the area using geo-radar sensed the presence of other pits.

"We spotted a few of them, but there could be more—a necropolis," Delfino said.

Over the centuries, layers of buildings rose atop the tombs. Today a modern freeway, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, hides part of the ancient Roman structures.

Archaeologists are now working on the whole area of the forums to carefully uncover the oldest remains.

"Probably in few years there will be a large open-air museum covering all this place," Delfino said.

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