World News

Roman Tomb Unearthed; to Everyone’s Surprise, It’s Intact

Posted June 1, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT

ROME — Sometimes the most extraordinary finds occur by sheer luck.

At least that was the case of a fourth century B.C. chamber tomb that came to light five weeks ago during the construction of an aqueduct in a Rome suburb, when an earthmover accidentally opened a hole in the side of the chamber.

“Had the machine dug just four inches to the left, we would have never found the tomb,” Francesco Prosperetti, Rome’s special superintendent with archaeological oversight, told reporters on Friday. The tomb contained the remains of four occupants — three men and a woman — and funerary wares.

Archaeologists are calling it “the Tomb of the Athlete” because of the presence of two bronze strigils, the instrument used by ancient Greek and Roman athletes to scrape sweat from the skin after a workout. Actually, the male skeletons in the tomb belonged to older men (all three were over 35 — very old in those days). “To say there was an athlete is a bit of stretch, but it works journalistically,” joked Fabio Turchetta, the on-site archaeologist who followed the aqueduct works.

All major construction that intrudes on Italy’s underbelly requires the presence of an archaeologist. Turchetta said he’d been on the job for about a year but that very little had turned up until this tomb. It was worth the wait, he said.

The tomb was dated to between 335 and 312 B.C. on the basis of a coin found next to a skeleton. One side depicts the head of Minerva, the flip side a horse head with the lettering: “Romano.”

Excavated into a bank of porous tuff, the volcanic rock typical of the area, the family tomb was distinctive “because it remained intact, and was never violated,” said archaeologist Stefano Musco, scientific director of the dig. The quality of the black-glazed pottery found next to the skeletons — a variety of bowls and plates, some bearing mini-skeletons of animals (two, a rabbit and a lamb or a goat, have been identified) — suggested that the owners of the tomb came from a privileged social class, Musco said.

On Friday, archaeologists began to remove the occupants and the artifacts, which will be sent to a laboratory for research, including DNA testing on the skeletons to determine the familial connection.

One expert, Alessandra Celant, a paleo-botanist at the University of Rome La Sapienza, carefully collected ancient pollen and plant samples from the tomb — “the tip of a pin is enough,” she said — that she will study to potentially reconstruct the flora and landscape of the area, as well as funerary rituals.

The tomb was mapped with a laser scanner, and once it has been emptied, it will be sealed.

“It’s exciting to participate in such an important discovery,” Luca Lanzalone, president of the city-controlled utility ACEA, said at the site. The discovery of the tomb briefly stopped construction, but the project continued on a different tract of the pipeline. “Important public works and the safeguard of our patrimony” can go hand in hand, he said.

Turchetta said that the area where the tomb is — to the east of Rome — had already been studied, so he wasn’t prepared for the discovery. Looking into the hole that the earthmover had made, he said he’d never felt “such a strong or immediate emotion.” An archaeological dig is “usually very slow,” he said. “In this case it came all at once, with no warning.”