An ancient Roman burial ground filled with treasure has been discovered in central Italy. Along with nearly 70 skeletons interred in carefully constructed graves, researchers found precious jewelry, leather goods, pottery and coins.
Unearthed during a pre-construction dig for a solar energy plant, the burial ground lies on a 52-acre plot of land north of Rome. It’s not far from the ancient city of Tarquinia, known for Etruscan stone cemeteries dating to the seventh century B.C.E.
Researchers think the newly discovered necropolis was built between the second and fourth centuries C.E., during the height of the Roman Empire, reports Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove. It was probably associated with a nearby “mansio,” an ancient villa where Roman higher-ups paused their business journeys to rest. As indicated by historical writings, such a place, called Tabellaria, lies just 1,640 feet from the site, Giannini says.
The burials’ proximity to the socially exclusive mansio helps explain their priceless contents. Among the dead, researchers found gold necklaces and earrings, terracotta pottery, precious stones, coins, glasses, amulets and silver rings decorated with amber and engraved initials. Some skeletons were even found wearing expensive stockings and shoes.
“All these riches, and the fact that the bones show no sign of stress or physical labor, [suggest] these weren’t local farmers, but upper-crust members of Roman families coming from cities,” Giannini tells CNN.
The tombs themselves also indicate wealth. Though not all the necropolis’ graves were elaborate—researchers found cremations, unembellished burials and skeletons inside ceramic vessels—many of the dead were buried inside A-framed tile or terracotta arrangements, surrounded by elaborate cloth.
Some bodies were interred together, with a few skeletons found “wrapped around each other,” reports CNN. While communal tombs were common in ancient Rome, these burials are “outstanding in their inner decor,” says Giannini. As Arkeonews’ Oguz Kayra writes, researchers think the Romans decorated the tombs to “recreate heavenly spaces similar to their earthly homes.”
The graves were unusually shallow, lying only 20 inches below ground. Giannini tells CNN they remained untouched for so long because of the concentration of “huge limestone blocks” in the surrounding landscape, which made “plowing, seeding and modern farming impossible in the area.”
Excavations ahead of the solar plant’s construction have been ongoing since 2022. As Margherita Eichberg, an art heritage superintendent for Italy’s culture ministry, tells CNN, “[We] are balancing the need to avoid ruining such unique wonders with the goal of boosting clean energy production.” Many of the artifacts found in the necropolis will be displayed at a local museum, and experts will conduct forensic testing to learn more about the skeletons.
“This is the fascination and beauty of Italy,” adds Eichberg. “Each time there’s a dig, incredible wonders from the past come out of the ground which need to be preserved.”