VEIO, Italy -- A suspected tomb raider turned police informant has led archeologists to what specialists described yesterday as the oldest known frescoed burial chamber in Europe.
The tomb, on a hilly wheat field north of Rome, belonged to a warrior prince from the nearby Etruscan town of Veio, said archeologists who took journalists on a tour of the site.
Dating from around 690 B.C., the underground burial chamber is decorated with roaring lions and migratory birds. Experts are hailing it as the earliest example of the funerary decorations that would later become common in the Greek and Roman world.
``This princely tomb is unique and it marks the origin of Western painting," said Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli.
Authorities were led to the site in May by an Italian man on trial for trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. He revealed the location of the tomb in hopes of gaining leniency from the court, said Carabinieri General Ugo Zottin , who heads the paramilitary police squad assigned to art theft.
``Sometimes the smugglers arrive before the archeologists , but luckily they could not remove the frescoes," Rutelli said.
Looters who plundered the tomb overlooked several funerary objects that were hidden from sight by the collapse of part of the chamber's red-painted ceiling.
Besides the frescoes, archeologists have uncovered decorated vases imported from Greece, and a sword and metal spits used to roast meat for the prince's table. A two-wheeled bronze chariot was found standing in front of the rounded archway that leads into the burial chamber.
The recovery of elegant broaches, a wool spindle, and other objects used by females suggests that at least one woman, possibly the prince's wife, was buried in the tomb, said Francesca Boitani, lead archeologist on the dig.
The urns containing the cremated remains of the tomb's owners are believed to have been taken by looters, Boitani said.
The images of birds and fang-baring felines remain the highlight of what specialists are calling ``The Tomb of the Roaring Lions."
Although decorated prehistoric caves predate by millennia the Etruscan tomb, specialists say it is the oldest example in the Western world of a specially built funerary chamber decorated with mural paintings.