ROME - Archaeologists have unveiled a recently unearthed Roman burial ground, complete with sealed marble sarcophagi, that has somehow managed to elude Italy's active tomb raiders.
"It is a very unusual find, the experience of a lifetime," said archaeologist Andrea Iannaccone, who led the dig on the outskirts of Rome in a patch of bleak wasteland overlooked by a chicken processing factory.
The most prized find so far is a buried tomb containing five sarcophagi dating back to the second century AD, a golden period for ancient Rome when Marcus Aurelius was emperor.
All the caskets still have original, unbroken lead seals on their sides, indicating they have not been broken into - a rare occurrence in a country where rampant tomb raiding has gone largely unchecked for centuries.
Although the area's acidic soil has eroded large parts of some of the marble coffins, Iannaccone hopes that when he eventually open the seals, he will find not only human remains inside, but also personal belongings and mementos.
"If we are lucky and they turn out to be people of a high social status, then we might find possessions with the bodies.
If we are unlucky, all we will find is mud," said Iannaccone.
Rome archaeologists began to work at the area a few months ago when a developer applied for permission to build houses on the abandoned scrubland.
The first thing they found was a deeply worn road, then a huge water tank some 40 metres long and some simple, shallow graves. When they dug lower, they discovered the circular tomb.
The archaeologist with overall responsibility for digs in the east of Rome said he hoped more tombs might be uncovered if his team is given the time and the money needed to carry out a more thorough search of the area.
"In my 25 years doing this job I have never come across anything like this," said Stefano Musco, standing alongside the mud pit containing the five coffins, including one tiny sarcophagus clearly belonging to a child.
"Look around this place. There is a chicken plant, a disused factory, a scrap yard. It is really grim. A discovery like this gives the area back its identity, its history and its dignity." The largest coffin is topped by a sculpture of a man and woman reclining, indicating that it contains the bodies of a married couple. The other caskets almost certainly belong to family members.
All five sarcophagi will eventually be hoisted out of the ground by cranes and taken to labs for more work. In the meantime, armed guards protect the site at night, with an earth digger placed over the hole to prevent any break-ins.
"Tomb raiders would love to get their hands on this," said Musco.