Image: An Italian Carabinieri paramilitary officer stands by artifacts
Riccardo De Luca  /  AP
An Italian police officer stands by ancient artifacts recovered by authorities in separate operations Wednesday in Rome. In the foreground is a mosaic from a Roman catacomb, which was seized from a suspect's home.
updated 12/17/2008 10:40:22 AM ET 2008-12-17T15:40:22

A farmer working his land south of Rome dug up hundreds of artifacts from a 2,600-year-old sanctuary, but ran afoul of police when he tried to sell the ancient hoard, officials said Wednesday.

After spotting fragments of pottery in soil dug up by the farmer, authorities searched his home last month and seized more than 500 artifacts, including perfume vials, cups and miniature vases used as votive objects.

The art squad of the Carabinieri paramilitary police said the farmer was placed under investigation for allegedly trafficking in antiquities. Ancient artifacts found in Italy are considered state property, and finds must be reported to authorities.

Archaeologists said they will continue to excavate the sanctuary, which dates back to the 7th-6th century B.C. and is located outside the town of Aprilia, near a small lake some 25 miles south of Rome.

The find could expand knowledge about the area's history in pre-Roman times, when it was inhabited by Latin-speaking people under the influence of the Etruscan civilization that dominated central Italy, experts said.

Image: Authorities seized more than 500 artifacts
Riccardo De Luca  /  AP
Ancient vases and cups recovered by Italian authorities are shown on Wednesday.
The pottery, some of which was imported from Greece, was offered to a deity probably connected to the lake, said Stefano De Caro, director of archaeology at the Italian Culture Ministry.

"These were poor people, they gave thanks for a good harvest or they prayed that there wouldn't be a drought," De Caro said. "At the time there were no aqueducts, so the lake meant life."

He speculated the treasure of tiny, delicate ceramics could have been worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) on the illegal antiquities market.

At the news conference in Rome, the Carabinieri also presented artifacts recovered in two more operations conducted last month.

During checks on an antiques shop in downtown Rome, officers found two medieval statues that had been stolen in 2007 from a home in the Italian capital, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, the head of the art squad.

Separately, experts trawling internet sites that sell antiquities came upon a man offering a mosaic from a Roman catacomb for euro55,000 ($75,000) and claiming it had been donated to his family by the Vatican.

After verifying the claim was false, the Carabinieri seized the 3rd-4th century A.D. mosaic from the man's home along with a jug, cups and other ancient pottery and placed him under investigation.

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