VEIO, Italy — A suspected tomb raider who turned police informant has led archeologists to what experts described Friday as the oldest known frescoed burial chamber in Europe.
Some experts say it houses the oldest paintings in the history of Western civilization.
The tomb, in a hilly barley 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 700-680 B.C., the underground burial chamber is decorated with roaring lions and migratory birds.
"It's a prince's tomb that is unique, and I would say is at the origins of Western art," said Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli.
Authorities were led to the site in May by an Italian charged with trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. He revealed the location of the tomb in hopes of gaining leniency from the court, Carabinieri Gen. Ugo Zottin said.
Culture Ministry archeologist Francesca Boitani, pointing to the rolling hills that were once home to the ancient Etruscan city of Veii, said, "There are thousands of tombs here. But this one, it's the pictures that are stunning. They give a sense of the primitive."
It is the primitive nature of the paintings that has convinced the experts that they are at least a generation older than any others yet found.
Giovanni Colonna, a professor at Rome's Sapienza University, said the frescoes were not as old as Egyptian art or some cave paintings, but they probably were the oldest examples of the Western tradition of art that was developed by the Greek and Roman civilizations.
Fragments of decorated pottery found in the tomb, and the remnants of a wheel that once was part of a cart buried along with the bodies, indicate the burial site was that of a prince.
In Etruscan art, the birds would have symbolized the passage between life and death and the lions would have represented the underworld.
While the discovery was celebrated by art historians, it illustrated two serious problems for Italy -- the constantly rising cost of excavating and managing ancient treasures and the fight against organized criminals who plunder the country's heritage.