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ROME (Reuters) - Italian police have recovered a hoard of ancient Etruscan funerary urns and other treasures including bronze weapons which were originally found during building works and trafficked illegally.
Described by officials as one of the most important recoveries of Etruscan art ever, the haul included 23 funerary urns from a tomb complex in the area of modern Perugia belonging to an already-identified aristocratic family called the Cacni.
"It's an extraordinary find," said Luigi Malnati, director general of antiquities at Italy's culture ministry. "It's of incredible historical importance in its own right and it helps reconstruct the context for these objects," he said.
The Etruscans, a mysterious people from central Italy who were eventually assimilated into the Roman empire, left few written documents and most of what is known of them comes from their rich funeral art.
Most of the collection recovered by police dates from the so-called Hellenistic period between the third and second centuries BC when Etruscan civilization was in decline and families like the Cacni were already under the sway of Rome.
"They were certainly one of the princely families of the period and represented part of the Etruscan aristocracy that formed alliances with Rome and formed one of the most important links between Rome and the rest of ancient Italy," Malnati said.
The marble urns are decorated with images of fighting centaurs and battles, with some depicting scenes from the ancient myth of Iphigenia, daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon who was condemned to be sacrificed.
In addition, the find includes statues, some originally covered in gold as well as bronze weapons, ceramic pots and a rare bronze kottabos, an implement used in ancient drinking games.
Apart from the objects themselves, the haul casts a less happy light on the illegal trade in ancient artefacts, a business with a venerable tradition of its own in Italy, home to some of the richest archaeological sites in the world.
Under Italian law, ancient artefacts dug up or found by private citizens are considered to belong to the state and must be declared, but the high prices paid by collectors fuels an active illegal market in archaeological treasures.
A police investigation, begun after one small marble head and a photograph of an Etruscan urn were found in the possession of an individual connected with the trade in ancient artefacts, pieced together an organized trafficking operation.
Mariano Mossa, a senior officer in Italy's carabinieri police, said the objects were apparently originally found by workmen digging building foundations. Illegal searches later uncovered more of the treasures.
He said the head from one of the marble statues was used as a sample to show to potential buyers as proof that the objects shown in photographs were really held by the traffickers.
Five people have been accused of illegally digging up and trading in cultural goods.
Writing by James Mackenzie, editing by Paul Casciato