Iron Age necropolis that predates Rome unearthed near Naples

Pit tomb with a skeleton surrounded by rocks uncovered near Amorosi, Italy.
The archaeological team has unearthed 88 "pit tombs" at the site. There are also two large burial mounds that they think cover tombs of the elites of the ancient society. (Image credit: Italy Ministry of Culture/Terna)

An ancient necropolis discovered near Naples, Italy was used to bury the dead about 2,800 years ago, around the time the city of Rome was founded about 100 miles (161 kilometers) to the northwest.

The discovery gives researchers a rare insight into the Iron Age cultures that existed before the Roman domination of the region. The astonishing finds near the town of Amorosi, about 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Naples, include 88 burials in "pit tombs" of both men and women.

The men were typically buried with weapons, whereas the women were often buried with bronze ornaments, including bracelets, pendants, brooches — called "fibulae," and pieces of amber and worked bone, according to a translated statement from the Italian Ministry of Culture.

The archaeologists who excavated the site have also unearthed large numbers of pottery vases of different shapes, which were usually placed in the tombs at the feet of the deceased. They think the burial ground predates the Samnites, the people who lived in the region a few hundred years later and were frequent enemies of the early Romans.

Related: Why didn't Alexander the Great invade Rome?

Archaeologists think the ancient burial ground, or necropolis, near the town of Amorosi, Italy is around 2,800 years old. (Image credit: Italy Ministry of Culture/Terna)

Early Italy

According to legend, the mythical hero Romulus founded the city of Rome in 753 B.C. amid a dispute with his twin brother Remus; but archaeologists think Rome developed from a union of several hilltop villages after about the tenth century B.C., during the Iron Age.

The early Roman state fought many wars against its neighbors, including Etruscan city-states and other Latin-speaking peoples; and in the fourth century B.C., the Romans fought a series of wars against the Samnites, who mainly lived southeast of Rome in the mountainous Apennine region.

Rome was ultimately victorious, however, and the Samnites were assimilated into Roman society after the Third Samnite War, from 298 until 290 B.C., after which Rome went on to conquer the whole of Italy and to start colonies further afield.

The ancient necropolis near Amorosi seems to have been established in the Samnite region, but hundreds of years before the Samnites arrived there, possibly from central Italy.

Archaeologists think the people who founded the necropolis belonged to what's been called the "Pit Tomb" culture that existed throughout much of central and southern Italy during the Iron Age.

Ancient necropolis 

The burial ground near Amorosi was discovered by archaeologists investigating the area before a new power plant is built there. The power plant is intended to supply electricity to a high-speed upgrade of the railway between Naples and the city of Bari, on Italy's Adriatic coast.

As well as the pit tombs, the necropolis features two large burial mounds — about 50 feet (15 meters) across — that the archaeologists think cover the tombs of elite members of the ancient society.

A statement from Italy's Ministry of Culture said the tombs of men in the necropolis often included weapons, while the tombs of women often included ornaments, such as these bronze bracelets. (Image credit: Italy Ministry of Culture/Terna)

The mounds are now the only visible features of the necropolis, and have been known about for millennia, but the latest excavations have only now revealed the many tombs around them, according to news reports.

The tombs, artifacts and human remains they contain will now be studied in a laboratory that's been set up at the site, the statement said.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.