Mythical hellhound and sea-centaurs painted on 2,200-year-old tomb discovered in Italy

We see two ichthyocentaurs, which are part man, part horse and part fish, next to two cherubs on a half-circle wall.
The tomb includes a painting of two ichthyocentaurs, or sea-centaurs, holding a circular shield next to two Cupid-like babies. (Image credit: Superintendency for the Metropolitan Area of Naples; Ministry of Culture, Italy)

Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed a 2,200-year-old tomb painted with two uncommon mythical creatures: a pair of ichthyocentaurs, or sea-centaurs, which have the head and torso of a man, the lower body of a horse and the tail of a fish.

During excavation for infrastructure work near Naples, archaeologists noticed the hypogeum — a large tomb with chambers or niches for burying several people — in perfect condition, its entrance still covered with tiles.

Inside the tomb, numerous frescoes adorn the walls. The two ichthyocentaurs may be depictions of Aphros and Bythos, a pair of mythological sea gods who are the personification of sea foam and the ocean abyss. The sea gods are often shown wearing lobster-claw crowns, but on the wall of this tomb, they are reaching toward each other to hold a large shield known as a clipeus. Two winged, Cupid-like babies complete the scene.

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The tomb is also covered in painted garlands and features a stunning painting of Cerberus, the mythical three-headed dog who guarded the Roman underworld, who is being captured by the demigod Hercules in the last of his 12 labors. The god Mercury, identifiable by his winged hat, stands nearby.

Also included in the tomb are an altar on which family members could leave gifts for the dead, as well as the funeral beds themselves, on which the deceased still rest.

In a translated statement from the Superintendency for the Metropolitan Area of Naples, Superintendent Mariano Nuzzo said the feeling of discovering the tomb is indescribable and thanked archaeologists for their efforts to uncover and preserve information about the history of the Giugliano region. Today a suburb about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) northwest of Naples, Giugliano was one of the smaller inhabited parts of Campania, a fertile region that in ancient times included cities from Capua to Salerno.

Previous archaeological investigation in the Campi Flegrei volcanic area surrounding Giugliano revealed a number of Roman-era burials — both inhumations and cremations — that were dug over the course of four centuries, from the Republican to the Imperial eras.

Archaeologists are fully exploring the burial, dubbed the Tomb of Cerberus, and plan to investigate the rest of the burial ground.

Kristina Killgrove
Live Science contributor

Kristina Killgrove is an archaeologist with specialties in ancient human skeletons and science communication. Her academic research has appeared in numerous scientific journals, while her news stories and essays have been published in venues such as Forbes, Mental Floss and Smithsonian. Kristina earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also holds bachelor's and master's degrees in classical archaeology.