Very interesting piece from the IHT:

The Etruscan tomb was hidden in such a remote corner of Tuscany that Andrea Marcocci, the archeology student who had identified it about a decade ago, was not very worried that anyone else would stumble upon it.

Then, earlier this year, woodsmen began to clear brush in the area, and Marcocci - who had felt the tomb had been safe as long as it was hidden in a forest - realized he had to act.

"I became worried that what's supposed to be the patrimony of mankind would become the patrimony of an individual," he said.

Armed with a permit from archeological authorities - in Italy anything found underground belongs to the state - he and a handful of volunteers began to dig.

What they found last week was a complete surprise: a more than 2000-year-old tomb with a cache of almost perfectly preserved ceramic and bronze funerary objects, including cremation urns for more than two dozen people.

"It was an incredible moment," said Giacomo Ghini, an archeology student who first spied the tops of the urns buried in dirt in the burial chamber. "We weren't sure there would be anything there."

The find, experts say, is not particularly exceptional in terms of the rarity of the unearthed objects. The burial chamber, a little less than two meters, or six feet, long and about 1.8 meters wide, is not painted, and the objects inside - probably Hellenistic and dating to between the first and the third centuries B.C. - are quite modest in make. They are now in safe-keeping at a nearby city hall but will be turned over to state archeologists to be cleaned, restored and studied.

But as far as this local group of archeologists is concerned, finding the tomb was like stumbling on King Tutankhamen's gold.

"It really brought locals together; it made them proud to live here," said Carla Bonsanti, Marcocci's wife and a member of Odysseus, the amateur archeological association that carried out the dig in this far-flung part of the Tuscan Maremma, once a remote and wild region known for its horse-riding cattle breeders.

If it weren't for amateur groups like Odysseus, archeology experts agree, much of Italy's ancient heritage would be even more at risk than it already is to random plundering by unscrupulous tomb robbers.

Gabriella Barbieri, the state official in charge of protecting the area's archeological heritage, who granted permission for the excavation, said local volunteer groups were very important when it came to safeguarding the territory from tomb robbers and vandalism.

"The more citizens are concerned, the more they can help us," she said. "The state can't be everywhere at once."

Inadequate protection of Italy's archeologically rich soil is one reason why many plundered antiquities have ended up in private collections and public museums around the world.

But in recent years Italy has increased security of its archeological sites and created a special police force to protect the country's heritage.

Italy has also tried to nip the illegal antiquities market in the bud through an aggressive and very public shame campaign to reclaim some of the ill-gotten artifacts. After successfully lobbying for the return of works from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, last month Italy also concluded a deal with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the return of 40 pieces.

Despite recent successes, however, vigilance must continue to remain high because what has come out of the ground is only a fraction of what is still underneath.

Between 2001 and 2006 Italy's carabinieri art theft squad recovered 345,320 purloined archeological artifacts, including individual fragments. Because of their very nature, "it's impossible to estimate how much has been actually excavated," said a spokesman for the art squad.

"As long as there are Etruscan tombs to be found there's going to be the risk of tombaroli," or ravagers of archaeological sites, said Maria Grazia Celuzza, the director of the archeological museum in Grosseto, about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, south of here.

More than the monetary value of the objects themselves, scholars argue that every violated tomb is an unimaginable loss to furthering the study of ancient civilizations.

There is much still to be learned about the Etruscans, for instance, an ancient population with a distinct language and traditions that dominated what is now central Italy for about a millennia, until they were conquered by the Romans.

Groups like Odysseus, as well as university archeology programs, also provide crucial manual labor to the state's cultural heritage authorities, which simply cannot afford to fund hundreds of archeological excavations each year.

Because the tomb at Casenovole is not a major site, it is likely that only local, amateur archeologists like Marcocci and Ghini would have ever expressed the desire to excavate it. (Both, however, are about to graduate with degrees in archeology. The Italian state does not give permits to dig to people without experience or training, and all aspects of the dig are supervised, said Barbieri, the state official.)

"There are always archeological emergencies in Italy, and this system helps the state keep up," said Marcocci, who funded most of the dig along with the other volunteers. Fortunately, "there are a lot of passionate people."

Here's a curiosity question: does anyone know whether Italy has a 'propaganda' campaign to educate the masses that tombaroli are stealing their heritage? I still don't see the incentive for your average Italian farmer to risk giving up a farm (which may have been in his family for generations) if an archaeological site is found thereon. Significantly (I suspect), this find was in a forest in a 'touristy' sort of place ...