Raiders of the Lost Art

Italy's hardworking tombaroli have turned tomb-raiding into a cottage industry

| September/October 1998

It's not just a job, it's an adventure: In the southern Italian region of Puglia, police say there are more than 50 people whose primary income comes from selling artifacts looted from the ancient grave sites that dot the surrounding countryside. In recent years, outcry from the international architectural community has caused Italian law enforcement agencies to up their efforts to capture and detain gangs of tomb robbers, or tombaroli, though for years their actions went largely unpunished.

Archaeology contributing editor Giovanni Lattanzi interviewed a tombarolo who lives near the Etruscan ruins of Cerveteri, west of Rome.

How long have you been a tombarolo?
I started in 1945, after the war. With the hunger and poverty, that was the only way to make a little money. Above all, foreigners, the American officers and civilians that were in Italy, were buying [artifacts].

How is the market changing?
The market is always looking for the same things—gold, jewelry, bronzes, and also beautiful decorated vases. At first the buyers were only very rich people; today everyone buys a little, including middle-class people, to whom it is possible to sell the minor objects.

No one wants to do this work anymore. Young people want money fast and without working; they don't want to go out at night, dig, work hard. Or they content themselves with an office job and a pittance for a salary. Our experience is being lost.

When do you dig?
Only at night, obviously. There are places in the south of Italy where people dig with bulldozers in the day, but there the Mafia is at work.