Gianluca Tetlow stumbled upon a Roman tomb containing the bones of a woman and a boy — their remains clearly deteriorating because of the heat and humidity of the year-round outdoor climate of Torlonia, Italy. The stones in the burial chambers were crusted, as was the floor and flooring above the tomb; the color of the dirt had gone orange. Mr. Tetlow, a professor at Sciences Bordeaux and president of the Torlonia Collection, which he helped form in the 1990s, stopped by to see what was wrong.
“They were absolutely perfect,” he said, “perfectly lined and perfectly flattened — perfectly symmetrical.”
After two months of excavation, Mr. Tetlow, a cellist, and his team unearthed two remarkably well-preserved tombs: one that housed the two young boys and the other, about a dozen others from Torlonia, 17th-century young women. Mr. Tetlow’s team also discovered hundreds of other grave fragments on the more than 200 plots around the tomb, part of what the priests at Torlonia have called Europe’s oldest wooden cemetery. Today, it’s on display at the Cloisters in New York, after much fanfare in Rome. The collection will return to Torlonia in the coming years.