As a photographer fascinated with archaeology and the story of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, I had always dreamed of being the first person to view an ancient tomb. My dream came true a few years ago when I was in Italy photographing an article about the Etruscan civilization for National Geographic. Just east of Tarquinia, the Italians were planning to build a water main along a busy state road that ran through the middle of an Etruscan necropolis. Fearing that construction of the water main would destroy unexplored tombs, archaeologists decided to do some test drilling, which revealed the entrances to 29 underground tombs.

A friend of mine, an Italian journalist, notified me of the discovery. I rushed to the scene and was promptly enlisted to photograph the first entry into one particularly large tomb that lay beneath the road. One lane of the highway was closed, and corrugated aluminum walls were erected around the site. Within these walls, archaeologists dug a narrow shaft through the asphalt down to the entrance of the tomb. Though signs reading “Go Slow” were posted, these warnings had little effect on Italian motorists racing down the road’s open lane. The corrugated aluminum rattled violently as they sped by.

After weeks of digging, the archaeologists finally reached the tomb’s entrance, but a large stone boulder blocked the path leading inside. Picking away with axes, workmen finally broke through the boulder and cracked a small opening in the tufa (a porous rock). I crawled to the bottom of the shaft, a depth of 24 feet, and squinted through the opening, which measured about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide. As I shined a flashlight into the tomb, I became aware of vague painted outlines on its walls. I immediately snapped a few Polaroid photos to get a better idea of what the tomb contained. Then I took some high quality transparencies with my 35mm camera. To support my camera, I braced my arms on the shelf of the opening and focused on the dim spot the flashlight illumined on the dark painted walls some 20 feet away. For these photos of record, I used direct flash. Later, when I entered the tomb, I used softboxes over the strobes to soften the light.

A workman carried the first Polaroid up the ladder to the archaeologists waiting patiently above. Immediately, a loud cheer went up. A second and third Polaroid brought even more exuberant hurrahs. When I finished my work, I heard the pop of champagne corks as I crawled up the ladder to exit the tomb (see top photo; the author is at left). More cheers greeted me when I surfaced, and the champagne flowed freely. I felt like a college quarterback who throws a winning pass in the final seconds of a game and is swept up heroically by his teammates.

I worked in the tomb for days photographing its painted walls, which contained representations of underworld demons. One of them—the dreaded blue demon Tuchulcha—has a hideously disfigured face and wields two snakes in his hands. This fearsome creature gave the tomb its name: “The Tomb of the Blue Demon.” We later learned that this tomb, dating to the fifth century B.C., contains the earliest depictions of underworld demons, so unlike the cheerful scenes of banqueting that represented Etruscan views of the afterlife until then.

One day, after working inside the tomb all morning, we took a break for lunch. Upon returning, we were shocked to find that the wooden supports in the shaft leading to the tomb had given way. The shaft collapsed and rubble piled up at its bottom. The entrance to the tomb was sealed off once again. We thanked our lucky stars we were not in the tomb at the time of the collapse. We might have joined Tuchulcha for eternity.