Italian police have unearthed the hidden cache of a group of grave robbers, recovering ancient Roman marble reliefs depicting stunningly lifelike gladiators locked in mortal combat, officials said Wednesday.

The 12 panels were found buried in the garden of a private home near Fiano Romano, some 25 miles north of Rome, and officials hailed the recovery as a major archaeological find and a blow to the illegal antiquities market.

The reliefs date to the late 1st century B.C. and are believed to have decorated a tomb, still to be located, in the nearby Roman settlement of Lucus Feroniae, said Anna Maria Moretti, superintendent for antiquities in the area north of Rome.

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The pieces, made of high-quality Carrara marble, are notable for their size and age, and are among the finest examples from the period depicting one of Rome's favorite bloodspots, Moretti said.

"The attention to detail is incredible," she said at a presentation of the finds at Rome's Villa Giulia museum.

The panels show bare-chested fighters armed with swords and shields and engaged in duels while surrounded by trumpet and horn players.

In one of the most dramatic scenes, a gladiator steps on the wrist of a downed opponent who raises a finger in a plea for mercy.

The reliefs will be studied and restored before being shown to the public at Villa Giulia.

Prosecutor Paolo Ferri said a three-year investigation led police to the cache 10 days ago. No arrests have been made.