(ANSAmed) - MILAN, FEBRUARY 20 - Archaeologists with the Egyptian-Italian Mission at West Aswan (EIMAWA) on Thursday released the first images from a necropolis they discovered a year ago, including that of a leopard's face in vivid colour painted on the wooden lid of a sarcophagus, a sort of "guardian" of the dead.

The mission, led by Egyptologist Patrizia Piacentini of Milan State University, uncovered the necropolis five metres under the desert sand in Aswan, and in a few weeks will go back to work there.

The archaeological area extends for more than 25,000 square metres on the western bank of the Nile River, near the Mausoleum of Aga Khan III, and it hosts more than 300 tombs, some dug into the hillside and some underground.

This necropolis is where the residents of Aswan were buried between the 7th century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D.

One of the tombs, number AGH026, already made news last year when a large room was found with about 30 bodies buried between the 2nd century B.C.

The bodies were accompanied by many objects, including stuccoed body covers painted with gold, a funerary bed, parts of sarcophagi, a stretcher for the mummies, and lots of pottery vessels. This is where the team found the painted leopard, a symbol of strength that was placed by the head of the deceased person to offer protection during the journey to the afterlife.

Piacentini told ANSA that although the leopard is a frequent symbol in Egypt, "it is very rare to find it painted".

"The wooden support from the 2nd century B.C. was very fragile. The sand had slipped into the fibres, so we decided to detach the stucco to save the design. It was a very delicate operation that had us holding our breath, we had tears in our eyes," she said.

The pieces will be recomposed by the expert hands of Ilaria Perticucci and Rita Reale, who, following an initial "virtual" restoration, will soon begin the actual one in the laboratories in Aswan.

"It's an exceptional find, much like what we found in the room next to it: pine nuts dating back to the 1st century A.D., a rarity given that the plant was imported," Piacentini said.

"The use of these seeds was known in Alexandria for the preparation of sauces and dishes," she said.

"They were certainly a luxury good, and show once again how the tomb belonged to important people," she said.

New information for piecing together their identities could come as soon as the upcoming spring mission, in which the multidisciplinary team of historians, paleopathologists, archaeobotanists, chemists, computer scientists, and restorers will work to uncover the diets, illnesses, and causes of death of the people buried in the necropolis.(ANSAmed).