ROME — Italian archaeologists have discovered one of the world's best-preserved prehistoric villages, a "Bronze Age Pompeii" that was buried in volcanic ash near the world-famous Roman city almost 4,000 years ago.

The ancient settlement was overwhelmed by volcanic flow when Mount Vesuvius erupted around 1800 B.C., smothering the village near present-day Nola in southern Italy many centuries before Pompeii suffered the same fate.

"This is by far the best-preserved prehistoric village in Italy and one of the best in the world. Everyday life in the ancient Bronze Age is preserved there," Giuseppe Vecchio, the director of the excavation, told Reuters.

Vecchio discovered the village north of Vesuvius while doing routine tests to grant a company a license to build a shopping center and underground parking lot on the site. But the cross sections of the earth revealed part of an ancient pottery kiln.

"It was a complete surprise, a really extraordinary find," he said.

While much of the original structures, especially the wood beams of huts, was destroyed, the original forms are preserved in molds made of volcanic ash and mud.

"For the first time we can see things about prehistoric life that we had only imagined," Vecchio said. "People didn't have time to grab their things when they fled, so we can see what they ate, how they cooked, what social life was like."

Explorations so far have revealed three huts up to 26 feet high, pots full of grains, sheep bones, a cage holding the bones of pregnant goats and hunting and cooking tools made from other bones.

Archaeologists expect to find more dwellings.

At most sites around Europe, all that is left of Bronze Age villages are holes in the ground where huts used to stand.

No human remains have been found at Nola, unlike at Pompeii, which was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. killing an estimated 2,000 people and freezing the once-bustling commercial town under a sea of ash.

With its well-preserved shops, houses, amphitheater and baths, Pompeii is one of Italy's top tourist sites.

Archaeologists at Nola hope to complete their excavations in the next couple of months. They plan to reconstruct the village at a nearby archaeological museum and possibly open the site to tourists.

"This is a prehistoric Pompeii, the Pompeii of the ancient Bronze Age," said Salvatore Nappo, an archaeological consultant and Pompeii expert. "It will teach us about the period but also shows that the area has been inhabited for thousands of years."

Other late Bronze Age period villages have also been discovered in the area, although they were not preserved in volcanic ash the way the Nola site was. Archaeologists believe one nearby settlement was destroyed by a flood.

Today, a giant pool of magma still lies beneath Vesuvius and extends at least 400 square kilometers under some of Italy's scenic coastline, making a fresh eruption possible at any time.

The last major eruption of the imposing volcano, which overshadows Naples, was in March 1944 as Allied troops landed in Italy during World War II.