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Stones collected and categorised by shape (fish) are seen at the home workshop of Luigi Lineri in Zevio, near Verona, Italy, June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

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By Alessandro Bianchi

ZEVIO, Italy (Reuters) - Luigi Lineri's home workshop is covered in stones -- tens of thousands of them. They resemble animal heads, human faces and other forms, and the artist and poet believes may have been shaped by prehistoric humans.

Lineri has built his vast collection over the last 50 years, making his finds along the Adige river, near Verona in northern Italy.

"I haven't counted them and don't intend to do so but the quantity is significant," Lineri said.

"At first I thought that a few stones for each different shape would be enough and then I understood that in their thousands, they give a sense of community ... For me the quantity is sacred: it takes a lot to build a cathedral."

Lineri says there has been no independent verification of whether the stones are indeed prehistoric sculpture and has not sought one, being more interested in them as "a work of art".

"When I found one and picked it up, I was overcome with emotion - who was this, how did he live, what was he thinking when he made this beautiful thing. It all began then and I started reading and learning about prehistoric mankind."

"I don't make any changes (to the stones), they are all authentic," he said. "Someone told me I was obsessed but if I am it is to better understand the mind of the primitive man."

Among the forms on display are fish, dog and sheep heads and female body forms. Visitors have come to see the collection and he has also exhibited some of it.

(For a Reuters photo essay, click: http://reut.rs/2bjoLlB )

"When people see the stones, their reactions differ. Some laugh, others cry," Lineri said.

"There is a strong energy in this 'cosmos' made of stones and whoever touches them has to do so with the respect and right frame of mind... Each day I try to put the stones in order, to give a sense to each chapter of this poem."

Lineri hopes someone will one day look after his collection. But he is also mulling returning them to the riverbed.

"I did this to safeguard these stones and hold onto their message," he said. "(Taking them back) would be a small finishing touch. But it's just an idea for now."

(Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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