Florida State University : Research in Review

[Skip Navigation]

Etruscan Epiphany
Etruscan Epiphany

Few traces of this genteel, creative and religious people exist, yet their legacy lives on.

To archaeologists, there are few civilizations as mysterious as the Etruscans, the group of ancient Italians who developed much of what would later come to be thought of as Roman. From Roman numbers and the Roman alphabet to Roman architecture and even the toga-all bear Etruscan origin.

Of all the mysteries surrounding the Etruscans, among the most puzzling has been the issue of what exactly was happening among these people in the long, drawn-out twilight of their civilization, as it was being gradually absorbed by the Republic of Rome.

Today, however, at least a few details about that period are beginning to emerge, thanks to a fortuitous discovery made in 2006 by a team of researchers led by Nancy de Grummond, an FSU professor of classics who has studied the Etruscans for more than 30 years. The surprising collection of artifacts that de Grummond's team discovered is promising to give new insights into the final days of one of Europe's most fascinating ancient cultures.

The Etruscans

For 700 years before the Roman Empire arose, the Etruscan civilization flourished on the Italian peninsula. The core of that civilization was located in the region of central Italy now known as Tuscany-from "Tusci," the Latin word for the Etruscans-but at the civilization's height, 25 centuries ago, individual Etruscan cities could be found throughout the entire length of Italy.

No one knows exactly where the Etruscans originated. Their language, their customs and their physical features were noticeably distinct from those of their neighbors. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that they had come from Lydia, part of what is now Turkey. On the other hand, the archaeological record shows no point at which a set of new practices or artifacts arrived on the scene, as would be expected if the Etruscans had come from elsewhere, and so most historians today believe that they were indigenous to Italy. The Etruscans were already living there in 1000 B.C. when the Indo-European wave of migration reached the Italian peninsula.

By 600 B.C., as the ancient Greek civilization was rising a few hundred miles to the east, the Etruscans had developed a sophisticated civilization of their own. They had an advanced political system based on city-states, with their cities generally built on hills, and they dominated much of the Italian peninsula. Indeed, from 616 to 509 B.C., Rome itself-still a relatively minor, unsophisticated city-was ruled by Etruscan kings.

Despite their cultural sophistication, the Etruscans could not match other civilizations in military power, and in the centuries after 500 B.C. the Etruscans' rivals nibbled away at their domain. The Etruscans had always been a seafaring people, but this brought them into conflict with the Greeks, who had established colonies around the Mediterranean Sea. A series of defeats in battle to the Greeks caused the Etruscans to start losing their grip in some of their more distant territories. A century later, an invasion of northern Italy by the Gauls sliced off more of the Etruscans' holdings. Meanwhile, the Romans, who had thrown out the Etruscan kings and established a republic, were growing in influence and gobbling up areas that had previously been under Etruscan influence.

In the first century B.C., Rome annexed the last bits of Etruscan territory that had remained independent, and the Etruscans were quickly assimilated into the Roman civilization. The last known inscriptions written in the Etruscan language date to the reign of Augustus, from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D., but long before that the Etruscans had mostly disappeared from the historical record.

But as the Roman Empire slowly erased their civilization, the Etruscans taught the Romans a great deal, de Grummond said. For example, the Romans learned from the Etruscans how to make the sort of red clay tiles used for roofing houses. This Etruscan invention was used widely by the Romans, who spread them around the Mediterranean, and more than 1,000 years later the tiles were taken by the Spanish to the New World. The Romans also borrowed much of their architecture from the Etruscans, including their sewage and drainage systems and their use of the arch. The Roman alphabet was a modification of the Etruscan alphabet (which was itself a variant of the Greek alphabet), and Roman numerals were adapted from the Etruscan numbering system. And, of course, the toga-that quintessentially Roman garb-was worn first by the Etruscans ages before they became popular among college fraternities.

The Mystery

Despite their prominence in the ancient world, the Etruscans left relatively little that modern archaeologists can use to understand them, de Grummond says.

Almost no written artifacts with more than a few words are left. The longest piece of Etruscan text ever found is the Liber Linteus, a linen book from about 250 B.C. that survived only because it had been torn into strips and used for a mummy wrapping in Egypt. The mummy was found in the 19th century and later unwrapped, at which point the writing on the linen wrapping was discovered. Only 230 lines long with about 1,200 legible words (or little more than half the number of words in this article), the Liber Linteus seems to have been some sort of religious calendar as there are recurring mentions of different Etruscan gods accompanied by various dates. But much of the text remains untranslated because so little is known about the Etruscan language. The second-longest surviving Etruscan text, the Tabula Capuana, has only about 390 legible words. Beyond those two texts everything else that has been found is fragmentary, ranging from a few sentences to just a few words or even a single word in an inscription.

Indeed, there is so little to be gleaned from the few surviving texts that de Grummond, who is one of the world's foremost experts on Etruscan religion, picks up most of her clues about the gods and myths of the Etruscans by studying the mirrors that Etruscan women used in their grooming.

These mirrors, de Grummond explains, are much like the handheld mirrors that women use today, consisting of a handle attached to a reflecting circular section. The major difference is that the Etruscan mirrors were made entirely out of bronze, with the reflecting section being smooth enough and highly polished enough to work in much the same way that silvered glass does in mirrors today. But it is the mirrors' back sides that interest de Grummond. The Etruscans frequently engraved into the bronze scenes either from everyday Etruscan life or from Etruscan mythology along with an inscription identifying the figures in the scene. It is from these mirrors that de Grummond and her fellow archaeologists have learned much of what they know about Etruscan civilization-which remains far less than what is known about, say, the ancient Romans and Greeks, near-contemporaries of the Etruscans.

The Discovery at Cetamura

De Grummond admits to being frustrated sometimes by the dearth of information about the people she has chosen to study. And for her, unlike her Italian colleagues, the situation is compounded by distance: over 5,000 miles, one way, each time she wishes to study an Etruscan site firsthand. The Istituto di Studi Etruschi, or Institute of Etruscan Studies, is composed of 200 of the world's top experts in Etruscan history and culture. A vast majority of those 200 members are Italian, and only seven are Americans. De Grummond is one of them.

De Grummond has earned her place in this elite group, at least in part, by having made that 5,000-mile trek every summer for the past 24 years. She goes to a small Etruscan site on top of a hill called Cetamura del Chianti, surrounded by vineyards in the Chianti region in central Tuscany.

And during each of those summers de Grummond has headed up a summer field school-an intensive six-week session during which students take classes and do real field work. Cetamura is a particularly valuable site for this school, de Grummond says, because it contains ruins from three different eras-Etruscan, Roman and medieval-which allows the students to see firsthand how the march of succeeding civilizations is recorded in the layers of the earth.

Over the years de Grummond and her field school students had excavated many items that dated back to the Etruscans: pottery shards, pieces of bricks and tiles, a few coins, several cisterns, and most exciting of all, a kiln that had been used to make bricks and the ubiquitous red tiles. But she had never made any revolutionary discoveries, so to speak, and she had rarely uncovered anything directly related to her major interest, the Etruscans' religion.

So she approached last summer's field school, which was supposed to be her last, with a certain amount of wistfulness. But, she notes, "It is an axiom among archaeologists that the best things come up at the end," so there was some hopeful anticipation as well.

It was at the beginning of the last week of the dig that the first interesting item came into view: a large triangular piece of pottery that was sticking straight up from the ground. Further digging showed it to be part of a large storage vessel-a dolio-that was still intact. At first de Grummond supposed she had discovered a storage area used by the Etruscans for grain or some other good, but the dolio was surrounded by broken roof tiles, pieces of brick, and stones, all of them crammed in around the storage pot as if they had been deliberately placed there. And nearby was a tiny vase, clearly too small to have been used for storage.

"Then we started finding all sorts of other stuff," de Grummond recalls. Next to the miniature vase were a number of nails, which got de Grummond very excited since other researchers had found evidence of "sacred nails" among the Etruscans-nails used in offerings to the gods. Then she uncovered a miniature cup with a handle, and finally she had no doubts as to what she was looking at.

"This is not a storage pit," she remembers saying to her students. "This is an offering to the gods."

With more excavation came more evidence of religious activity: several more cups and a bowl, and a nail and a ring found together. The last pair was particularly intriguing, de Grummond says, because it may imply a particular divination ritual. Other cultures had such a ritual involving a ring and a nail, but there had not been evidence that the Etruscans did. This appears to be such evidence.

Reviewing the artifacts and their placement, de Grummond concluded that she had found a sacrificial pit with the remains of a ceremonial offering to the gods. "This has to have been all one act," she says. "It probably took hours." The various items would have been put carefully in place, then there would have been ritual burning and ritual breakage. Afterward, the Etruscans apparently jammed roof tiles and other items up against the jars and other offerings in order to preserve everything in place. They may then have covered it all up-and it would go untouched for more than two thousand years.

Shining a Light On the Final Era

But most exciting of all was one of the smallest things de Grummond found: a coin. After it was cleaned up, the coin was revealed to be a denarius minted in 118 B.C. to commemorate the founding of Narbo (now known as Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast of France). This implies that the religious ceremony whose remnants de Grummond had uncovered took place after 118 B.C.

"This is a period of Etruscan history about which we know very little," she says with some excitement. "It's the final century of the Etruscans." In particular, she says, it is a time when some scholars assumed the Etruscans were already pretty much gone-assimilated by the Romans. The artifacts at Cetamura should open the door onto the last dwindling pieces of the Etruscan civilization.

The findings are still being analyzed, so de Grummond is cautious about offering any specific conclusions. Furthermore, she says, she is going back and reanalyzing everything she had found before in light of her new understanding of the site. She now believes, for example, that a tetragonal platform she found in the summer of 2005 was probably an altar, a place where the Etruscans would have left wine, grain, and other offerings for the gods. Both the altar and the sacrificial pit she excavated last summer would have been part of a "sacred area" where the Etruscans carried out their religious activities.

And de Grummond has postponed her retirement from running the summer field school. This summer she will be back at Cetamura del Chianti with a new group of students for one more year of exploring what has suddenly become a very exciting site.

"I think it's going to tell us a lot about that period in Etruscan civilization," she says, referring to the last couple of centuries of the Etruscan era. The sacrificial pit holds particular promise, she says, because the offering there took place at a time when most of the Etruscan civilization had already been swallowed up by the Romans. "It has got to be one of the very last Etruscan sacred sites," and it should shine some light onto what has until now been one of the darkest parts of Etruscan history.