The New Etruscans

By Erla Zwingle
Photos courtesy the Italian Government Tourist Board NA

Say “Etruscan” to most people and they almost certainly know at least something about them: weird language, fabulous frescoed tombs, spectacular gold jewelry (lovers of trivia may also know that they called themselves “Rasna,” which may have meant “citizen,” that they gave the Romans the arch, and that their language had no “O”). This glamorous civilization began to be known about 968 B.C. and was a formidable economic and cultural power until its eventual decline and virtual disappearance in the 1st century B.C. — almost a millennium of indelible influence not only on the Romans, but on the many other Italic peoples who flourished on the Italian peninsula in the seven centuries before Christ. But recent excavations are revealing some surprising new facets of Etruscan life.

Below Massa Marittima, the hills that undulate toward the sea are brick-red from the copper enriching the well-named Colli Metallifere. On the forested slopes rising from the bright waters of the Lago dell’Accesa, archaeologist Stefano Giuntoli and his team have been working in an area of several dozen ettari (hectares), digging up the remains of clusters of small houses. These were the homes of Etruscans who, from the 9th to the 6th centuries B.C., managed the extraction and manufacturing of metals from the nearby mines of Serrabottini and Fenice Capanne.

“Houses are hard to find,” Giuntoli explained one sunny June morning; the air was already clinking with the music of many trowels in the stony soil. “The idea of the city was born by the Etruscans,” he said. “And the wealth of this city was due to extraction of metal.” Not only copper, but iron, lead and silver. The city of Vetulonia “had an explosion of wealth because of its bronze,” he said. “Traders came here from all over the Mediterranean. “

“This is the oldest and most extensive site we have,” he continued. “When the idea of a city began in the 6th century, walls come in. Long, communal retaining walls come in Etruria with the idea of democracy, not aristocracy. So here in Accesa it’s very strange to see only houses. Each area contained about 10 houses, which they put wherever they wanted, and its own cemetery. So it is a city, but an anomalous form of a city. A city of the 6th century had a wall, an acropolis, a temple, and streets. Here, no. It’s a strange thing for the period.”

Giuntoli’s team has opened five areas, and the entire site, open to the public as a Parco Tematico della Civilta’ Etrusca, can easily be visited in a morning. There are also some modest tombs dug in the earth, lined with stones, which have yielded treasures. “We’ve found many beautiful objects here,” Giuntoli said. “An iron axe, and a lance, and a strange bronze tool. And a small sort of decorated spatula.” One of the most striking is a 7th century woman’s bronze belt buckle made of two winged horses and sphinxes — common Middle Eastern motifs. Better yet, he shows me a piece of bucchero, a ceramic made only by the Etruscans and people of Asia Minor– dusty, but still distinctively black, and with the dull sheen that made it appear to be metal. It is part of a bowl that held food 2,500 years ago. “We also found a flint arrowhead from Neolithic times,” Giuntoli added, “put under the central post of the house to avert evil, part of the foundation ritual. Like laying the cornerstone. And we had never found tiny votive vessels in a house before — we usually find them in a temple. But we found some in that small room, to venerate the ancestors.”

Chiusi – Museo Nazionale Etrusco
Photo Courtesy Agenzia turismo Chianciano Terme – Valdichiana

In Area B, some houses larger than the usual one-room structures indicate how Etruscan society was changing. “Here the houses have walls of stone and tile roofs,” Giuntoli said. “For us, tiles are normal, but in antiquity the circular capanna (a kind of thatched hut) was normal, with a straw roof. In the second half of the 7th century in Etruria you see a rectangular house with many rooms and a roof of tiles. It must have been extremely important for the development of society, because one family could make a capanna, but a house with stones and tiles needs specialized workers who know how to make and to place them.” These workers, along with traders and scholars, also mingled the Etruscan culture with others. “We have a Greek man who worked here and made his fortune, so he was rebaptized with an Etruscan first name: ARNTHE PRAXIAS. And in the 5th century there was another person who had a Celtic last name, AVLE KATACINA.”

From the 5th century, the Etruscans began to struggle, then slowly decline, in the face of the growing power of the Samnites, Romans, Umbrians and Celts, the very people they once had taught. Accesa was abandoned in the 6th century, and commercial routes shifted to the Ionian coast. But in this unsettled period, the Etruscans continued to work, trade, and even fight. This is now visible on a hill outside Montalcino, where Dr. Luigi Donati has been bringing an Etruscan fortress to light.

“In November of 1990 I was walking along a trail from Montalcino to Sant’ Antimo,” Donati recalled, “and I saw on the map the name Poggio Civitella. It’s a name that evokes something, some place that was inhabited in the past. In these woods I saw this hillock, and you realized it wasn’t natural. Rummaging in the chestnut leaves, I found an Etruscan tile from the 6th century BC. So then I understood the name.”

In the crunchy dry undergrowth, he showed me the remains of houses on the gently sloping sides of the hill; like Accesa, the village was abandoned in the 6th century. “There was a general crisis in the countryside then,” Donati explained. “It was like Italy in the 1960s–the people left the countryside for the city.” But in the second half of the 4th century BC, the Etruscans returned.

“Why was this fort born?” Donati asked. “It was a period of danger for the Etruscans. The Celts and Gauls came from the north, and the Etruscans felt the need to secure their territory, so this was a fort of the confine (border). There were many in the territory of Chiusi. This is our first chance to see an Etruscan fort in detail.”

What is surprising about this fort, among other things, is that it is circular. The builders exploited the previous village’s terraces to gain height, and constructed two walls, four meters apart and 150 meters around. The walls were at least six meters high. Most striking is the realization that they built it in a tremendous hurry to face some imminent danger. “The sandstone was quarried right here; we see the pick marks,” he said. “There were lines of men who passed stones hand to hand, and just put them down as they arrived. You can see it was built without care — they even put bigger stones on stop of smaller ones.”

From this vantage, the embattled Etruscans controlled all of Tuscany. On a clear day you can even see as far as Elba. But their days were ending. According to their sacred texts, the Rasna would live for ten centuries, and so it was. But now they are coming back to us. “Yes, it’s full of spirits,” Stefano Giuntoli admitted, smiling, in the woods at Accesa. “But we’re in amicizia (friendship).”

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