Western civilization owes a huge debt to the Etruscans, who ruled over central and northern Italy from roughly the 8th century B.C. to the 3rd century B.C. Yet unlike those two other great pillars of Western thought, the Greeks and Romans, much about them remains unknown. Now, a 500-pound sandstone slab, unearthed at an archeological site near Florence, Italy, may finally fill in some of the gaps about the Etruscans’ lost language and culture.
Living in largely independent city-states that they laid out in a grid pattern, the Etruscans excelled at metalworking, seafaring, agriculture and pottery. According to the Roman historian Livy, “no people was ever more devoted to religious observances.” At the same time, they also loved to eat, drink, play music and dance—things “that we like to joke are still prevalent in Italian society,” said Gregory Warden, a classical archaeologist affiliated with both Southern Methodist University in Texas and Franklin University Switzerland. Such pleasures extended to Etruscan women, who enjoyed numerous freedoms denied to their Greek and Roman counterparts. On the darker side, Etruscan society was apparently sharply divided between rich aristocrats and their serfs and slaves. Moreover, human sacrifices appear to have been offered up to the demons of the underworld.
To this day, the origins of the Etruscans remain murky. Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” reported that a prolonged famine prompted the king of Lydia in present-day Turkey to send half his population to the Italian peninsula in search of a new home. However, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, another ancient Greek historian, believed the Etruscans to be native Italians, pointing out that they shared neither a language nor a religion with the Lydians. Recent genetic studies seem to support Herodotus’ claim, whereas archeologists have tended to agree with Dionysius, arguing that the Etruscans evolved from an Iron Age culture known as the Villanovans, with whom they shared many similarities. In fact, most Etruscan cities popped up right on the site of former Villanovan settlements. “What’s important,” Warden said, “is that the culture really is formed on Italian soil.”
Whatever its origins, archeological evidence shows that the Etruscan civilization jumped onto the scene by around 700 B.C. Reaching the apex of its power not long afterwards, Etruscan kings even controlled the city of Rome prior to being expelled in 509 B.C. upon the founding of the Roman Republic. A naval alliance with Carthage helped the Etruscans fend off a Greek advance around 535 B.C. But six decades later, a defeat at the hands of another Greek fleet precipitated the loss of the southern part of their empire. Meanwhile, Celtic tribes crossing the Alps took over much of their northern territory, and the increasingly powerful Romans began conquering one city-state after another. By the 3rd century B.C., all of Etruria had been subsumed into Rome, thus marking the beginning of the end for its distinct language and culture.
Though the Romans downplayed Etruscan influence, the Etruscans had a strong impact on their architecture, art, government and religion and therefore on Western civilization as a whole. In addition to inventing the toga and introducing winemaking to the French, the Etruscans even provided the model for the famous Roman alphabet (the standard script of English and many other modern languages). “The reason we go ‘A, B, C’ instead of ‘A, B, G’—which is what it would be in Greek, alpha, beta, gamma—is because the Etruscans didn’t have that G sound,” Warden said. Unfortunately, because they used perishable linen cloth and wax tablets for their writings, not a single Etruscan literary work survives to the present day. Of the roughly 13,000 known Etruscan texts, most are formulaic gravestone epitaphs that contain little more than names and titles. Linguists have therefore been unable to fully decipher the language, and historians have been forced to rely on the unflattering Roman and Greek accounts, which slander the Etruscans at every turn.
A new discovery may help the Etruscans to speak for themselves, if only just a little. On Tuesday, archeologists announced that they had uncovered a possibly sacred text embedded in the foundations of a temple at the Poggio Colla dig site, located about 20 miles northeast of Florence in the Italian region of Tuscany. Inscribed on a 500-pound sandstone slab that’s nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, this text was loaded onto a backhoe and carried to a lab in Florence to be cleaned, restored and mapped out. Despite being more than 2,500 years old, it contains at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, according to Warden, who co-directs the Poggio Colla excavations. “Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long,” Warden said, though he pointed out it’s by no means the longest. That distinction, he said, belongs to an Etruscan prayer book made of linen cloth, which was remarkably cut into strips and used to wrap an Egyptian mummy.
Heavily abraded and chipped, with one reddened side that may have been burned in antiquity, the sandstone slab will be studied by, among others, Etruscan language expert Rex Wallace, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language,” Warden said. He added that, although “we know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words,” this rare non-funerary text will undoubtedly contain “a number of words that we’ve never seen before.” With any luck, he said, it will also reveal secrets about Etruscan religious practices and beliefs, including the identity of the god or goddess to whom the Poggio Colla temple was dedicated. “Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified,” Jean MacIntosh Turfa, an Etruscan scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said in a statement. “A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”
Other Etruscan artifacts discovered at Poggio Colla since it was first excavated in 1968 include gold jewelry, bronze statuettes and the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art.