Who Were they Really?
During research for my novel The Whirling Girl, I’ve learned that archaeologists don’t approve of the word “mysterious” being applied to the Etruscans.
Still, they do admit that an aura of uncertainty lingers around those ancient peoples who once dominated almost the whole of Italy and the surrounding seas.
Etruscan literature was lost in ancient times. All we have are the comments of their enemies, who tarred them as fate-bound, lubricious, cruel, with women scandalously out of control. (They attended banquets with their husbands; they even learned to read!).
Ultimately Etruscan civilization was swallowed by the Romans. Many aspects of their culture were absorbed into Roman ways, but the greater truth and complexity was forgotten, just as the Etruscans themselves were, in their underground tombs.
Later, when those tombs began to be re-discovered, the wealth of curious objects of art — brilliantly fashioned in gold and bronze and clay — astounded, perplexed. Vivid frescos, too, showed lavishly dressed men and women at banquets, or dancing, or being urged along to the “after life” by hammer-wielding devil figures, or ghoulish demons wrapped in snakes. And the sense of “mystery” began. Who were these people, with their almost unseemly embrace of the finest things in life, and the conviction that you could take it with you to the after world?
Imagine a farmer in the so-called dark ages, digging deeper than usual and breaking through into one of those tombs. I’ve read that folk-tales of the treasure-filled grottos of dwarfs and gnomes may have sprung from such discoveries. Scholars have suggested, too, that a consciousness of the tomb frescos may well have seeped into the work of artists like Giotto and Michelangelo, to be reflected in the great masterpieces of late medieval and Renaissance times.
But if much of our understanding, now, has come from tombs — what of Etruscan daily lives?
They built of wood, not stone, even their temples and princely villas. And where their strongholds once stood, the castled hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany now loom, forbidding excavation. This, along with the absence of a literature, complicates an understanding of the way everyday life was lived. Yet they have so caught the popular imagination that even in recent generations myths have grown, perhaps reflecting the current zeitgeist. So were the Etruscans really the life-loving proto-hippies that D.H. Lawrence celebrated in the 1920’s? Or were they those grim warriors praying to “gagged gods” that Annie Dillard has recently denigrated in an essay in The American Scholar?
In southern Etruruia there is a tomb with funerary beds elaborately carved out of stone, and beside the stone pillows on those beds are stone replicas of folded linen books.
It hurts, not knowing what stories those stone books might have told.
But modern archaeology is surely providing an equally fascinating story. For it turns out that stones do speak — and bones and beads and pot-sherds, and even stains in the earth — and thanks to ongoing exploration of newly discovered habitation sites, an increasingly nuanced picture of Etruscan daily life is building up.
So if I still don’t quite see why “mysterious” shouldn’t be applied to a civilization that created objects so bizarre and vibrant — so packed, brimming, bulging with a force that seems to go straight to the subconscious — all the same I can understand how the wobbly imputations of the word might be unsettling to those engaged in a serious discipline that is bringing to light more and more evidence of every-day Etruscan attitudes, even while accepting that the story will modify, year after year, as new evidence come to light.
Below, is a link to one such exploration — the Mugello Archaeological Project in Tuscany — where anyone interested in the intriguing world of both the ancient Etruscans, and modern classical archaeology, can follow Dr. Gregory Warden and a team of renowned archaeologists, with their students, as they uncover ongoing information about a hilltop settlement that spanned all the Etruscan ages, right down to Roman times.
A bibliography and further Etruscan links will be coming to this page soon.