The city of Orvieto in the central Italian region of Umbria is perched atop a vertiginous cliff of a soft volcanic ash stone called tufa or tuff. The appeal of its excellent natural defenses has kept it continuously populated from Etruscan times onward, and its vast panoply of underground tunnels and chambers, first dug out of the tufa by the Etruscans, has been used by the residents ever since. A census of the labyrinth underneath the city documented 1200 caves/tunnels/cavities of various shapes and sizes, and there are many more than that which have never been documented.
In an archaeological first, a group of alumni and students from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire led by classics professor David George and Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeologico Ambientale dell’Orvietano has found that at least two of those caves were carved by the Etruscans in the shape of a pyramid. Etruscans did a lot of digging and central Italy is flush with their underground tomb cities, but none of those structures so far as we know start with a narrow peak that gets progressively wider as you go down to the square base.
On May 21st, the team began to dig under an Orvieto cellar with a fascinatingly checkered history. In the 1950s it was a furniture shop. The tools and work benches are still in place. In the 1920s and 30s it was used by renowned painter and ceramic artist Ilario Ciaurro who had a kiln in the space and produced pieces heavily influenced by Orvieto’s ancient and medieval past. In the first two decades of the 1900s, the cellar was also used for making pottery, but not the innocent bowl-and-teapot kind. This was the workshop of the notorious Riccardi brothers, a family of artifact forgers who duped major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.
Their most spectacular coup happened between 1915 and 1921 when they sold the Met three purported Etruscan statues — one life-sized terracotta warrior, one colossal warrior and one colossal head — that they had of course made themselves in the Orvieto cave. The Met was committed to its deception even though many experts in Italy knew or strongly suspected the statues were fakes. Actually, art historical expertise wasn’t even necessary to spot the fraud, because apparently the exposed genitals of the colossal warrior (Etruscans often depicted their warriors naked from the waist down) were modeled after those of Riccardo Riccardi himself, and a number of the young ladies in town had recognized them.
The Met just wrapped itself in denial and kept the fakes in public view until 1959 when a visiting Italian scholar declined the opportunity to inspect the pieces. He told the curators he had no need to see them because he knew the man who had made them. That was the last straw. They ran some chemical tests in 1960 and discovered the presence of manganese, a substance the Etruscans never used, in the glaze. The statues were hustled off to storage, and the Met had to make a rare public announcement that exposed their own tender bits to general hooting.
At a level just slightly below the cellar with its delicious recent history, archaeologists found passageways of Etruscan construction. They also found some steps dug into the wall that bore the mark of Etruscan carving, so they kept digging down to see where the steps might lead. They were intrigued to see that the walls were tapering outwards, getting wider apart the further down they went.
In short order they reached a medieval floor from the early 13th century. Just underneath the medieval floor was a layer of fill composed of fragments of ancient Etruscan and Greek pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. There was nothing at all from the interim period. The layers went abruptly from 1200 A.D. to 400 B.C. Some of the Etruscan fragments in the fill were considerably more ancient, dating as far back as 1200 B.C.
Underneath that was another layer five feet deep of grey sterile fill which had been poured into the cave from a hole in the top. The next layer was filled with brown material which the team is currently excavating. It dates to the mid-5th century B.C. At this depth, around 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface, excavations have revealed an Etruscan tunnel of the same age going from one pyramid cave into another one right next to it. The second pyramid appears to be older than the first, carved before the 5th century B.C.
Bizzarri believes there may be five of these pyramidal cavities under the city. These are the only two that have begun to be excavated, though. Since the pyramid shape has not been found anywhere else in Etruria, there are no comparable finds to help explain what the space’s intended use might have been.
“We know it’s not a quarry or a cistern; the walls are too well dressed to be a quarry and there is no evidence of mud which would point to a cistern. That leaves just a couple of things, some sort of a religious structure or a tomb, both of which are without precedent here,” says George.
The answer may be found at the bottom of the pyramid, but the steps are still going strong and archaeologists have no idea how far down this structure may go. Based on another find with similar steps which was unfortunately not excavated by archaeologists but by looters, Bizzarri speculates that they may have another 40+ feet to dig through before they reach the final layer.
You can take a virtual stroll through the excavation in the following video. It’s in Italian, but it’s worth seeing just for the view. I’ve listed a few salient points and the times they appear below.
Ads until 0:55 then a brief intro
1:23 A few atmosphere shots of the current excavation layer.
1:33 Bizzarri is at the entrance to the cavity, which is number 254 according to the great census of the man-made caves under Orvieto. He talks about who’s involved in the dig and how forbearing the owner had been to let them poke around like this.
2:15 This cave is of particular interest because it was put to many of the uses characteristic of these cavities for millennia. Obviously their interests as archaeologists lie in the more ancient life of the space, but the overall slices of history from ancient Etruscan to mid-century modern make this cavern unique and special.
2:45 He starts off taking a left to go down the passageway to the current layer they’re excavating.
3:15 The platform he’s standing on is at a level just below the floor of the surface dwelling, so the basement, basically, looking down at the mid-5th c. B.C. layer. The whole space was previously filled and has now been excavated.
4:16 He points out the walls widening at the base.
4:25 He points out the steps.
4:45 He points out the Etruscan tunnel (cunicolo) into the second pyramid.
5:00 David George says a bit about how the cave is unique, that there are no comparables.
6:15 Bizzarri goes back out towards the entrance.
6:25 He’s now in 20th c. space.
6:40 Points out the 1950s furniture shop with tools, work surfaces, supports for the electrical motors.
7:00 Before that it was used as a kiln for art ceramics by Ciaurro, and before that as a workshop for forging antiquities by the Riccardi brothers.
7:33 Tells the Met warrior story, noting that the director of the Met told people when he was in Etruria that he was looking for large Etruscan artifacts, not the usual small vases and pieces no matter how scientifically interesting or beautiful, so the Riccardi made him some.
8:15 He says they’re hoping to find some fragments from the Riccardi oeuvre so they can do an exhibit of Orvieto fakes.
8:25 Reports on another famous Riccardi fake exported from Orvieto: a bronze two-horse chariot (biga) that was sold to the British Museum.
9:00 Heads back to the dig going all the way down to the current level they’re surveying for stratigraphic data.
9:47 Doesn’t know how far down they’ll go and what surprises they may find.