Elite Etruscan grave found intact in Tarquinia

The intact tomb of an Etruscan aristocrat has been discovered in Tarquinia, a town about 50 miles north of Rome that was the first of the 12 principal cities of Etruria. The Tarquins who ruled Rome before the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Republic came from Tarquinia (called Tarquinii in antiquity), and the newly discovered tomb is adjacent to a large royal tumulus known as the Queen Tomb.

At just six feet in diameter, the new discovery is small compared to the Queen Tomb’s 130-foot diameter, but a location just a few feet away from the Queen’s imposing mound was so prestigious it was saved for the exclusive use of the royal family. The gentleman found buried in the new tomb is probably a prince, therefore, and perhaps even related to a Tarquin since the tomb dates to around 600 B.C., a period during which Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was fifth king of Rome (from 616 to 579 B.C.).

As with the Sarmatian tomb found this summer in Filippovka, the fact that the tomb was not assaulted by grave robbers ancient and modern, but rather has survived for 2,600 years without interference makes it an extremely important archaeological find. Tarquinia has several necropoli with a total of 6,000 tumuli. Those mounds have been targets for looters since they were first carved out of the volcanic tufa rock, so just like the Russian archaeologists, the Italians were expecting to encounter burglarized tombs with some artifacts left behind, not an intact one. The last non-tampered-with tomb in Etruria was found 30 years ago, and it had entirely collapsed so there was little data for archaeologists to retrieved.

The grave goods found inside this tumulus aren’t as glamorous as those found in the Sarmatian tomb or some of the more famous Etruscan burials like the Regolini-Galassi tomb, but an undisturbed context of an ancient people we still know so little about is worth more than piles of gold to archaeologists. The team of archaeologists from the University of Torino and the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Southern Etruria were hopeful that they’d find the tomb untouched when they found the stone slab blocking the entrance to the tumulus still perfectly sealed.

After they removed the slab, the first thing they found were remains of a sacrificial offering on the ground by the entrance: a group of jars, vases and a bronze grater all used in funerary rites. The grater was used to grate flours and goat cheeses into a vessel of wine which would then be drunk or poured as a libation.

As the heavy stone slab was removed, [University of Turin Etruscanologist Alessandro] Mandolesi and his team were left breathless. In the small vaulted chamber, the complete skeleton of an individual was resting on a stone bed on the left. A spear lay along the body, while fibulae, or brooches, on the chest indicated that the individual, a man, was probably once dressed with a mantle.

At his feet stood a large bronze basin and a dish with food remains, while the stone table on the right might have contained the incinerated remains of another individual.

Decorated with a red strip, the upper part of the wall featured, along with several nails, a small hanging vase, which might have contained some ointment. A number of grave goods, which included large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, lay on the floor.

The vases and ornaments on the floor may have once been hanging on the wall like the little aryballos — a vessel for oils and unguents — which was so amazingly still hanging from its nail when the archaeologists opened the tomb. The heavier pieces are thought to have fallen due to structural failings of the tomb and/or seismic activity. Among the vases were seals which might help identify the deceased and fragments of what may have been armour.

The team is still cataloguing the artifacts. Once everything has been inventoried, a panoply of tests will follow. The organic remains of the food offerings will be analyzed. One of the artifacts, a small cylindrical bronze chest, will be opened to see what’s inside. (Archaeologists expect it to contain jewelry, if anything). The tomb itself will also be explored further, in the hope of discovering other organic elements from religious rituals and to conserve the paint which, while modest compared to the elaborate decoration of some of the 200 other tombs in Tarquinia with painted walls, might make the tomb of interest to tourists.

10 thoughts on “Elite Etruscan grave found intact in Tarquinia

  1. I suspect it is time that I sell off all of my belongings, move to Europe, and attempt to be a journeyman archaeologist. What an amazing read! Can’t wait to find out what is in the chest, and what they discover for the organics in the offerings.
    Wow… :yes:

  2. I mean, frankly, what have the Romans ever done for us? … Alright, apart from things like sanitation, education, viniculture, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, public health. These seem to be perfect jars for storing olive oil, and of course I would be more than glad about that holy cheese grater. Apart from that, I wonder if there is a pattern when they always find in these etruscan tumuli an incinerated body next to a skeletized one. Amazing read indeed.

  3. What became of the skeleton? And in what sense are the people who opened this tomb, entered, and removed its contents not grave robbers?

  4. Dear Romulus, is this a serious question ? As the founder of Rome, you should know that grave robbers take everything, destroy all the rest and finally sell their loot off to a secret bidder. Thus, you would probably not even know about your etruscan forefathers. Contrastingly, a scientist does analysis, puts stuff into context, showcases his -or her- results and thus maintains cultural heritage. Of course, there are instances where a distinction is not always crystal-clear. :hattip:

  5. I am quite serious. Ancient grave robbers were more crass, but in both cases it is a question of disrespect for the dead and monetizing the contents of graves. It is a peculiarity of our times that grave robbers today are (supposed to be) credentialed experts who make their spoliations acceptable by making the rest of us complicit. Then as now, the point is to extract something valued from the grave. It only illustrates a refinement of the trade that today’s practitioners have learned how to extract more value and to socialize the process.

    1. The point is gathering knowledge, learning new things about the past. There’s a significant distinction between “extracting value” where value equals historical understanding rather than money an artifact can bring on the black market. Sure, the discovery may result in more tourism and the subsequent dispersal of cash in the area, but that’s a distant, non-quantifiable possibility. Archaeological excavations cost money; they don’t make it.

  6. As for what is and what is not quantifiable, modern grave robbing can make a very comfortable and respectable living for its most proximate practitioners — the archaeologists.

    On the other hand, I put it to you that the assignment of value to the accumulation of “gathering knowledge” is a highly subjective and mostly uneconomic affair.

    Look — I am not trying to be tedious. I readily admit to an interest in this entirely unpractical subject, and will happily have a look at grave artifacts and what scholars want to tell me about them. As a product of my own time and environment, this all feels quite natural. I am merely questioning the idea of being the prisoner of my own cultural and chronological environment. Old style grave robbing used to feel quite natural also. While I do not argue that the two are equivalent, I do find myself troubled by the entirely uncritical and ethically untethered way this aspect of archaeology proceeds today. The question, unexamined and unwanted because it is inconvenient, remains: is there such a thing as a human community in which we have obligations to each other, and if so, what do we owe the dead?

    1. That’s a fair question. I’ve considered blogging about it, in fact, but I wasn’t sure my less than coherent musings on the subject would be worth reading. It’s become a very present issue in the UK right now, thanks to a 2008 Ministry of Justice decision that all archaeological human remains must be respectfully reburied within two years of their discovery. Many archaeologists were dismayed by this change, the result of a re-interpretation of the applicable law, the Burial Act of 1857. I understand why they’re upset because I’m a proper history nerd and I want to know everything possible about, say the 51 decapitated Viking warriors unearthed in Dorset, and two years is a very short window when you have complex analyses to perform.

      At the same time, I also feel keenly that we do owe the dead respectful treatment, that knowledge gluttony can’t justify treating human remains like just so much research material or artifacts for display. The Irish Giant didn’t want to become a sempiternal sideshow, and I’m pretty sure the Etruscan gentleman wouldn’t be thrilled to know that he has no choice but to donate his body to science 2,600 after his death. I thought it was pretty appalling that the French legislature had to pass a specific law to repatriate 16 heads of Maori warriors to New Zealand just because the institutions and collections didn’t want to let them go on principle in case it put their vast archaeological and anthropological ossuaries in danger of further repatriation claims.

      In conclusion, I’m all over the place on the matter.

  7. Sic! Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae. Ceterum, de mortuis nihil nisi bene, propter omnia mortem Γ¦quat. – Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul. What could make a difference, however, is indeed if and where there still are loved ones of the deceased. To find a grave and to actually take the decision to excavate, in order to analyse but -after two years- dump the bodies into total oblivion, might be on the one hand somewhat ‘puritan’, but could on the other be rather barbaric. Therefore, a wiser and more ‘catholic’ approach could be either not to excavate in the first place, and once the decison has been made, find a nice decent box where the Etruscan gentleman might contribute to insight and means of future generations. In other words, if that case-law ‘two year approach’ really is the current situation in the UK, it results in limbo and, I am afraid, it does not resolve anything. Things like ‘mors’ and ‘archaeologia’ should in public domain ‘succurrere vitae’, where it makes sense. Whereas is could make sense to incinerate grave robbers.

  8. I feel the biggest difference between grave-robbers and the archaeological removal of tomb artifacts is the level of respect and care taken in removing, handling and studying these priceless relics as well as the public contribution of these artifacts and the history they represent. Where a grave-robber may only care for that which is worth immediate monetary gain, most archaeologists put themselves into debt just for the chance to study and show their respect for a culture long-since passed but which still sparks the curiosity of historians and the general public alike.

    I can see where anyone could be upset by the idea of plundering the remains and possessions of the dead. However, in the case of ancient civilizations, especially one like the Etruscans who left us no historical documents, would it not be better to have a kind, respectful hand safely remove what little remains so that it may be preserved for all to appreciate? Elsewise, those grave-robbers may return and destroy the little that still remains.

    Personally, I’d love to be watching from above the day someone discovers my remains 2,000 years from now. It would be fascinating to witness the speculations surrounding present-day burial methods.

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