On October 25th, a farmer plowing his field near Città della Pieve, a small town 30 miles southwest of Perugia in central Italy’s Umbria region, opened a hole in the earth. When he peered inside, he saw the carved head of a man with his arm extended holding a plate. The farmer had stumbled on an Etruscan tomb form the late 4th century B.C. and the man with the outstretched arm was the lid of a funerary urn.
The hole was covered and the Superintendency for the Cultural Goods of Umbria alerted to the find. The city cops and Carabinieri (the police branch of the military) secured the site, setting a guard there overnight to keep people of greedy intent away from the tomb until the Superintendency was able to dispatch an archaeological team. Regional archaeologist Clarita Natalini lowered herself into the hole Mission Impossible-style and found she was in a small space about 16 by 16 feet containing at least two cinerary urns and two sarcophaguses.
The tomb was full of soil and debris from ancient collapses. Archaeologists started excavating from the entrance point into the tomb rather than starting from the cluttered burial chamber. They removed the dirt from the dromos, a long corridor leading into the tomb, and found heavy stone double doors guarding the room. The doors were carefully removed for study and to give the team a large enough opening to get the rest of the contents of the tomb out the way they came in more than 2,000 years ago.
One of the two sarcophaguses has a long inscription in Etruscan on the side with the word “Laris” identifiable in the carving. “Laris” or “Lars” was the name of an aristocratic Etruscan family that boasted a king among its famous ancestors. The name on the inscription has now been adopted as the name of the tomb since it likely refers to the person laid to rest inside of the coffin. At the foot of the sarcophagus was a statue head broken at the bottom of the neck. It depicts an adult male, bald, and still retains traces of the original polychrome paint. The pupils have been filled in.
The second sarcophagus also had an inscription, but it was damaged during one of the collapses. Archaeologists have collected the fragments, but there are thousands of them, so it will be difficult puzzling this jigsaw back together.
Apart from grave goods, which include pottery, miniature votive vases and two intact ceramic jars, likely used to store food for the afterlife, the archaeologists found four urns with cremains.
Made from fine grained alabaster marble, three of them are finely sculpted. The lid portrays the half naked deceased with a flower necklace reclining on two cushions as if at a banquet. He bears a patera, a shallow ritual offering dish, in the right hand.
The use of alabaster marble, the style of the burial and clues from the inscriptions suggest the burial belongs to an aristocratic family from the nearby Etruscan stronghold of Chiusi, Natalini said.
The last artifact to be removed was a large sarcophagus recovered on Saturday, November 28th. Unopened with the lid still sealed, the sarcophagus weighs more than three tons. Removing it from the small space while ensuring its safety was a challenge that required special expertise and equipment. Perugia fire fighters were deployed to lift the sarcophagus using air-filled pontoons that stretch from just a few centimeters thick to eight inches after inflation. The heavy piece was lifted onto a wooden sled on the floor and was then pulled out through the dromos which is just 35 inches wide.
All of the contents of the tomb have been moved to the Civic Museum of Santa Maria dei Servi for conservation.