Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Digging an Etruscan house, part one!

Hi! It's been  a while, but I have arrived back in the UK from Italy, having spent the last 5 weeks in Tuscany on what can only be described as the best site I have ever worked on. I would like to firstly thank everyone who made this possible; Mark and Joanne at GRAMPUS heritage for advertising and paying for the opportunity (http://www.grampusheritage.co.uk/), Elena, Silvia, Duccio, Lorala and Alessandro from the Etruria Nova Onlus project (http://etrurianova.altervista.org/joomla/en/), the Corsini family for allowing the dig to happen on their land (they are one of the most powerful royal families in Italy!), La Speranza Agriturismo for letting us use their accomodation (www.agriturismolasperanza.it) and the other volunteers who were there on either the Casa del Anfore site or the Macchabuia site  (Jeremy, Flora, Shauni, Ele, Grace, Francesco, Karen, Sofina, Sujata, Liah, Lisa, Graeme and Skander) Also, thanks to Grace for providing some useful comments on site aobut some of the features the team found (you might recognise them here!). Read on...


The Etruscans are well known in Italy for 3 things- importing Greek/Phoenician/Egyptian influence to Italy, a language that is not Indo-European (i.e. not related to any other language in Europe today) and tomb building on an unprecedented scale, in terms of quality and quantity. We're talking completely painted buildings built underground for one or two people, or for multiple occupants placed there (or interred) over a long period of time; essentially "houses of the dead". We know that the Etruscan families paid close attention to their family linages; later on in the 4th and 3rd centuries there are well documented accounts of high status Etruscan families marking on their stone coffins that they were descended from kings or other prominent members of society. Although these tombs are too early to be related to high-status families in this way, we may be seeing the emergence of this practice (albeit without any writing on any coffins).  Furthermore, unlike today where a huge forest has overgrown around the hillside of Marsiliana, the hills would have had virtually no tree cover at all, which may have been important for assessing the landscape in ancient times.

The casa site, which is near the top of one of the hills to the south of Marsiliana,  is believed to be an Etruscan site of the 6-5th century BC (like a Roman villa but smaller) (Humphrey, Kacorzyk, Pallechi and Santoro 2011), which, upon discovery a few years ago, contained an entire layer of amphora sherds across the whole casa (herein referred to as anfore). As a result, it is known as the Casa del Anfore (House of the Amphorae). Unoriginal as it may sound, the site itself is actually very unique, and it is the largest Etruscan period structure that has been found in the area. It would also have had a dominating view of the sea, since back in the day the plains below would have been much closer to the sea, although evidence suggests that the Etruscans were capable of reclaiming the land from the sea. Meanwhile, the landscape is dotted with smaller houses (often unexcavated) and tombs. The necropolis of Macchiabuia (the second site) is near to a multitude of other contemporary tombs of the 7th-5th century BC. It is a square room built just a few feet under the surface, which was filled with elaborate grave goods. One nearby tomb turned up 2 iron spits for roasting things!

The team this year mostly consisted of British students, who were there from the 25th August-28th September. Other participants were there for a shorter period of time from Germany, Norway and the USA. Both sites were excavated to a similar standard, with some variation in methodology; the Macchiabuia necropolis team had access to a total station, for example, while the Casa del Anfore site had to make do with string and known base points to work out the relative positions of contexts. The team also got to wash the finds from the sites, and identify what sort of pottery had been found in a series of workshops in the Etruria Nova headquarters.

Map 1: The location of the two sites, just a few kilometres from each other (Google Earth).

Previous Work:

 Prince Tommaso Corsini had previously excavated over 100 tombs in the area in 1908, as well as indin one of the earliest abecedarian tablets in Italy (ibid. 2011). The Etruria Nova project initially tried a number of non-destructive methods to identify more Etruscan settlement near Marsiliana, using aerial photography and field walking (in a forest). The aerial photography was something of an unmitigated disaster, since it failed to find the Casa del Anfore, which was found a few years later (Santoro 2013, pers. comm.). It was fortunate to be found, as it was next to a track that is used for heavy logging and agricultural machinery! Since 2009, the Casa del Anfore has been excavated, with the help of students from all around the world, as it is now an international field school. Meanwhile, a number of smaller houses and a large number of tombs have now been found, but the work has not yet been complete; new tombs are still being found in the area!

Casa del Anfore:

The structure, some 20 by 30 metres in length, was a one-story building, with  a courtyard in the centre, surrounded by at least 6 rooms on 3 sides. The floor was made up of clay, and it is highly likely that the walls were covered in clay too (the layers above the floor level were made up of large amounts of clay and silt) The main features within the casa that had been identified from previous seasons included a drain, with a amphora inside that, upon the use of chemical analysis, had potentially no function. This was all the more remarkable given that the vast majority of the amphorae that had been tested showed their use for fish and vegetable oils (a common combination that resulted in the increased longevity of the meat, hence you could transport the goods further); this leads to the technologically advanced idea that this one amphora was used for collecting rainwater. There was nothing special about the amphora itself, except for this one crucial chemical analysis, and it's position within the house to suggest this function. How wierd is that?

In addition, a large number of the rooms had been excavated, but there were still 3 to finish (one was partially started towards the end of the dig). Each one seemed to have a different function; room L, for example, had turned up a very fancy plate that would have been used for Etruscan banqueting. It had just been left there, possibly abandoned. Bucchero pottery was also fairly common across the site; it is a black colour, quite thin, and was often used in small bowls and the like. Krater pottery was also present, indicating a more localised storage usage. Seriously, go check out the size and shape of them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krater)! In addition to Kraters, other red-figure wares were also on site (these are Greek pots, from the 7th century BC). It is highly likely that this was a high-status family, or group of families, who lived here, with their dominant view of the coujntryside, facing the sea and with lots of varied pottery, both local and imported from Greece, Egypt and probably the Near East as well.

The house appears to have been abandoned over a short space of time, from the current evidence, with no sign of continued occupation after about the 5th-4th centuries BC. However, in the 18th century, a bandit's hut was set up over the site of the Casa ()

Photo 1: The Casa, taken from the west corner of the house. Rooms G and L are just off to the left of the photo.

Photo 2: A reconstruction of a probable Etruscan storage vessel. Small child for scale!

The main courtyard, it was theorised, would have a central basin, since the drain led to the centre of the courtyard, which was covered in stones. This was the aim of this year's team in the courtyard. Meanwhile, rooms G and L were going to be excavted to the floor level, but there was a lot of amphorae in room G (and a skylight); meanwhile room L had a strange pit-like feature between it and the courtyard.

Photo 3: Taken from within the Casa, this was the courtyard, with some of the stones removed. 

So the results? Well, the courtyard team found a LOT of stones, but didn't quite make it to the level of the theorised basin (effectively the ground level). A shame, but it is likely that if it was there, it will be found next year. Room G, meanwhile, just kept turning up more and more pottery as they kept digging! They also got a lot fo cup fragments, which was unusual. Between rooms G and L, some dispute arose as to whose room got to claim the iron door hinge and associated bronze arrow-shaped object as their own (it was right in the middle fo the doorway!). Finally, the pit in room L looked like one large post hole, until a significant amount of moisture was found underneath a layer of ordered tiles; this looks likely to be a deep square-shaped well! I was so very excited when I was told this; I had been working on that pit for 3 weeks straight! But, why would you have both a well and a water drainage system? Maybe they were in use at diffeent times; it is a question that has not been fully answered yet! Incidentally, the majority of the pottery we excavated dates from  around the 6th-5th centuries BC. To put that into perspective, Rome was a small town at best, and the Iron Age Brits were still throwing metal objects into rivers!

Photo 4: One of the team carefully excavating broken pieces of Etruscan cup from room G with a fine brush.

Photo 5: The well! A lot of the tiles had been taken out by this stage, but you can see some of them, and the roughly square shape of the infill.

Necropolis of Macchiabuia:

Meanwhile, the necropolis of Macchiabuia, several kilometres away, was also being excavated. The term necropolis, in this case, was being used to describe a multitude of burials; they are dotted all around this area of land! Often dating to around the 7th century BC (i.e. either contemporary or before the use of the house).
Their shaped was relatively consistent: an underground square room that often had no entrance to it, but stuffed with material goods as mentioned above. In one tomb nearby, there was a juvenile female burial with 3 "groups" of pottery usage found within the tomb: "la dispensa" (wine and grain residues found within these pots), "l'area privata" (wool making products, glass spindle, and a spit hook (don't ask me how a spit hook is used in the wool manufacturing process!)) and "l'area focolare" (an area containing a small stone circle, that has been tenaciously interpreted as a fireplace). Combine these elements together, and these would not look out of place in the living world of the Etruscans. Hence, these tombs are essentially literal "houses of the dead". Other examples of these square tombs with elaborate domestic items have been found all across Northern Italy and Campania from this period, although some rose above the ground, such as at Vetulonia (http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/vetluna.html).  Arguably the most impressive tombs were at Tarquinia (although Vetulonia would disput this!), where some 6,000 tombs have been discovered stretching over the entirety of the Etruscan period (also, some of these tombs have beautifully painted walls, which is unheard of anywhere else in Etruscan tombs) (UNESCO)!

Photo 6: One of the tombs from the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to dig on the Macchiabuia site, but from the team I heard that plent yof grave goods were found, as well as cremated remains within one of the tombs, which is extremely promising, because it could be potentially be dated with radiocarbon!

Photo 7: One of the tombs (unexcavated) on the site of the Macchiabuia necropolis. How far could it stretch underground?


In preivous years, the Casa del Anfore has been made into a virtual model in a Geographical Information System, which has enhanced our understanding of the structure and of the surrounding area, as well as better explaining to the public about what the site would have looked like.This year's work at the Casa will also be added to the virtual reconstruction (correct at time of writing). All the finds will be assessed, and the best ones may well end up in a museum in Scansano, where a dedicated exhibit has been built to explain the area's Etruscan arcdhaeology and heritage in more detail.


So in summary, the dig was amazing for the sheer quantity and variety of finds that were on site. From Greek wares to wells to cremated remains that could potentially be human, we have a lot of Etruscan activity around Marsiliana. Next year, more excavations are planned for both the Casa and potentially for some more of the tombs in the area. The relationship between the well and the rainwater pottery needs to be answered, but crucially, in an area where rainfall has always been quite low, we now have the evidence to show that long term settlement would have been possible, without relying on climate patterns that have so often been the ruin of other civilisations. The question I want to ask is why did the occupants of this house just simply abandon this property? Did a combination of local weather patterns work against the occupants? Disease? Were economic or social forces at work against them? Or did the occupants simply find a new opportunity elsewhere, that involved suddenly abandoning everything they had to set up a new life elsewhere? Perhaps we will never know!

Meanwhile, the significance afforded to the Etruscan dead has been emphasised here, with the location of the domestic areas not far from the places of the dead, although their spaces have been demarcated very clearly. For them, death appears to have been another step towards the afterlife, much like some other contemporary societies (like the Egyptians and their pyramid building for their pharoahs of the Old Kingdom), which was regarded quite differently than it is today.


Humphrey, N, Kacorzyk, J, Pallechi, S and Santoro, E., 2011, Life and Death of an Etruscan Settlement, Etruria Nova Onlus, Italy

The Mysterious Etruscans, Vetluna (Roman Vetulonia), http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/vetluna.html, last accessed 01/10/2013, last updated 02/05/2009.

Santoro, E., September 2013, personal communication to some members of the team concerning the failure of the aerial photography to find the Casa del Anfore(!).

Wikipedia, Krater, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krater, last accessed 01/10/2013, last updated 23/09/2013.

UNESCO, last accessed 01/10/2013, Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1158, last updated 


All photographs were taken from my Vivitar F128. All rights reserve by the author.

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