Dr. David B. George of the Department of Classics at Saint Anselm and Dr. Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeogico Ambientale dell Orvietano (PAAO) are the co-directors leading the excavation with students from Saint Anselm College.
The interior of the subterranean space had been filled almost to the top with the upper section used as a modern wine cellar. However one feature caught the eye; a series of ancient stairs carved into the wall of a constructional type consistent with an Etruscan date.
The mysterious Etruscans
The Etruscan’s controlled Orvieto from circa 1000 BCE until the Roman conquest of the city in 264 BCE. Widely known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, they started to decline during the fifth century BCE as the Romans grew in power and by 300-100 BCE they had been absorbed into the Roman state.
Their puzzling, non-Indo-European language was virtually extinguished as they left almost no literature to document their society. The last person known to have been able to read Etruscan was the Roman emperor Claudius. Almost all we know about this highly influential culture comes from their richly decorated tombs that help to reconstruct their history.
A pyramidal chamber
The team initially noticed how the sides of the rock hewn chamber where the wine cellar is now located, tapered up in a pyramidal fashion. Even more intriguing, were a series of tunnels, again of Etruscan construction, that ran underneath the wine cellar hinting at the possibility of deeper undiscovered structures below. The owner of the cellar, Antonio Pagliaccia, was intrigued by the mystery and actively encouraged its exploration.
Working with the local inspector for the Soprintendenza per I Beni Archeologici dell Umbria, Dr. Paolo Bruschetti obtained a permit to explore the feature through the Fondazione per il Museo C. Faina. Excavations commenced on May 21, 2012, by first digging through a 20th century floor and midden complete with old tennis shoes, broken plates and other early 20th and late 19th century ephemera. After moving a metre of soil and debris, the diggers reached a medieval floor surface.
However, immediately beneath this floor was a layer of fill that, to the surprise of everyone, contained cultural material and artefacts, such as Attic red figured pottery from the middle of the 5th Century BCE and 6th–5th century BCE Etruscan pottery with inscriptions and even objects that dated to 1000 BCE.
This fill layer seems to have been brought from various tombs as part of a clearing operation and was deposited into the pyramidal cavity through the centre of its apex now capped with a medieval arch. The layer is striking for its lack of Etruscan black gloss ceramics indicating that the site was sealed before the Hellenistic period in the middle of the fifth century BCE.
It seems likely the space was stumbled upon during the Middle Ages and used as a cellar. As excavations continued below this layer of fill, the excavators came upon 1.5 metres of sterile grey material intentionally deposited from a hole in the top of the structure now truncated by medieval construction.
A unique complex of pyramid spaces and tunnels
Beneath this however, was another layer and a set of stone carved stairs – which gave the first hints of the structure’s origins – continuing down the wall and turning at one corner, below which it appeared as though a structure had been built into the wall, perhaps to continue the decent on wooden stairs. The material from this context all dates tightly to the middle of the fifth century BCE with nothing later. At this level also was found a tunnel running to another pyramidal structure; this tunnel dates from before the 5th BCE.
So far the excavators have removed 3 metres of infill and the pyramidal structure continues on down. It is now a cavernous space rising about 10 metres from the current level of excavation to the present cellar ceiling.
The lead archaeologists are still perplexed as to the function of the structure though it is clearly not a cistern. Dr. Bizzarri notes that there is nothing like these structures on record anywhere in Italy or the Etruscan world.
Dr. George, notes that it could be part of a sanctuary, and calls attention to the pyramid structures that were described in the literary sources as being part of Lars Porsena’s tomb . Lars Porsena was an Etruscan king who ruled Chiusi and Orvieto at the end of the 6th century.
Dr. Bizzarri is however cautious that even this parallel is not exactly what is beginning to appear here, but it does open up intriguing possibilities. Both agree that the answer waits at the base level which could be 4, 5 or more metres below the layer they have now reached.
The subterranean pyramidal hypogeums in Orvieto could offer a unique insight into this civilization and will enhance the work the team have been carrying out for the past 6 years at sites in the area.
One thing is certain, the next season will be exciting.