The recent rescue excavation of a 2nd century B.C.E. burial site in the southern Tuscany region of Italy is providing a previously unseen glimpse of the Etruscan identity that survived the Roman conquest of Etruria, according to the results of a new paper by a University of Buffalo (UB) expert in Roman archaeology.
Analysis of the grave goods (items buried along with the bodies) and burying rituals from the necropolis, one of the few sites untouched by looters in either antiquity or modernity, suggests how the many entrenched and distinct characteristics of the Etruscan population survived in the presence of the dominant Roman power and its associated law.
These persistent and complex Etruscan traditions continued for more than two centuries after the Roman conquest in ways that shaped the social, cultural and economic habits of the territory until the small rural community’s violent destruction during the Social Wars.
“These findings show us how we should speak more of cultural and social osmosis rather than a subordination of one population to another,” says Alessandro Sebastiani, the paper’s author and assistant professor in the Department of Classics. “The analysis reveals the interesting and sophisticated relationship between the Etruscans and the Romans, where the Etruscan communities are both surviving and adapting themselves into the Roman world.”
UB’s classics department, under Sebastiani’s direction and in partnership with The Cooper Union and Michigan State University, started work in 2017. The Interconnected Mobility of People and Economies along the River Ombrone Project (IMPERO) would eventually cover two historical sites in the Tuscan municipality of Civitella Pagnico.
“The last five years have produced some exciting findings, but this season has been particularly good,” says Sebastiani.
And much of the work from 2021 and 2022 results from good fortune.
The findings are published in the journal Estrucan and Italic Studies.
Sebastiani says that archaeologists today often find what tomb looters have left behind — usually pits of broken pottery. The site of the current research, however, is on private property (its exact location has not been made public). A construction project years ago revealed traces of a settlement, which researchers investigated at the time but never published. That discovery was largely forgotten until the property’s owner, an amateur archaeologist who assisted Sebastiani on previous digs, reached out to see what might be done at the location.
“He told me there was something on his land that could be of potential value,” says Sebastiani. “Can you come and check?”
So IMPERO went to Podere Cannicci, a part of Tuscany where the Etruscans weren’t previously thought to have inhabited and settled. The excavation would prove otherwise, uncovering a Late Etruscan and Roman Republican sanctuary with a village that supplied goods for the nearby rural communities.
“We opened three Late Etruscan tombs that were totally intact, which sheds new light on the societal representation of the families living and working in the village,” Sebastiani says. “Because these sites have been looted for gold, it’s quite rare to find one untouched, with all of the grave goods present after more than 2,200 years, including gold earrings, gold crowns, bronze rings with the representation of Hercules, iron strigils (a tool for cleaning the body) and fine pottery.
“The absence of looting has guaranteed the exceptional state of preservation of these findings.”
Archaeobotanical analysis of seeds and other organic material discovered is helping to reconstruct the ancient landscape and surrounding environment of the site. DNA analysis of skeletal remains recovered during the excavation is being conducted in collaboration with the University of Siena.
“The project is providing new pieces to the intricate puzzle of historical settlements in Etruria during the transitional period of the Roman conquest, their development into the imperial political system, the long late antiquity, and the rise of medieval society.
“It’s all very exciting,” says Sebastiani.