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The Etruscans: The Great Ancient Civilization of Italy

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you know how much I am interested in ancient civilizations across the world. It has been a fascination of mine my whole life and have amassed a decent part of my personal library cover this topic. One region of the world I really enjoy studying is the Mediterranean; from the Roman empire to Greece to the Carthage, etc. One particular ancient civilization in that region I feel really had a big part in shaping the future civilizations of not only Italy but the surrounding area are the people who were known as the Etruscans. From their culture, art, rituals, deities, occult practices and more, these people have a fascinating history which is what today’s blog is all about.

Who Were The Etruscans?

Despite their amazing achievements and lasting influence, the Etruscans remain one of Italy’s great mysteries. Fleur Kinson sheds a little light.

For most of us, ‘Etruscan’ is one of those words we’ve met many times but, if pressed, couldn’t precisely explain. We might know the word has some connection with Tuscany. We might even know that the Etruscans were a people, and that they did impressive things of some kind. But like ‘Phoenicians’ and ‘Carthaginians’, they tend to be a name with no picture – another obscure, long-dead ethnic group only familiar perhaps to people with a classical education. If you plan to visit anywhere in central Italy, it’s really worth sharpening up your hazy understanding. You’re going to meet that word ‘Etruscan’ everywhere you go; a lot of irritation can be saved by clearing it up here. A word of warning, though: it’s a well-founded cliché that anyone who starts learning about the Etruscans quickly becomes hooked on the subject. If you can’t bear to acquire a new interest, look away now.

For half a millennium or more, the Etruscans were Europe’s most advanced civilization outside Greece. Made wealthy by international trade, they spent their time making wine, building roads, draining marshes, painting vases, founding cities, creating sculptures, and constructing aqueducts. Hmmm… sounds a bit like the Romans, doesn’t it? Well it should. Consider three facts: i) at least two of Rome’s earliest kings were Etruscans; ii) most Romans had some Etruscan ancestors; and iii) the Romans took many of their ideas on art, law, religion, public institutions, water management and road-building directly from the Etruscans. You owe more to these unfamiliar ancient people than you probably imagine.

The Etruscans themselves, keen on living for the moment, didn’t seem to care whether or not they preserved their glory for posterity. When their civilization was subsumed into Roman, they didn’t bother asserting a self-consciously distinct ethnicity and melded with the newcomers. Thus an artistic and fun-loving culture was half erased from history – a culture in which banquets were eaten in bed while dancers pranced about and wine-throwing games were played. A culture with strong erotic sensibilities, but also with rudimentary sexual equality – something lost, alas, on the Romans.
With so little testament to the particularities of Etruscan existence and so much testament to the spectacular existence of the Romans, popular and academic attention has understandably always concentrated on the latter. Indeed, scholarship on things Etruscan only really started in the last century or two – and studies still abound with words like ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’. Etruscan civilization might have been rescued from historical oblivion, but only just. Continue reading HERE.

Unravelling The Enigmatic Etruscans – Documentary

Occult and Spiritual Practices

As some of you may know, the Etruscans much like most ancient civilizations were spiritual people with certain holidays, death rituals and magical practices. It was basically intertwined into their culture much like what we saw with the Romans before they converted to Christianity.

A couple of years ago I came across the reprint of a book originally published in 1963 titled, Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies by author Charles Godfrey Leland. This amazing book goes into such depth on the magical and occult practices of the Etruscans even with detailed descriptions of potions and spells.

The book itself is described as a “scarce antiquarian book”which was essential to have reprinted and I for one am grateful this was done.

This is my personal copy of Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies and you can purchase your own copy HERE.

Etruscan art and the afterlife

Terracotta kantharos (vase), 7th century B.C.E., Etruscan, terracotta, 18.39 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Early on the Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture, one that was often in dialogue with other Mediterranean civilizations. Trading of the many natural mineral resources found in Tuscany, the center of ancient Etruria, caused them to bump up against Greeks, Phoenicians, and Egyptians in the Mediterranean. With these other Mediterranean cultures, they exchanged goods, ideas, and, often, a shared artistic vocabulary.

Unlike the Greeks, however, the majority of our knowledge about Etruscan art comes largely from their burials. (Since most Etruscan cities are still inhabited, they hide their Etruscan art and architecture under Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance layers.) Fortunately, though, the Etruscans cared very much about equipping their dead with everything necessary for the afterlife—from lively tomb paintings to sculpture to pottery that they could use in the next world.

From their extensive cemeteries, we can look at the “world of the dead” and begin to understand some about the “world of the living.” During the early phases of the Etruscan civilization, they conceived of the afterlife in terms of life as they knew it. When someone died, he or she would be cremated and provided with another “home” for the afterlife. ​Continue reading HERE.

In The Etruscans: A Captivating Guide to the Etruscan Civilization of Ancient Italy That Preceded the Roman Republic, you will discover topics such as: Politics, Government, and Social Structure
How an Individual Lived
The Origin of the Etruscans
The Etruscan Orientation, c. 600-400 BCE
The Roman Conquest, c. 400-20 BCE
Mythology and Religion
Art and Music
The Etruscan Language and Writing
Architecture
Surviving Text and Literature
And much, much more!

An intriguing phenomenon

Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon (cista handle), 400-380 BC, Etruscan, bronze – Cleveland Museum of Art  
© Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

With an extinct language that is only partly understood, much of what was initially known about Etruscan civilization comes from the commentary of later Greek and Roman writers. One hypothesis about their origins, the one favored by Herodotus, points to the influence of ancient Greek cultural elements to argue that the Etruscans descended from migrating Anatolian or Aegean groups. Another, championed by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, proposes that the Etruscans originated and developed locally from the Bronze Age Villanovan culture and were therefore an autochthonous population.

Although the current consensus among archaeologists supports a local origin for the Etruscans, a lack of ancient DNA from the region has made genetic investigations inconsistent. The current study, with a time transect of ancient genomic information spanning almost 2000 years collected from 12 archaeological sites, resolves lingering questions about Etruscan origins, showing no evidence for a recent population movement from Anatolia. In fact, the Etruscans shared the genetic profile of the Latins living in nearby Rome, with a large proportion of their genetic profiles coming from steppe-related ancestry that arrived in the region during the Bronze Age.

Considering that steppe-related groups were likely responsible for the spread of Indo-European languages, now spoken around the world by billions of people, the persistence of a non-Indo-European Etruscan language is an intriguing and still unexplained phenomenon that will require further archaeological, historical, linguistic and genetic investigation.

“This linguistic persistence, combined with a genetic turnover, challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community, possibly during a prolonged period of admixture over the second millennium BCE,” says David Caramelli, Professor at the University of Florence. SOURCE

The Etruscan civilization lasted from the 8th century BCE to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. In the 6th century the Etruscans expanded their influence over a wide area of Italy. They founded city-states in northern Italy, and to the south, their influence expanded down into Latium and beyond. Early Rome was deeply influenced by Etruscan culture (the word “Rome” is Etruscan). The Etruscans also gained control of Corsica.

The Archeological Story

(Marco Merola)
Archaeologists working in a large necropolis 75 miles from Rome recently discovered the impressive tomb of an Etruscan noble family dating to the 7th century B.C.

In the nineteenth century, the ancient tombs of Vulci, some 75 miles northwest of Rome and 25 miles west of Viterbo, were a stop on travelers’ Grand Tour of Europe. Since the late eighteenth century, when the first official excavations were undertaken on the orders of Cardinal Guglielmo Pallotta, numerous burials, ranging from the simple to the spectacular, had been found in the area. In the Necropoli dell’Osteria, roughly translated as the “Necropolis of the Pub,” travelers encountered impressively built and richly decorated burials dating from the seventh to fourth centuries B.C. belonging to the Etruscan culture that had once inhabited the region. Some of the tombs had evocative names given to them in contemporary times in order to attract more visitors. There was the Tomb of the Sun and the Moon, the Tomb of the Inlaid Ceiling, and the Tomb of the Panathenaica, named after the sacred athletic and literary games held every four years in Athens to celebrate the goddess Athena. Continue reading HERE.

Excavations of a 2nd century BC burial site in the southern Tuscany region of Italy is providing new insights into Etruscan identity that survived the Roman conquest of Etruria.

The site was discovered in 2017 during a construction project, revealing a settlement and associated burials, which was investigated by researchers at the time but never published.

The settlement is one of few Etruscan sites untouched by looters in antiquity or modernity, allowing researchers to analyze grave goods that are relatively intact, and further understand the distinct Etruscan burial rituals.

According to researchers, the entrenched and distinct characteristics of the Etruscan population survived in the presence of the dominant Roman power and its associated law.

The Etruscan traditions continued for over two centuries following the Roman conquest, shaping the local area with a fusion of both civilization’s social, cultural, and economic habits, until the area was devastated during the Social War between the Roman Republic and several of its autonomous allies (socii) in Italy. SOURCE

Artifacts from Tomb of the Silver Hands, via the Archaeological Institute of America

While trying to relocate the lost Etruscan tombs of Vulci, archaeologists found over twenty unrecorded graves, tombs, and large funerary complexes. Here, they discovered the Tomb of the Silver Hands, which contained some unique finds that shed light on Etruscan society.

Researchers assigned this name to the remarkable tomb because they found two beautifully styled silver hands, still with gold plate remnants, inside the grave. These hands were part of a sphyrelaton, a wooden funerary figure meant to represent the departed and protect the soul after the body was cremated.

In previous research, it was assumed that tombs containing sphyrelatons belonged to warriors or noblemen, but archaeologists found evidence to the contrary in the Tomb of the Silver Hands. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that this tomb belonged to a high-ranking woman in Etruscan society.

Researchers have also discovered evidence suggesting that both men and women were highly literate, regardless of social status. This is indicated by inscribed objects that have been recovered during archaeological excavations. Mirrors, perfume vases, and cosmetic containers with inscriptions have been recovered among grave goods, as well as inscribed ceramic tablets buried with them in tombs.

This image of equality starkly contrasts what we know of the women of ancient Rome. According to ancient Roman records, women were considered unequal to men and were not seen as full citizens. Instead, young Roman women were limited to education as it pertained to running households and were even subject to legal penalties if they remained unmarried by a certain age. SOURCE

Where Did the Ancient Etruscans Come From?

For generations, researchers have wondered who the Etruscans were and where they came from. As early as the fifth century B.C.E., Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the enigmatic people first lived in a faraway land before migrating to the Italian Peninsula.

Now, reports Ariel David for Haaretz, a sweeping genetic survey has confirmed the Etruscans’ origins, suggesting they were local—and proving Herodotus wrong. The new DNA analysis, which was centered on 82 individuals who lived between 800 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E., shows that these ancient people shared many of the same genes as their Roman neighbors. Researchers collected genetic samples from skeletons found across the former region of Etruria, which spanned Tuscany in northern Italy and the central part of the peninsula, as well as the island of Corsica.

As the study’s authors write in the journal Science Advances, “[T]he local gene pool [was] largely maintained across the first millennium B.C.E.” That finding changed dramatically during the time of the Roman Empire, when imperial expansion sparked the incorporation of populations from across the Mediterranean.

“This huge genetic shift in imperial times transforms Italians from a people firmly within the genetic cloud of Europe into a genetic bridge between the Mediterranean and the Near East,” lead author Cosimo Posth, a geneticist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, tells Haaretz.

Earlier archaeological and genetic research indicated that Italy was initially settled about 8,000 years ago by people migrating from Stone Age Europe and, later, the Eurasian steppes and Anatolia.

“The Etruscans look indistinguishable from Latins, and they also carry a high proportion of steppe ancestry,” Posth tells Andrew Curry of Science magazine. Continue reading HERE.

So as you can see with just this blog post, even though it would appear we know quite a bit about the Etruscans, in reality there is so much that has either been lost in time or yet to be uncovered. I personally hope that Archeological excavations along with preservation and studies of ancient Etruscan site continue so that we can further understand these fascinating people who truly had a hand in shaping the Mediterranean world.

Further Resources

History Documentary BBC | Etruscan civilization

Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies

Worlds Intertwined: Etruscans, Greek & Romans

Why the Romans Don’t Want You to Know About the Etruscans

10 things that you may not know about the Etruscans

Who were the Etruscans?

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Tartessos: The Iberian Lost Civilization

One of my passions regarding history are lost or little known ancient civilizations and when I come across or a friend shares with me something about a civilization I have not heard of before I tend to dive into it to learn as much as I can. Recently a friend of mine introduced me to the lost and little known ancient civilization known as Tartessos. Tartessos was a civilization that was located in Southern Spain along the Mediterranean and suddenly disappeared around 500 BCE. So after extensive research I found the best resources to share with you regarding this fascinating civilization.

Tartessos expansion through its existence.

“Tartessos” is the name given by the Greeks to the first Western civilization they knew, which was inhabiting the southwest of Spain. It was the first organized state of the Iberian Peninsula and was highly developed politically and culturally by the end of the second millennium before Christ.

The kingdom of Tartessos was the first one in Spain which had relations with the historical eastern Mediterranean civilizations, like Greeks and Phoenicians, and had with them important commercial relations. Therefore, and for their wealth in minerals, the Tartessos reached great importance. The country of the Tartessos is mentioned in many historical sources as a rich and splendorous kingdom.

The kingdom of Tartessos was located in a region crossed by the river “Tartessos”. This river was later called “Betis” by the Romans and “Guadalquivir” by the Moors.

Roman authors describe the region:

“Tartessos is a river in the land of the Iberians. It reaches the sea by two mouths and between these two mouths lays a city with the same name (Tartessos). The river is the longest in Iberia, has tides, and now is called Baetis”.

That means; with the name Tartessos the Greek and Roman authors identified a river, a kingdom and the capital of this kingdom, located at the mouth of that river. Further details about the location of this capital we find here:

Ephorus (Escimno, 162) writes that the capital Tartessos was two days of travel (1000 stadiums) from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). From Gibraltar to the present mouth of the Guadalquivir there are 900 stadiums.

Despite many detailed descriptions, the capital of Tartessos has not yet been found as the geography of the area has changed during those last 3000 years:

The eastern mouth of the river is the only one that now exists. It is located in the province of Cadiz, and was much wider historically.

The western mouth does not exist anymore, but it is considered that it was located between the current towns Matalascañas and Huelva. In this area today we only find a number of lakes.

Historically, between these two river arms there was a large lagoon, and in this lagoon there was at least one island where the legendary city probably was located.

Neither this lagoon nor any islands exist today, all this is an area of marshes which form a part of the Doñana National Park along the Costa de la Luz. Investigations in Doñana lead to the conclusion that there have been two natural disasters (tsunamis) that caused the islands and dry areas to sink, one of which happened around 1500 BC and the other 200 AC. Continue reading HERE.

With Tartessian tentatively identified as Celtic, and at the very least Indo-European, this might this change our view of the ancient Celts.

Tartessian language

The Tartessian Fonte Velha inscription (Bensafrim, (Lagos)) beginning with “lokooboo niiraboo too aŕaia i kaaltee…” meaning “Invoking the divine Lug of the (Gallaecian) Neri (tribe), this funerary monument for a noble Celt…”. Fonte Velha (Bensafrim, Lagos). Tartessian or Southwest script. Fonte Velha (Bensafrim, Lagos).

Tartessian is an extinct Paleo-Hispanic language found in the Southwestern inscriptions of the Iberian Peninsula, mainly located in the south of Portugal (Algarve and southern Alentejo), and the southwest of Spain (south of Extremadura and western Andalusia). There are 95 such inscriptions, the longest having 82 readable signs. Around one third of them were found in Early Iron Age necropolises or other Iron Age burial sites associated with rich complex burials. It is usual to date them to the 7th century BC and to consider the southwestern script to be the most ancient Paleo-Hispanic script, with characters most closely resembling specific Phoenician letter forms found in inscriptions dated to c. 825 BC. Five of the inscriptions occur on stelae with what has been interpreted as Late Bronze Age carved warrior gear from the Urnfield culture.

Beyond the Aegean, some of the earliest written records of Europe come from the south-west, what is now southern Portugal and south-west Spain. Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, locates the Keltoi or ‘Celts’ in this region, as neighbours of the Kunetes of the Algarve. He calls the latter the ‘westernmost people of Europe’. However, modern scholars have been disinclined – until recently – to consider the possibility that the south-western inscriptions and other early linguistic evidence from the kingdom of Tartessos were Celtic. This book shows how much of this material closely resembles the attested Celtic languages: Celtiberian (spoken in east-central Spain) and Gaulish, as well as the longer surviving langiages of Ireland, Britain and Brittany. In many cases, the 85 Tartessian inscriptions of the period c. 750-c. 450 BC can now be read as complete statements written in an Ancient Celtic language.
Two of the carved figures likely depict goddesses wearing gold earrings. (Image credit: Samuel Sánchez )

Archaeologists in Spain have unearthed five life-size busts of human figures that could be the first-known human depictions of the Tartessos, a people who formed an ancient civilization that disappeared more than 2,500 years ago. 

The carved stone faces, which archaeologists date to the fifth century B.C., were found hidden inside a sealed pit in an adobe temple at Casas del Turuñuelo, an ancient Tartessian site in southern Spain. The pieces were scattered amongst animal bones, mostly from horses, that likely came from a mass sacrifice, according to a translated statement published April 18.

“The unusual thing about the new finding is that the representations correspond to human faces,” Erika López, a spokesperson for the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), said in the statement. 

Archaeologists from the CSIC called this discovery “a profound paradigm shift in the interpretation of [Tartessos],” since this ancient civilization, which existed from about the eighth to the fourth centuries B.C., was long considered an aniconic culture in which divinity was represented through animal or plant motifs, rather than idolized humans, according to the statement. Continue reading HERE.

Tartessos was an ancient harbor city on the southern Iberian (ancient Spain) coast. Greeks considered it an important and wealthy trading partner, rich with metals, silver and gold. In this video, we talk about the rise and fall of the forgotten Tartessian Civilization.
7th century BCE pectoral (brooch on the chest) from the Tartessian Culture. Archaeological Museum of Seville. (SOURCE)

Before the Tartessians

Southwest Andalucia had been an area of rapid development ever since the Neolithic people arrived about 5800 BC. The fertile valley of the Rio Guadalquivir and, to a lesser extent, the narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean coast, together with the wetter climate in the west caused by the prevailing winds off the Atlantic Ocean meeting the west facing highlands of the Sierra Morena, Sierra Grazalema and the Alcornocales, reduced crop failures and encouraged an increase in population, compared to the more arid, eastern parts of Andalucia.

The increase in population had encouraged the formation of family clusters, that became settlements whenever population densities rose above a certain level. This appears to be a phenomenon or urge that is built into the human psyche since it has occurred all over the world at different times, despite there being no possibility of communication between those populations separated geographically and in time.

How the societies developed following the initial clustering depended on the environment, climate and outside influences. In some parts of the world societies have developed to a certain level and then failed, only to be reborn, sometimes on numerous occasions. So it was with the Tartessians.

Soon after the Neolithic period started, people started to claim the land in western Andalucia. From about 4700 BC, they built megalithic structures, symbols on the landscape populated by ancestors, thereby proclaiming their ages long ownership of the land. The megalithic phenomenon expanded from Huelva and Cadiz provinces, up the Guadalquivir valley into Granada and Almeria. The so-called ditched enclosures appeared. These are now thought to have been communal areas demarcated into spaces in which different activities occurred, ceremonial, metalworking, animal butchery as well as in some instances, dwelling spaces. Single burials became multiple burials and, towards the end of the period, regressed back to individual burials, often cremated. The huge site of Valencina de la Concepción at Seville is the most researched site that combines all these features. Continue reading HERE.

Endowed with extraordinary wealth in metals and strategically positioned between the Atlantic and Mediterranean trading routes at the time of Greek and Phoenician colonial expansion, Tartessos flourished in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Tartessos became a literate, sophisticated, urban culture in southwestern Iberia (today’s Spain and Portugal), enriched by commercial contacts with the Aegean and the Levant since at least the ninth century. In its material culture (architecture, grave goods, sanctuaries, plastic arts), we see how native elements combined with imported “orientalizing” innovations introduced by the Phoenicians. Historians of the rank of Herodotos and Livy, geographers such as Strabo and Pliny, Greek and Punic periploi and perhaps even Phoenician and Hebrew texts, testify to the power, wealth, and prominence of this western-most Mediterranean civilization.

Archaeologists, in turn, have demonstrated the existence of a fascinating complex society with both strong local roots and international flare. Yet for still-mysterious reasons, Tartessos did not attain a “Classical” period like its peer emerging cultures did at the same time (Etruscans, Romans, Greeks).

This book combines the expertise of its two authors in archaeology, philology, and cultural history to present a comprehensive, coherent, theoretically up-to-date, and informative overview of the discovery, sources, and debates surrounding this puzzling culture of ancient Iberia and its complex hybrid identity vis-a-vis the western Phoenicians. This book will be of great interest to students of the classics, archaeology and ancient history, Phoenician-Punic studies, colonization and cultural contact.

Further Resources:

The inscription from Mesas do Castelinho, south Portugal, was discovered in September 2008. With 82 readable signs it is now the longest of the corpus of 95 Tartessian inscriptions. These texts survive from the Early Iron Age in the south-western Iberian Peninsula, the earliest writing from Atlantic Europe. By recombining word roots, prefixes and endings previously attested, the new inscription permits a major breakthrough with the language, confirming word divisions and contributing to the critical mass of evidence. It is now possible to take the case for Tartessian as an Indo-European and specifically Celtic language a step further, to ask what sort of Celtic language Tartessian was and how its syntax and sound system compares with those of Celtiberian, Gaulish, Old Irish and Welsh.

The Iberian civilisation that vanished

The Ancient People Who Burned Their Culture to the Ground

First ever human depiction of lost Tartessos civilization uncovered in Spain

Tartessian