FLORENCE, ITALY – Archaeologists in Mugello have discovered a rare sacred text in the Etruscan language that is likely to yield rich details about Etruscan worship of a god or goddess.
The lengthy text is inscribed on a large 6th century BCE sandstone slab that was uncovered from an Etruscan temple. A new religious artifact is rare: most Etruscan discoveries typically have been grave and funeral objects.
“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said in a press release archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery.
The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, said Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, main sponsor of the project.
Scholars in the field predict the stele (STEE-lee), as such slabs are called, will yield a wealth of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans. The stele has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, likely with new words never seen before. The Etruscan civilization once ruled Rome and influenced Romans on everything from religion to government to art to architecture.
Considered one of the most religious people of the ancient world, Etruscan life was permeated by religion, and ruling magistrates also exercised religious authority.
The slab would have been connected to the early sacred life of the sanctuary there. The architecture then was characterized by timber-framed oval structures pre-dating a large temple with an imposing stone podium and large stone column bases of the Tuscan Doric type, five of which have been found at the site, Warden said.
Scientists examine the Etruscan stele, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide.
Conservation and study of the stele, with full photogrammetry and laser scanning to document all aspects of the conservation process and all details of the inscribed surfaces, is underway in the next few months at the conservation laboratories of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency in Florence by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone, likely from a local source, is heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened, possibly from undergoing burning in antiquity. Cleaning will allow scholars to read the inscription.
In two decades of digging, Mugello Valley Archaeological Project has unearthed objects about Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. This wealth of material helps document the ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE, including gold jewelry, coins, the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art, and in the past two seasons, four 6th-century bronze statuettes.
Etruscans were a highly cultured people, but very little of their writing has been preserved, mostly just short funerary inscriptions with names and titles, said archaeologist Ingrid Edlund-Berry, professor emerita, The University of Texas at Austin.
“So any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge,” said Edlund-Berry, an expert in Etruscan civilization. “It is very interesting that the stele was found within the walls of the buildings at the site, thus suggesting that it was re-used, and that it represents an early phase at the site.”
The Poggio Colla site is in northern Etruria. Most inscriptions have come from centers further south, Edlund-Berry said. The stele was officially reported during a scientific exhibit of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency starting March 19, Shadow of the Etruscans, in Prato, Italy.