The Etruscan period begins around 700 BC, when the first surviving historic documents were written in the Etruscan language. Etruscan society evolved directly from the prehistoric Iron Age. Many of the most characteristic features of Etruscan society- settlement in towns, distinctive cultural customs, production of goods for regional and long-distance trade and exchange-were present in incipient form during the Iron Age. Early Etruscans also were influenced by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and other contemporary Mediterranean societies.
The Orientalizing period (700-575 BC) is named for the imported goods and foreign styles adopted by the Etruscans during this time. The early Etruscans’ economic power was based on mineral and agricultural resources, which they transformed into goods for exchange. They cut a dashing figure across the Mediterranean, renowned for their seafaring skills as traders and pirates. As reflected in their art, monuments, and historical documents, Etruscans of the Orientalizing period were prosperous and cultured.
The Orientalizing period saw the transition from village to town life in Etruria. Excavations in Etruscan towns of this period have revealed signs of urban planning and public works, such as streets, drainage channels, reservoirs, retaining walls, fortifications, and sanctuaries. Volterra, in northern Etruria, became a small, fortified settlement at this time. In the seventh century BC, the numerous villages on the Volterran hilltop agglomerated into a single town. In the sixth century a circuit of walls was built to enclose the town, and sanctuaries were demarcated throughout the city. Differences among dwelling and burial types were accentuated, indicating that an aristocracy of prominent families had formed.
A similar type of urban development occurred in many other cities in Etruria and Latium (modern-day Lazio), including Roselle, Veio, Vetulonia, and Tarquinia. Across Etruria there was a significant change in domestic architecture during the Orientalizing period. Stone houses, presumably elite residences, appeared among the thatched huts. Excavations at Poggio Civitate, near Murlo, have uncovered the remains of a princely residence built during the seventh century BC. The complex at Poggio Civitate was built of rubble foundations, earthen walls coated with lime plaster, and beaten-earth floors. The roof was tiled and decorated with terra-cotta sculpture.
The buildings were placed in a U shape around a central courtyard. Two wings of the complex were residential, while the third served as a workshop for crafts made of metal, glass, pottery, wool, and other materials. A fire destroyed the Orientalizing period residence, and a second complex was built at Poggio Civitate in the early sixth century BC, or the beginning of the Archaic period of Etruscan history (575-470 BC). The early Archaic building surrounded a central courtyard, with colonnaded porches on three sides. At least twenty-three statues stood on the peak of the roof, including the famous seated “cowboy” figure, with his distinctive hat. Watchtowers were located at two corners of the complex.
Cemeteries surrounded Etruscan towns. Early cemeteries were placed next to hilltop settlements; as town populations grew during the Orientalizing period, burial areas spread down the hill. The rock-cut Tomb of the Five Chairs at Cerveteri, dating to the second half of the seventh century BC, provides some insight into burial rites of the time. The main chamber of the tomb held two bodies, while a side chamber provided space for mourners to worship an ancestor cult. Five chairs were carved from rock to hold terra-cotta statues representing ancestors, two women and three men. The ancestor statues sat before rock-carved tables laden with food offerings. A nearby altar held their drinks. Two empty chairs allowed the buried couple to join their ancestors at the feast. By the seventh century, burials show clear evidence of status differentiation according to gender, socioeconomic status, and region. While existing burial traditions continued, during the Orientalizing period the elite classes began building elaborate chamber tombs covered with tumuli (mounds).
Chamber tombs were carved out from soft volcanic rock faces or built from stone slabs or blocks. Their mounds could be as large as 30-40 meters in diameter and 12-15 meters high. A particularly grand example is the Tomb of the Chariots, Populonium, from the middle of the Orientalizing period (midseventh to early sixth century BC). Under a tumulus 28 meters in diameter, the tomb contained funerary beds for four occupants. At least one woman, with gold jewelry, was buried in the tomb. She was accompanied by men, who were provided with a chariot and two-wheeled carriage.
Traditional Etruscan worship in open-air sanctuaries continued during the Orientalizing period, but new religious practices also arose. Influenced by Greek ideas, Etruscans began using enclosed structures for worship and representing gods in human form. The earliest known temple in Etruria, built around 600 BC, was excavated at Veio. It took the form of a large house; a distinctive architectural form would not be developed for Etruscan temples until the Archaic period.
By the Orientalizing period the Etruscan agricultural system was specialized and intensified, allowing farmers to support the growing town population. Drainage and irrigation techniques improved poor land, and new farming technologies, such as ironclad wooden plowshares, allowed farmers to work more efficiently. Farmers exchanged their surplus subsistence and luxury foodstuffs for craft goods. Craft production became increasingly specialized and intensified during the Orientalizing period. Etruscans were adept at numerous arts and crafts, including pottery, metalworking, and sculpture.
Technological improvements, learned from the Greeks, transformed Etruscan pottery production. Potters purified clay, built vessels on the fast wheel, and fired them at high temperatures in closed kilns. As production became more specialized and intensified during this period, pottery forms were increasingly standardized and distributed in a wide area. Bucchero, a kind of tableware with a distinctive gray core, glossy black surface, and stamped or molded decoration, was a famous Etruscan pottery product of the Orientalizing period. Other fine pottery wares included black figure vase painting, produced locally after eastern Greek models.
Metalworking remained an important industry at this time. Bronze was worked into vessels, utensils, armor, furniture, chariots, and carriages. Metalwork ornamentation was inspired by eastern styles, incorporating floral patterns, animals, humans, and divine figures. Etruscan bronze products were exported widely, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond the Alps. Etruria also was famous for jewelry production, particularly ornaments decorated with gold granulation (using fine beads of gold) and filigree (using fine spiral gold and silver wire). Etruscans probably learned these techniques from the Syrians or the Phoenicians.
Trade grew steadily. Beginning in the eighth century, Etruscans had extensive trade contact with eastern Mediterranean cultures, notably Greece and Phoenicia. Recovered shipwrecks were loaded with Etruscan trade goods: pottery and other crafts and amphorae filled with agricultural products, such as pine nuts, wine, and olives. In exchange, the Etruscans imported the eastern luxury goods found in such abundance in aristocratic graves. Etruscan trade was not administered centrally. Instead, many small political units, controlled by the elite, competed on more or less equal terms. The Greeks also established trade towns on the coast of southern Etruria, and Greek craft producers settled permanently to work in Etruria.
BOOKS OF INTEREST
Banti, Luisa. Etruscan Cities and Their Culture, 1973.
Barker, Graeme, and Tom Rasmussen. The Etruscans, 1998.
Boëthius, Axel. Etruscan and Roman Architecture, 1970.
Brendel, Otto J. Etruscan Art., 1995.
Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-263 BC. 1995.
Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History.
Macnamara, Ellen. The Etruscans, 1991.