Etruscan Italy – ORIENTALIZING PERIOD

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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 As reflected in their art, monuments, and historical documents, Etruscans of the Orientalizing period were prosperous and cultured.

Settlements

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

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.

Religion

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.

Economy

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.

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Etruscan Italy – Iron Age

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The Etruscans originated in central Italy around 900 BC and were absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 80s BC. During the first millennium BC, they developed the earliest complex society in Italy. In common with other Mediterranean civilizations of their time, the Etruscans lived in city-states, had a specialized agricultural and craft economy, and exchanged goods and ideas with their neighbors. Distinctive to the Etruscans was their religion, social and political structure, and language. There is a wealth of archaeological evidence for Etruscan settlements, economy, society, and culture, including the remains of cities, towns, cemeteries, and everyday objects.

IRON AGE

The traditional Etruscan territory in central Italy is delineated by the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, the Apennines in the east, and the Arno and Tiber Rivers to the north and south. The Etruscan civilization arose out of the culture and society that developed in this area during the Late Bronze Age (1300-900 BC) and Iron Age (900-700 BC). During the Iron Age, the roots of Etruscan cities, economy, religion, and language were established.

Settlements

Most of the great Etruscan cities of later times originated as villages in the Iron Age. In southern Etruria, Iron Age villages usually were situated on volcanic tufa plateaus (Veio, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Orvieto). In central and northern Etruria, villages more often were built on isolated hilltops dominating the sea or inland waterways- Populonium (modern-day Populania), Vetulonia, Volterra, Chiusi, Cortona, and Arezzo. Small farms and hamlets surrounded Iron Age villages. Excavations at Volterra, in northern Etruria, provide archaeological evidence for early settlement patterns in one Etruscan city. During the Iron Age many small villages coexisted on the Volterran hilltop, placed wherever there was relatively flat land and a spring to provide water. Roadways leading into the countryside radiated out from the hilltop in every direction. Along these routes several burial areas developed. Excavations at Tarquinia, in southern Etruria, have recovered evidence for Iron Age dwellings. Two kinds of huts were found in the Iron Age village: larger oval or rectangular huts, approximately 13 by 7 meters, that could have housed an extended family and smaller huts, approximately 5 by 4 meters, that could have housed a nuclear family. The area between the huts may have been used for growing small cottage gardens and keeping animals and poultry. Drainage channels carried rainwater away from the dwellings and into a central cistern. Iron Age huts were built on foundation trenches cut into soil or rock. Exterior timber posts were set into holes in the foundation, to support the thatched roof. Walls were made of wattle screens woven from reeds and branches and covered with daub (clay). The door usually was placed at the short end of the structure and sometimes was protected by a small porch. Inside the hut was a central hearth, circular in shape. The interior may have been divided by a screen into a front and a back room.

Cemeteries

Iron Age cemeteries were located outside villages, usually on surrounding hillsides. During the ninth century BC, most individuals were cremated and their ashes placed into decorated pottery urns. The urns were buried, along with modest grave goods, in tombs cut into soil or rock. Toward the end of the Iron Age new burial customs emerged in central Italy, interpreted as evidence of the development of an aristocracy. By the eighth century BC, a few rich burials appear among many more common ones, distinguished by their more numerous and expensive grave goods, especially fine metalwork.

Language and Religion

During the Iron Age a common culture developed among the residents of Etruria. The Etruscan language and religion were among the most significant elements in the culture. Etruscan is not an Indo-European language and is not related to the languages of neighboring Italic peoples. The Etruscans learned the alphabet from Greeks who settled in southern Italy and used it to write down their own language. The first texts written in Etruscan date to the end of the Iron Age, around 700 BC. The Etruscan religion, as we know it from the historical period, incorporated early cult practices from the Iron Age. The Etruscans believed that divinities determined the course of events in the human world. Etruscan worship took place in sacred groves, caves, and springs, where divinities were thought to reside. The role of Etruscan priests was to learn the will of the gods and then to follow the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Individual worshippers asked for divine favor by sacrificing animals for the gods, offering them food or drink, or giving them other gifts. A spring at Banditella, near Vulci, was a sanctuary as early as the Middle Bronze Age (seventeenth century BC) into Etruscan times, indicating the continuity of religious practices from prehistory into the historic era.

Economy

The Iron Age economy was largely self-sufficient: each Etruscan village produced everything it needed. Agriculture was the foundation of the economy. Farmers grew cereals, legumes, fruits, nuts, and vegetables and raised sheep, goats, and pigs. Villagers also hunted, fished, and gathered in nearby woods and waters. Most tools, utensils, clothing, and other goods were made by each household for its own use. Certain specialized and luxury items were produced in Etruria and distributed throughout central Italy, the Mediterranean, and north of the Alps. By the Iron Age, a specialized metal industry already existed in Etruria. Metals were mined from the Colline Metallifere, or “metalbearing hills,” and fashioned into metal objects in nearby Populonium and Vetulonia. In exchange, luxury objects were imported from Greece, Phoenicia, and Sardinia.

Society

By the end of the Iron Age Etruscan society probably included several classes, linked through patron-client ties. Farmers met their own needs and also produced goods and labor for petty chiefs. In exchange, the petty chiefs provided their clients with protection, communal works, and foodstuffs. The petty chiefs, in turn, were clients of paramount chiefs, who redistributed foodstuffs and prestige goods regionally.

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.