New Light on the Ancient Etruscans: Discoveries at the Sanctuary of Poggio Colla in Tuscany

The Etruscans were one of the great powers of the Mediterranean in the first millennium BCE, but knowledge of their culture has remained elusive. Often referred to as a lost culture, their history and literature are lost, and we know them mostly from Greek and Roman accounts. The Etruscan language is still not well understood, and until recently the Etruscans were known primarily from their funerary remains, the vast cemeteries of central Italy that have been haphazardly excavated since the Renaissance.

Recent scientific exploration of settlements and sanctuaries (not just tombs!) is providing new information about all aspects of Etruscan society. At the forefront of this research has been the site of Poggio Colla, a hilltop sanctuary and vast settlement at the northern edge of Tuscany, in the foothills of the Apennines about 22 miles northeast of Florence, that has been explored by a group of American and English universities since 1995. The sanctuary proper has produced monumental architecture that spans centuries of Etruscan history as well as a dramatic series of rich deposits (including bronze figurines, gold jewelry, coins, etc.) which shed new light on Etruscan ritual. Most important, the settlement documents the life of all strata of society, not just the elites.

Of particular interest has been the evidence for the activity of the Etruscan women who had a pivotal role in the life of the sanctuary. In addition to the evidence for female agency, the site has produced a sanctuary that was dedicated to a female divinity, a cult seemingly connected to fertility through worship at an underground fissure. Exceptional was the discovery of ceramics showing the earliest scene of childbirth in European art, and most recently the sanctuary has produced a remarkable stone stele that has one of the longest Etruscan inscriptions found to date. It is one of the three longest Etruscan sacred texts ever found, and it is the earliest as well as the only one with a secure archaeological context. Its decipherment offers substantial challenges, but it promises to shed new light on Etruscan culture and religion.

Greg Warden is President and Professor of Archaeology at Franklin University Switzerland. He is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at SMU and consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology. His research and teaching have been supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and have been featured in the documentary, Etruscan Odyssey, Expanding Archaeology. Warden is the founder, Principal Investigator, and co-Director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project. Since 1995 this international project has trained students from over seventy universities and has included scholars from seven countries; it has been featured in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, in the European media, as well as on the Discovery Channel. Warden was awarded the title of Cavaliere (Knight) in the Order of the Star of Italy by the Republic of Italy for his sustained contributions to Italian culture.

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