Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.11

Marisa Bonamici (ed.), Volterra: l'acropoli e il suo santuario. Scavi 1987-1995. 2 vols. Terra Italia: Collana di studi archeologici sull'Italia antica no.6.   Pisa:  Giardini, 2003.  Pp. 599; pls. 8.  ISBN 88-427-0302-8.  €300.00.  

Contributors: Susanna Bianchi, Giuliana Bulgarelli, Mario Iozzo, Luigi Palermo, Pasquino Pallecchi, Laura Pellegrineschi, Maurizio Pistolesi, Germana Pro, and Claudio Sorrentino


Reviewed by W.V. Harris, History, Columbia University (wvh1@columbia.edu)
Word count: 1334 words

This is the record of eight years of excavation campaigns (down to 1995) in the acropolis sanctuary of the Etruscan town of Velathri (modern Volterra), a sanctuary which seems to have had a continuous life stretching from at least the seventh century B.C . to at least the third century A.D. The report is dedicated to the late Mauro Cristofani, a previous excavator of the same site and 'the true discoverer of the Volterran acropolis', a fine scholar much missed by those who knew him. In sober truth, however, it was Doro Levi in 1928 who first correctly diagnosed the religious nature of the site, and he saw that the find of an ugly little votive bronze of Orientalizing date on his excavation (pl. XXV.1 in this publication) implies that the site was a religious one at the time when the bronze was manufactured.

The first chapter of the report concerns the history of investigations of the sanctuary site, the second the various building phases. Chapter III describes the surviving building materials, chiefly the terracottas; chapter IV some fragments of a second-century B.C. fresco; and chapter V (the entire second volume) the portable finds. A short chapter of conclusions follows; there are no indexes.

Volterra prior to the fourth century B.C., as distinct from its territory, has always been, if not a blank page, certainly not much more. In view of the rich copper sources that were relatively near, it should have been one of the richest of the Etruscan towns in archaic times, but the material record has never quite lived up to that supposition. It is therefore reassuring to see that the sanctuary on the acropolis, which is likely to have belonged to the chief deity or deities of the city, can now be dated back to the seventh century and was renovated from time to time in the sixth and fifth centuries; the shortage of material from other parts of the early city of Velathri may well be attributable, as has often been suggested, to the mere fact of continuous occupation. Mario Iozzo's description of the Attic vase fragments, miserable though they are in size, makes it clear that Velathri was far from being a complete backwater between the sixth century and the fourth; compare his contribution to Martin Bentz & Christoph Reusser (eds.), Attische Vasen in etruskischem Kontext (Beihefte zum CVA Deutschland 2) (Munich, 2004).

Bonamici traces an occasionally amusing story of what people have said about and done to the sanctuary site since the Medici sacked Volterra in 1472. In the seventeenth century the Volterran acropolis was the mountain where Noah landed at end of the flood. In the 1920s, archaeologists wanted to emulate Rome ('this is, so to speak, our Palatine'), and for a while exploited, on this site, the unpaid labor of the inmates of the local frenocomio (lunatic asylum); there is no evidence that these outcasts were any worse excavators than anyone else.

The main author and her collaborators describe the various phases of the sanctuary's construction and renovation in meticulous detail, though it is not until we reach Temple B, about 200 B.C., that the overall ground-plan becomes reasonably clear. A color-coded plan, which required eleven colors, is helpful (though not perfect: one color fails to appear in the key). Exactly what preceded the Hellenistic temples will presumably never be known, though, as Giovanni Colonna has observed, the plan of Temple B was highly conservative and probably reflected an earlier building on the same site. It has to be admitted that we learn little about Temple B from all this new work that was not known to Cristofani and set out by Colonna (in Colonna (ed.), Santuari d'Etruria [Milan, 1985], 95-97).

Temple A dates from very roughly half a century later. Thus a town that was a subject ally of Rome in the second century B.C. was able to construct two new temples. But scholars have long known about this, and it is a familiar fact that the more fortunate Italian allies did quite well out of Rome's second-century imperialism. However Bonamici's speculation that Volaterrae prospered in the second century could only be verified by a wider consideration of the evidence from Volterra and its territory (such as I once very briefly attempted; more recently see above all N. Terrenato, 'Tam firmum municipium: the Romanization of Volaterrae and its Cultural Implications', JRS 88 [1998], 94-114, an article not apparently known to Bonamici, who is otherwise quite comprehensive about recent bibliography). With regard to cultural change in this period, Bonamici and her colleagues have little to offer. She suggests that second-century Velathri was 'threatened' by 'spreading cosmopolitanism', an odd expression: the threat came from Rome, and in the first century B.C. it was largely fulfilled. As for cosmopolitanism, the Etruscans had been a Greek Randvolk for centuries without ever coming close to losing their own identity.

It is regrettably unclear what finally happened to these temples. Mediaeval structures were built directly on top of them, so it seems. A stratum of destroyed material in a Hellenistic building a few meters away from the two temples seems to have come into being in the first century B.C. (ceramic evidence gives the chronology), but according to Bonamici this was not a direct consequence of the siege carried out in 81 to 79 by the forces of Sulla (and the literary sources seem to mean that, although the siege was eventually successful, the town was not in fact laid waste). Is the whole subsequent history of the sanctuary simply a history of neglect? Cicero wrote much later that the Volaterrani 'escaped the disaster of the Sullan years thanks to the kindness of the immortal gods' (Fam. 13, 4, 1): if so, they do not seem to have repaid the kindness with much enthusiasm. Nothing on this site encourages us to believe the assertion of the unreliable Liber Coloniarum -- accepted in this report -- that Volaterrae became a colony under the Triumvirate. Bonamici revives Cristofani's notion that both the acropolis temples perished in the third century A.D., but that was simply based on the finding of a single coin of Gordian III, which only gives a terminus post quem. The new excavation brought forth a coin of Alexander Severus and some 'African' sigillata.

Apart from the buildings themselves, the most valuable new material (the fragments of fresco will have excited only the most devoted specialists) is the rather abundant black-glazed pottery, which is expertly analysed here by Luigi Palermo (and see more recently E. Gliozzo & I. Memmi Turbanti, 'Black Gloss Pottery: Production Sites and Technology in Northern Etruria, part 1: Provenance Studies', Archaeometry 46 [2004], 201-225). But are we getting anywhere with this class of material? The experts can provenance and roughly date a large proportion of it, but does it teach us anything much? Most of it is local -- Palermo estimates that 94 per cent of his Volterran material is Volterran in origin. As to whether, for instance, there were any technical manufacturing improvements over the centuries, or as to how production was organized, we still remain in the dark.

300 euros! Yet these volumes are imperfect on a number of scores, graphic design for one. Of course it is pointless to complain about the price: Volterran honor no doubt required a costly product. Let it be said, though, that Giardini could very easily have produced a publication that ordinary archaeologists could afford, if the authors and the publisher had had the sense to put all the ceramic details, and many other minor pieces of information, on a CD, and tucked it inside the back cover. For more information about what has happened at this site since 1995, one must consult above all the Quaderni del Laboratorio Universitario Volterrano, published in Pisa -- which you cannot find in the USA, partly because Etruscan studies are sparsely represented here, but partly because university libraries are, as usual, strapped for funds (and, no, it is not available online).

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