Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.53

Fabio Colivicchi, Materiali in alabastro, vetro, avorio, osso, uova di struzzo. Materiali del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Tarquinia XVI.   Roma:  Giorgio Bretschneider, 2007.  Pp. xi, 258; 53 p. of figs., 8 p. of plts.  ISBN 9788876892311.  €200.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jean MacIntosh Turfa, University of Pennsylvania Museum (
Word count: 3209 words

For several years, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Tarquinia has implemented a program of publishing old finds from its collection, and it is a great boon to researchers finally to be able to access this information. The catalogues thus far published cover several vase fabrics, both Etruscan and imported, and Etruscan and Roman bronzes, Orientalizing sculpture (lastroni a scala), terracottas, coins, mirrors and important contexts of finds kept in the Museo, such as the Ara della Regina votive deposit, and the Tomba della Scrofa nera -- a new release by Valentina Vincenti (MMAT XVII, 2009) will cover the Tarquinian painted Tomba Bruschi. Mario Torelli's preface (v-vi) notes that additional volumes are in preparation or in press on Etrusco-Corinthian, Corinthian, Bucchero, Black Gloss, and Attic Red Figure pottery.

In addition to the museum catalogues and the abundant literature on the painted tombs of Tarquinia, recent projects have published excavation contexts (see, amply cited by C., F.R. Serra Ridgway, I corredi del Fondo Scataglini at Tarquinia, Milan 1996 (BMCR 96.08.16), and F.R. Serra Ridgway and R.E. Linington, Lo scavo del Fondo Scataglini at Tarquinia, Milan 1997). For general background, the paperback by Robert Leighton, Tarquinia. An Etruscan City (London, Duckworth 2004) is excellent and thorough (BMCR 2005.07.30).

The old finds in exotic materials, reposing still in the museum, undoubtedly came from the tombs of ancient Tarquinii, but today are frequently bereft of their original contexts. Much of the material in this volume has also been the subject of laurea theses or dissertations, including the work of Simona de Santis on stone vases and glass, and Elena Moretti on bone, ivory and eggshell, both at the University of Perugia.

The early collection at Tarquinia was formed by the merger of the collections of the Counts Bruschi and the municipal collection, displayed in Palazzo Vitelleschi in 1916. The Bruschi materials, assembled between 1864 and 1874 and consigned to the state in 1913, came mainly from the necropolis on Monterozzi. The "Raccolta Comunale" was mainly excavated on public lands between 1874 and 1896. These included sites in the Archaic-Classical necropolis of Corneto and at several Iron Age (Villanovan) burial sites (Secondi Archi, Arcatelle), and also excavations on the Pian di Civitá. Few of these excavations were originally formally documented, although simple references had often appeared in Notizie degli Scavi and painstaking work by scholars such as Hugh Hencken (Tarquinia, Villanovans and Early Etruscans, Cambridge MA, 1968) restored some documentation. Some objects have lost their original inventory numbers, so will hereafter presumably be referred to by Colivicchi's catalogue numbering. It would be wrong to criticize the authors of the current Tarquinia studies for the sins of predecessors who allowed information to be lost, but the impressive character of some of these luxury goods, and the frequent presence of some simpler types (balsamarii, bone handles, etc.) in museums around the globe, really makes one regret the loss of context. The citizens of a maritime metropolis such as Tarquinii certainly enjoyed a rich artistic environment with--in the 5th to 1st c. BCE--significant native industries producing a variety of handsome goods for large groups of urban consumers.

The objects range in date from the Villanovan era (bone plaque ornaments, stone vases) through the first centuries of the Roman Empire (bone game pieces with Latin inscriptions, molded glass cups). A few pieces are post-antique, such as fragmentary medieval chalice stems (Nos. 294-296) perhaps from the Bruschi Collection. Categories are by material: vases and objects in stone (alabaster, gypsum, serpentine); glass (core-formed, molded, blown); bone and ivory; ostrich egg-shell; within media, categories are determined by shape or function. Each medium is introduced by a brief, authoritative historical background. Imports (here mainly the stone vessels) are treated along with types produced in Etruria. Carefully reasoned conclusions (pp. 225-232) nicely link the finds with the social and economic history of Tarquinia and Etruria. Selecting a portion of a vast museum collection by material is understandable, as the techniques of manufacture and fashions for materials over time can create certain associations, although this does break up the few tomb groups which we can identify.

This type of study would benefit greatly from analytical materials studies for identification of sources and techniques; some studies elsewhere are cited in the notes. Identification is based mainly on typological associations. Quite a lot of material is of the Roman period in Etruria--but this is also the case for many collections, like those of US museums, that were formed in the 19th century, so we can expect to find parallels in other collections. Sadly, only a handful of possible tomb groups can now be discerned--yet the painstaking research that has provided this much information is proof that it is never a hopeless enterprise, and by process of elimination and scrutiny of the 19th-century art market, we may yet make more connections between contexts and museum pieces.

The catalogue entries are bare-bones in most cases, simple measurements and a very brief description; a small percentage of entries cites parallels for dating or stylistic comparison. All items have either photos (glass, some bone, ostrich-eggshell) or drawings (but unfortunately not both--without photos of the surfaces of the stone vessels, we have no indication of the markings of the different stones to bolster the author's assertions of their quality and common sources). Unfortunately, about all that can be said for most items is that they are from Tarquinia, almost certainly from tombs. Help with dating or parallels for imports can only proceed from the neatly compiled and useful comparanda cited. This is primarily a reference for those seeking parallels to objects under study elsewhere, but a few broader issues and historically curious items may be noted.

A possible eleven tomb groups are indicated in the text, some with objects of different categories actually found together. In lieu of a concordance, I note them here (see text for full citations, including dating, etc.):

List of Tomb Contexts Represented in MMAT XVI: (In order of: Tomb--Date--Objects--Reference [NS = Notizie degli Scavi])

1.) Male tomb in Arcatelle (see Colivicchi pp. 58-60)--Villanovan I--Stone plastic vase (handle) No. 135 (NS 1881: 359)

2.) Monterozzi, near Arcatelle, 2-bench chamber tomb excavated 1882--7th-6th c.--two gypsum bowls, gypsum pestle, Nos. 132, 134, 164 (NS 1882: 210)

3.) Plundered tomb between T. Auguri and T. Barone, OR Helbig's T. "Del Pettorale d'Oro"--7th c./Orientalizing--Ostrich eggs Nos. 550, 554, bone appliqué panthers No. 335 (See Colivicchi p. 164)

4.) Excavations of 1877-1878 (possibly) according to inventory in museum--Archaic Bone plaques from box: Nos. 297-299 (See references Colivicchi p. 153)

5.) Tomba "Con Alberelli e Corone"?--End 6th- begin. 5th c.--Bone veneers for box: Nos. 323, 327-330 (NS 1885: 442)

6.) Tomb XIX excavated 1877 near Tomba del Barone--5th c.--Glass alabastron No. 168 (Helbig, Bull.Inst. 1878:180-181)--tomb held many other documented finds.

7.) Probably Tomb of the Atie family, near Tomba dell'Orco, excavated 1877--4th c.--Bone feet of casket No. 336 (Bruschi Collection--see Colivicchi p. 165)

8.) Probably an Arcatelle tomb excavated 1883--4th c.--Bone distaff No. 400--(NS 1885: 459)

9.) Tomb excavated 1894 near T. Querciola no. 4--4th c.--Bone parasol No.453--(NS 1894: 53)--For other rich goods, see Colivicchi p. 191.

10.) Monterozzi, from one of 360 tombs excavated 1879-1880--4th c. or later--Stone hydria No. 99 (NS 1880: 224)

11.) Single-deposition chamber tomb--End 4th-3rd c.--Bone hairpin No. 455--(NS 1888: 693-694)

Stone vessels (pp. 3-33), in alabaster or calcite (now technically designated either calcareous alabaster, or travertine). Although sources are known in Italy (Montalcino near Siena and elsewhere), there is no indication that they were used in Etruscan antiquity, and we should assume that all the fine stone vessels seen in Etruscan and related contexts came either as blanks or finished products from Egypt. (On quarries etc., see B. Aston, J. Harrell and I. Shaw, "2. Stone," in P.T. Nicholson and I. Shaw, eds., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge, 2000) 5-77, here pp. 21-22, 59-60.) Here all but two vases represent alabastra or unguentaria; we see increasing haste in manufacture as vases of the 5th century and later are often made in pieces rather than drilled whole.

A fine confirmation of Pliny's comment that "unguenta optime servantur in alabastris" (NH 13.3), has been identified in the recently excavated tomb of Thania Presnti Plecunia daughter of Umranei at Chiusi (first half of 2nd c. BCE), where an alabastron preserved a thick unguent analyzed as containing pine and mastic resin and other aromatic vegetable substances such as moringa oil: see M.P. Colombini, G. Giachi, M. Iozzo and E. Ribechini, "An Etruscan ointment from Chiusi (Tuscany, Italy): its chemical characterization," Journal of Archaeological Science 30, 2009:1-8. Prof. Adrian Harrison (Dept. of Animal and Veterinary Basic Sciences, University of Copenhagen) has provisionally reconstructed this and it is very pleasant, probably used as an ointment as much as for scent. C. points out that, (in contrast to this rare find), by this time (3rd to 1st c. BCE), many alabastra and fusiform unguentaria were being produced for single-use funerary ceremonies and had only minimal cavities for perfumes. (Fusiform types in gypsum are made only in the Hellenistic period, in imitation of ceramic flasks, p. 47.)

Two large vases, a Ptolemaic hydria (No. 99) and an Egyptian bag-shaped urn (No. 100) may have served as cinerary urns, although no human remains are associated with them. C. (p. 33) in reference to the latter, notes the long life of such valuable pieces, citing the fine vase which was inscribed as a gift of Xerxes to the Hekatomnids and deposited as an heirloom in the Maussolleion at Halikarnassos. A good source of stone led to early (5th c.) Sicilian production of gypsum vessels, and an even earlier history has been demonstrated for Tarquinia. No. 135 is a sample of Iron Age sculpture, fragments of an early Villanovan gypsum vase with seated female figurine-handle from a man's tomb in the Arcatelle necropolis--a very rare figure sculpture from Etruria to compare with the clay figures sometimes found in Latial burials and the plastic handles on so-called kernoi in impasto from Villanovan Tarquinia. Analysis suggests the stone was quarried near Volterra, and opens the possibility of an Etruscan stone workshop operating during advanced Iron I (see references pp. 58-60). The evidence grows for early close contacts with the Near East.

Gypsum also appears in perfume vases (especially Hellenistic alabastra with feet) and other small items (pp. 35-67), and these seem much more common in Etruscan/Italian contexts than the "alabaster" types. Locally made gypsum cosmetics containers begin in the 6th c. and local products continue for some time. Of note is an alabastron (No. 124) terminating in Egyptianizing female head, a 7th-6th-century type known from the "Isis tomb" at Vulci (where East Greek sources are suggested), and also in Etruscan imitations of Egyptian originals, such as Tarquinia No. 124. In the mid-6th c. imports of Egyptian alabastra begin and continue, alongside local gypsum products, into the 5th c. There seems to be no great decline in these imports or their quality during the supposed economic "crisis" of the 5th c., a situation analogous to that for Attic pottery imports at Tarquinia, whether in the necropolis or the sanctuary at Gravisca (p. 226).

Later rarities are a Classical gypsum figurine of a banqueter (No. 166), well known in terracotta in Tarentine funerary cult, and a heavy, imported gypsum pestle and bowls (Nos. 164, 132, 134 from the same tomb) attested in other Archaic tombs in Etruria and environs. Gypsum discs from a Hellenistic composite funeral kline (pp. 61-66), along with stone and glass vases illustrate Etruria's continued integration into the Mediterranean koine.

Glass is categorized according to technique of manufacture, which is usually chronologically significant: core-formed, cast and mold-pressed, and blown (lengthy discussions pp. 73-78, 89-109, 117-118). Glass beads have been omitted from the catalogue since most came from Iron Age burials that have already been published by Hencken, nor has C. wanted to "dismember" (p. viii) the composite ornaments of mixed media such as bone, amber, bronze, shell and glass. (Tarquinia had one of the earliest glass workshops, producing balsamarii and beads in the late 8th c., but its products are lacking from this collection, nor are there any examples of the precocious Iron Age Etruscan glass production of fibula-bows and "hedgehog vases/ vasi irsuti," known elsewhere. Tarquinian production seems to resume in the 6th c. with small perfume vases, and continues through the Hellenistic period, when this was a major center. Most glass vases are 5th-c. and later miniature vases and bowls/cups, and some are paralleled in the votives of Gravisca. Miniature 4th-3rd c. wine-vases may attest to the wine container industry's reinventing itself (for production of perfume) during a period of recession. Many vases here are Late Hellenistic; the blown pieces, of course, are 1st-2nd c. CE. Types include balsamarii, which copy ceramic and stone forms and replace the core-formed types, a number of bowls that seem to imitate onyx and other colored stones, and a number of simple discoid game pieces.

Useful, especially for students, in addition to the references cited by C., are: P.R.S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries. The Archaeological Evidence (Oxford, 1994, BMCR 95.12.12) on glass pp. 189-215; chaps. 1-3 cover stone, bone, ivory and eggshell. Concise description and illustrations of the techniques of glass making: E.M. Stern, "Glass Production," in J.P. Oleson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (2008) 520-547. For background on glass, see also P.T. Nicholson and J. Henderson, "Glass," in Nicholson and Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, 195-224. For additional background on ostrich eggs as artists' media, see J. Phillips, "Ostrich eggshells," ibid., 332-333 with references. For ivory and bone, see O. Krzyszkowska and R. Morkot, "Ivory and related materials," ibid., 320-331, also O. Krzyszkowska, Ivory and related material: an illustrated guide (London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1990). The time is ripe for a publication on Etruscan materials and technology, to parallel those for Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In the category of "ivory and bone" only one item, a fragmentary pyxis lid (No. 474), is actually ivory; all the box veneers, hinges, hairpins, styli, dice, distaff and parasol segments, and mirror handles are bone (the last often seem to have been packed with wood to make them fit the bronze tangs of hand-mirrors). Two beads or game pieces (Nos. 548-549) are worked fish vertebrae. It seems that the more often artifacts are examined, the more frequently they turn out not to be ivory at all, and we may discern a widespread Etruscan local industry, in all periods, in the more homely materials (as C. notes, p. 147 n. 308, the find of bone-working refuse at Cerveteri Vigna Parrochiale is an example).

Four bone relief plaques (reclining goddess, reclining couple kissing, animals, Nos. 297-300, dated c. 500-480 BCE) are examples of a very popular and widely circulating type of veneered box, which was distributed all over the Mediterranean (and into the Balkans). Several, like fine furniture, have artisan's assembly-line marks, usually letters, here the number "46". C. makes two noteworthy points in his concise, thorough appraisal of the class (pp. 148-153): 1) We need to analyze the material of all examples, since many labeled ivory, even by experts, have turned out to be bone, like the Tarquinia pieces. Differences that were once thought to be chronological, as if fabric, along with imagery, became banalized through heightened and sustained demand, may now be diagnosed as the work of different hands in the workshop. 2) The reasons for the pan-Mediterranean distribution should be further scrutinized, and the likelihood of "scambio matrimoniale" (p. 150), the dispersal of Etruscan (elite) wives across the Mediterranean, given closer consideration. C. includes reference to onomastic evidence for Etruscans married to Greeks or others. In the Italian archipelago the boxes are usually found in women's burials; in the Greek world most were votives--in sanctuaries that would have received matrimonial dedications from "foreign" wives-to-be, perhaps a later parallel to such objects as the tridacna-shell makeup cases that turn up in Italian female princely tombs and Greek international sanctuaries. Beyond the scope of this catalogue, the 4th-century production of scarabs, mirrors and cistae completes the picture of wedding gifts suggested by the objects here (parasols, bone boxes, stone and glass cosmetic jars). The accoutrements of wedding and funeral overlapped greatly for Etruscan women.

One rather plain bone fragment is identified as part of a bone cylindrical distaff (conocchia, No. 400 with fragments 377, 383-388). If so, this might be a Felsinean (Bolognese) woman whose marriage brought her to Tarquinia in the 4th c., for the type is found almost exclusively in the graves of Etruscan women at Felsina-Bologna and environs (Spina, Monte Bibele, see also M. Gleba, Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy, Oxford, 2008: 118).

A bone hairpin with nude boy (No. 455, p. 193) was found still in situ beneath the head of the skeleton buried in a single-deposition chamber tomb near the entrance to the necropolis with two mirrors and a number of vases, furnishing rare confirmation of the correct interpretation of these items (which may have doubled as styli). Utilitarian styli (Nos. 482-496) are simpler, with Hellenistic stylistic parallels. An Egyptian kohl-tube is probably an import of Imperial date (No. 475). Cubical dice in bone (Nos. 498-505) have early origins in Etruria (the 7th-c. Regolini-Galassi Tomb); a set of three (No. 498) is a 5th-c. rectangular type which may have been used with colored glass counters like the set of 24 here (No. 291). The mouthpiece of a Hellenistic or Roman-era aulos (No. 497) is a rare musical instrument.

Other rare finds are the delicate fragments of the oldest extant Etruscan/Classical parasol, in bone, No. 453, from a rich tomb excavated in 1894; they may be dated to the first half of the 5th c. A more complete, fine example is No. 451, 4th-3rd c. BCE. (The others known are from Volterra and Taranto, tombs of the 1st c. BCE.) Protection from the sun, or from malign influences during the period between death and interment, is a special funerary application of Etruscan and Greek parasols (see J.M. Turfa, "Parasols in Etruscan Art," Source 18.2, 1999: 15-24).

C. notes the different character of Orientalizing Tarquinia, which, in this collection and others, has fewer luxury goods than, say Caere, Marsiliana d'Albegna and Praeneste. Here, four ostrich eggs cut and decorated as cups and a single whole egg (pp. 217-223) are emblematic of Orientalizing Tarquinia, demonstrating the presence of princely tombs such as the Tomba del Pettorale d'Oro, which also held a vessel decorated with bone panthers (No. 335). (Two other eggs, early 7th c., are Terreno Zanobi Tomb 83 and a tomb robbed on Monterozzi and recovered at Montalto di Castro, see p. 218. Some of the latest examples were offered in the early 6th c. at Gravisca.) These may relate to Tarquinian links with the Punic world.

There are many more tiny pieces that hint at unusual belongings (e.g. small bone plaques that can be found also in bronze or amber, pp. 210-213) but cannot quite be identified conclusively--we find such things in museum drawers awaiting explanation, and this carefully organized, documented, and scrupulously honest catalogue will make it that much easier for the orphaned bits of bone and stone to one day be given back their Etruscan identities.

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