BMCR 1995.06.06

1995.06.06, De Puma and Small (eds.), Murlo and the Etruscans

, , Murlo and the Etruscans : art and society in ancient Etruria. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. xxxi, 251 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm.. ISBN 9780299139100 $45.00.

The series of twenty essays form a commemorative honor to Kyle M. Phillips, Jr., excavator of Murlo. Most of the contributors have been involved in the excavations which were started in 1966 and “came of age” in 1987; half of them were former students of Phillips at Bryn Mawr. The volume includes a short essay on Phillips (who died in 1988) as well as his bibliography.

Part 1 consists of 11 essays relating to the excavations at Poggio Civitate (Murlo). Ingrid D. Rowland discusses “Early attestations of the name ‘Poggio Civitate'”. The name is first attested in 1318, and Rowland draws attention to the plural concept of “Cities” and speculates about its interpretation as “a political center, the seat of a strong local league” (p. 3). The lack of evidence for habitation might be seen as supporting evidence for this theory.

David and Francesca Ridgway’s essay “Demaratus and the archaeologists” sits uncomfortably in Part 1 as it deals with broader questions about links between Etruria and the Greek world, and specifically Corinth. They review the evidence for the introduction of architectural terracottas, especially at Caere and Acquarossa. The way that they draw attention to different “schools” of coroplasts a generation after the supposed date of Demaratus (p. 7) merely serves to remind us about the limited nature of the documentary evidence. At times factoids pose as facts: e.g. “Syrian—not Greek—craftsmen” introduced monumental stone sculpture to Caere and Bologna (p. 8). Likewise their positivist approach leads them to speculate that wall-paintings were introduced “probably on the initiative of vase-painters”; the possibility that the influence could be derived from other media such as textiles is not even considered. Their discussion of “Corinthian trade with the west before c. 657” depends on the orthodox chronology, and dissent by H. Bowden (“The chronology of Greek painted pottery: some observations”, Hephaistos 10 (1991) 49-59) as well as Michael Vickers and the late David Francis (“Greek Geometric pottery at Hama and its implications for Near Eastern chronology”, Levant 17 [1985] 131-38) is ignored. It is unclear if this shows an unwillingness to engage in debate, or whether it reflects an unwillingness to revise one’s position formulated over a period of years. Talk of “expatriate Potters/Painters at Pithekoussai represent a major Corinthian investment in the West” (p. 12) seems a gross overstatement in view of recent discussions about the role of pottery in Greek trade (and at this point in time exchange might be a better word).

Ingrid E.M. Edlund-Berry’s chapter on “Ritual destruction of cities and sanctuaries: the ‘un-founding’ of the Archaic Monumental Building at Poggio Civitate (Murlo)” is by contrast a thoughtful piece of work which deserves wide readership by archaeologists dealing with destruction of sites. The intentional and ritual death of Murlo is compared with Carthage, Corinth and Jerusalem (p. 17). There is also a discussion of “cursed” cities in Italy list by Macrobius. This chapter also includes some striking aerial views of Gabii and Lucus Feroniae. Her conclusion is that the complex at Murlo suffered the fate of “a permanent ritual destruction” (p. 26) which is dated toward the last quarter of the sixth century BC (p. 16).

Kyle Phillips’ own essay, “Stamped Impasto pottery manufactured at Poggio Civitate”, is a well observed piece which raises important questions about pottery manufacture at religious sites. In particular this study focuses on pieces which are decorated with impressed stamps. Phillips makes the important observation that the use of the same stamp may reflect not the work of one individual but the use of the stamp by “a son or daughter” (p. 36). This is an encouraging recognition that women may have played a much larger role in pottery manufacture than has hitherto been recognised (cf. M. Vickers and D. Gill, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery [Oxford 1994] 86). Two tools for making the impressions are also published.

The next seven essays deal with the architectural terracottas from the site. Örjan Wikander presents a catalogue of 59 examples in a chapter on “The Archaic Etruscan sima”; those from Murlo are nos. 25-27 (p. 55) and they are illustrated in figs. 5.2 (p. 49) and 5.4 (p. 52). One wonders if one can construct what is presented as a “Hypothetical ‘stemma’ of Archaic Etruscan raking simas” (p. 59 fig. 5.5) with so few pieces and without a more secure absolute chronology. This is highlighted for the Murlo examples which have been dated by various scholars from anywhere between 650 BC and 550 BC (p. 55). However there is a useful observation about the need for architectural terracottas on buildings of “modest size” (p. 62).

Erik Nielsen writes on “Interpreting the lateral sima at Poggio Civitate”. The lateral simas from the Upper Building and the Southeast Building are published in a different form from elsewhere in the volume (p. 64 figs. 6.1-2; p. 52 fig. 5.4 nos. 25 and 27). The alternating lion heads and female heads are discussed in connection with a Potnia Theron.

Nancy A. Winter publishes “A terracotta griffin head from Poggio Civitate (Murlo)”. It is likely to have come from the Upper Building and may have originally been painted. Winter suggests that it may have been attached to a cover tile; stylistically there is a suggestion that it was made by the same artisan who created the other statues along the roof ridge. There is a problem here resulting from a dependence on stylistic chronology. Stylistically the griffin dates to after 650, but the building itself seems to have been constructed around 600/590 (p. 74).

Eva Rystedt’s “Additional notes on Early Etruscan Akroteria” supplements her comments in Acquarossa IV (1983). This chapter further discusses two akroteria, one from Poggio Civitate and the other from Acquarossa, which had been discussed in the earlier volume. As such this essay makes little sense unless the reader has access to the Acquarossa volume (e.g. p. 78, “Subtracting the unit of PC2 + PC3 (PC II) from the akroteria …”). The discussion concerning the transfer of motifs is clearly formulated within a framework that makes little allowance for material which might not have survived; there is an acknowledgement that the discussion does in fact rest “on a somewhat narrow base, and new material may easily threaten the argument” (p. 81). Her positivist position clearly surfaces when goldwork is identified as one of the “minor arts”; this is surely a modern view of what in antiquity was an art form much favoured by the social elite.

Jocelyn Penny Small’s essay, “Eat, drink and be merry: Etruscan banquets”, must rank as one of the most thoughtful and useful essays in the volume. It takes as its starting point the banquet frieze from Murlo (although this is not illustrated in the volume!). Small makes a plea that a distinction be drawn between the Etruscan banquet and the Greek symposion. She provides a useful definition of a banquet, and discusses the Etruscan iconography against this framework. Although Greek pot names are borrowed by the Etruscans, this need not be taken to imply that the social setting is the same (p. 86). Indeed assemblages of dining equipment point to dining (for say 30 people) rather than for drinking in a more intimate group. Small estimates that the banquet frieze at Murlo may have shown up to 452 banqueters and suggests that this “would accord with the interpretation of the site as a center for a religious or political league” (p. 87). Figures comparing representation of symposia/banquets on Greek and Etruscan pottery are represented (p. 87); it might have been helpful to have considered how many of the Greek scenes comes from an Etruscan context. There are helpful comments on the use of phialai in Etruscan banquets (p. 90 n. 13) which have implications for the recent debate about the link between plate and pottery.

Annette Rathje also considers the frieze of the Upper Building in her unillustrated chapter, “Banquet and ideology: some new considerations about banqueting at Poggio Civitate”. The frieze itself consists of four elements—assembly, banquet, horse race (with at least 90 frieze plaques), and procession—which may have been displayed on the inside as well as the outside of the building. As such she adopts a sophisticated way of interpretation, so often ignored, in her proposal that “we must try to put ourselves in the position of the ancient viewer and try to understand his or her understanding of the scenes” (p. 95). As such the different frieze types are interpreted “interdependently” (p. 95). There is a welcome endorsement of Martin Bernal’s general thesis (“the very inspiring book”, p. 99 n. 10) acknowledging “the hegemony of Greek culture in the educational system of Europe since the eighteenth century, when it seems to have been necessary to see Greek culture as uncontaminated by Oriental influence” (p. 96). Such a view allows Rathje to consider Phoenicians as communicators not only or Oriental items but also of ideas. It is refreshing to read an interpretation of drinking cups as metallic, perhaps even of precious metal (p. 97). Even the possibility that the couches were made from a precious material such as ivory is considered. Rathje thus looks east for the imagery of reclining banquets, and suggests that the Murlo frieze itself adjoins the space in which banquets would have been held (p. 98).

Rebecca Hague Sinos presents “Godlike men: a discussion of the Murlo procession frieze” (which is illustrated!). The methodology is clearly the opposite to Small’s as she wishes to “offer an interpretation of the procession scene, with reference to the symbolism of Greek processions in both iconography and ritual” (p. 100). Attention is drawn to the cart in which there are two figures. Various interpretations are presented and discussed: funeral journey; wedding procession; worshippers going to a sanctuary; dynasts. Clearly elite values are being presented, but the evidence seems to be insufficient to allow an interpretation which suggests that the rulers were “recipients of divine honor” (p. 113).

Part 2 consists of 9 essays on “Etruscan Art Beyond Murlo” and as such is less focused and therefore more uneven. Sarah Leach presents “The Corinthian background of Subgeometric stamnoid ollas from Veii”. This includes an appendix of seven “Veientine tomb groups containing stamnoid ollas” (pp. 129-30). The material is presented against the background of early Greek colonial exploration of Italy and includes a discussion of “Italian contexts of Corinthian globular pyxides”. Euboean influence is presented as fact (which in reality it is a factoid) (p. 126); recent discussions surrounding the Phoenician nature of Al Mina call for caution in this area. As the stamnoid olla from Monte Michele tomb 5 contained the cremated remains of an adult male, aged 18-20, Leach has a brief discussion of the significance of cremation (p. 128).

P. Gregory Warden’s chapter, “Amber, ivory, and the diffusion of the Orientalizing style along the Adriatic coast: Italic amber in the University Museum (Philadelphia)”, publishes four amber pendants. The pieces appear to have been excavated in Italy during the nineteenth century, although their exact provenance is uncertain. Warden accepts that the four probably came from the same context, and goes on to try and link them to Picenum (the source of some of the Hearst gift). As such much of the chapter is mere speculation.

Ann Harnwell Ashmead’s essay on “Etruscan domesticated cats: classical conformists or Etruscan originals” is charming. Eighteen examples in different categories of material are presented: Etruscan black-figure vases; Etruscan red-figure vases; Etruscan painted tombs; Etruscan mirrors. Sadly the illustrations are not integrated with the catalogue. The summary discusses context, settings, numbers, appearance, color, pose, human associates, animal associates and themes; but cat owners will almost certainly enjoy the section on behavior (p. 162). Etruscan cats are seen siting under their owner’s chair, standing on hind legs to reach for food and even carry small animals in their mouths’; “no Greek cats do this”! Ashmead concludes with speculation as to whether or not real cheetahs were kept in Etruria (p. 162).

There then follow three iconographical studies. The first by Lamar Ronald Lacy is on “The flight of Ataiun: a black-figure amphora of the Orvieto Group and the Running Aktaion”. It concentrates on an Etruscan black-figure amphora from the Crocefisso del Tufo necropolis at Orvieto which shows Ataiun surrounded by five hostile dogs. He observes that the iconography appears to “have drawn directly upon a narrative tradition” (p. 168). There is an appendix of 26 depictions of Ataiun/Aktaion; all but one appear in L. Guimond’s entry on Aktaion in LIMC I.

This is followed by two essays discussing the iconography of Etruscan mirrors. The first by Richard Daniel de Puma, “Eos and Memnon on Etruscan mirrors”, considers four mirrors: one in the Art Institute of Chicago, one in Cleveland, one in Copenhagen and a fourth in St Petersburg. Only one of these, the mirror in Copenhagen, has a stated provenance, Piansano; one can only smile at the euphemism quoted in connection with the Chicago mirror which “surfaced” in 1984, “its history can be traced back to a private British collection” (p. 180). Do we need to accept that “most mirrors were made for Etruscan women” (p. 186)? In order to establish this as a fact – or at least to show that mirrors were associated with women in death – archaeologists would require the following information: 1) the archaeological context for the mirror; or 2) an owner’s inscription on the mirror. One can only guess at the percentage of Etruscan mirrors that come from a secure archaeological context—F.R. Serra Ridgway ( ClRev 33 (1983) 292) has suggested “few of the 3000 or so Etruscan mirrors … have an archaeological context”—, but how many of those secure mirrors have been linked to a study of the skeletal or cremated remains? Until those fundamental questions are answered, it might seem unwise to speculate about Etruscan women being either “more literate than their Greek counterparts” or “much more liberated and apparently more integrated into society than their Greek (especially Athenian) counterparts” (p. 186). Thus to read Eos as somebody who “pursues” males, “with a preference for handsome mortals over stern gods, and this despite the fact that she is married” (p. 186) seems to be taking a theory too far. However this reviewer finds more sympathy with attempts to link Eos and Memnon scenes with death (p. 187), although he might not feel compelled to associate the iconography with specific military setbacks. If these mirrors come from tombs, then their final resting place is with the dead, and this might be the reason for selecting certain themes.

Jenifer Neils writes on “Reflections of immortality: the myth of Jason on Etruscan mirrors”. This focuses on scenes of Jason on two mirrors, one in the British Museum and the other in the Cabinet des Medailles. On the former HEASUN is administered a drink from a phiale by METVIA; on the latter a youth emerges from a cauldron. Jason also appears in scenes with his ingurgitation by the dragon (p. 192). Clearly scenes linked to “resurrection and rejuvenation” were considered to be suitable for the Etruscan tomb. Of course this issue raises much wider questions about Etruscan funerary contexts. If the iconography of Etruscan objects was chosen carefully to harmonise with the theme of death, can we assume that Greek (and especially Attic) pottery, like the red-figured hydria showing the ram in the cauldron (p. 192 fig. 17.4), were chosen equally for the visual message?

The next essay by Charlotte Scheffer develops the funerary motif, “The arched door in late Etruscan funerary art”. This contains an appendix of 54 instances of “Urns, sarcophagi, and wall paintings with depictions of an arched door” (pp. 204-6). Scheffer addresses the usual interpretation as the door representing the entrance to the underworld which is thus perceived as a city of the dead. She argues that rather the doors should be read as entrances to tombs, thus forming “the visible barrier between life and death”. She also emphasises the Etruscan view of “some sort of continued existence in the tomb” (p. 204).

The final two essays deal with votives. The first by Helen Nagy considers “Divinities in the context of sacrifice and cult on Caeretan votive terracottas”. She identifies four main types from Vignaccia in Caere, apparently discovered in 1885 (p. 220 n. 4): Artumes sacrificing; seated divine figures; seated divinities with musical attendants; and seated couple in naiskos. As all four types represent a goddess, Nagy suggests a female divinity to the sanctuary.

Jean MacIntosh Turfa’s contribution, “Anatomical votives and Italian medical traditions”, is a sophisticated, though speculative, discussion of votives and their interpretation. She considers the assumption that anatomical votives were “petitions or thank-offerings for healing or fecundity” (p. 224). Hands, for example, are considered as “pars pro toto expressions of willingness to devote one’s actions, travels, and so on to the god” (p. 224). She associates terracotta votives as “probably not the gifts of aristocrats, or of slaves, but an inexpensive commodity made available for a class, perhaps socially equivalent to the Roman plebs” (pp. 224-25). The moulding of the organs provides an insight into growing anatomical knowledge, although some intestinal organs are presented as “amorphous piles of sausage” (p. 226). Problems of identification are raised: a testis for example had been identified as an ovary, placenta or bladder (p. 236 n. 33). There is a detailed discussion of votives representing the uterus. In particular a uterus model in Manchester (but without provenance) raises the possibility of post-mortem Caesarean section. This is discussed against the background of laws surrounding the burial of pregnant women, as well as the people who might have been present at the birth. MacIntosh Turfa draws attention to such models appearing in major urban centres and goes on to speculate, “it is tempting to suppose the existence of maternity clinics or hospitals in these cities or cult centres, but there is no archaeological or epigraphic evidence for this as yet” (p. 230). As “there are simply too many uteri in Etruscan and Italian sanctuaries to represent thanks for post-mortem deliveries”, it is suggested that they were given “in thanks for having just become pregnant, and anticipating a happy outcome” (p. 233).

A volume such as this illustrates the state of Etruscan studies in North America and Europe (and especially Scandinavia). Although there is evidence of the descriptive—and this is important in presenting newly excavated material—some contributors have attempted to adopt a range of interpretative approaches, especially in the area of viewing and contextualisation. Interestingly there is little discussion of attribution except in passing. This reviewer was amused at the catalogue entry for the Etruscan hydria in the Constantini Collection in Fiesole which was attributed to the “workshop of the Micali Painter” by G. Camporeale; in contrast Nigel Spivey is quoted as saying that it is “neither by nor near the Micali Painter” and that it was “too dull to merit” classification (pp. 144-45 under no. 1). It hardly needs pointing out that attribution is totally irrelevant to the subject of the chapter.

If there is a weakness in the volume it lies in the design. A short summary and plan of Murlo could helpfully have been included at the beginning of Part 1; a plan of the monumental building does not appear until chapter 3 (p. 16). Moreover illustrations are often separated from the text where they are discussed; this is particularly true of Kyle Phillips’ own chapter which includes a catalogue. Annette Rathje’s discussion of the terracotta frieze plaques lacks any illustrations at all. Notes appear at the end of each chapter rather than at the end of the book or as footnotes. Moreover standardised chapter titles for Part 1 might have avoided some contributors feeling that Poggio Civitate needed to be qualified by adding (Murlo).

There is much in this volume to recommend it, and in particular three essays stand out: Small, Rathje and MacIntosh Turfa. The wide range of issues which covered—including early contacts with the Greeks, architectural decoration, “reading” visual images—make a worthy volume in honor of Kyle Phillips.