BMCR 2001.10.19

Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History

, Etruscan civilization : a cultural history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000. xix, 432 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0892365757 $55.00.

This is a magnificent addition to the relatively few books in English currently available on the Etruscans. In her introduction (xvi), Haynes clearly states the two ambitious goals of her book: “…to provide a fresh general picture of the growth of Etruscan civilization, incorporating recent discoveries and discussing the many new insights and problems that have emerged…[and] to survey the role played by Etruscan women.” Both goals are accomplished in an authoritative, precise, engaging and articulate manner.

The book is divided into five long chapters: I, “The Villanovan Civilization, ca. 900-720 B.C.” (1-45); II, “The Orientalizing Period and the Emergence of the Etruscan Cities, 720-575 B.C.” (47-133); III, “The Archaic Period, about 575-480 B.C.” (135-259); IV, “Crisis and Renewal: The Fifth and Fourth Centuries” (261-325); and V, “The Hellenistic Period: Third to First Century” (327-389). When listed, these titles and their standard chronological organization give no indication of the helpful manner in which each section is subdivided. There is a wealth of information one does not normally expect in what first appears to be a survey. For example, there are sections summarizing current research on everything from Villanovan diet and disease to life expectancies in Hellenistic Volterra. There are numerous discussions of trade connections and food production, subjects that often receive little attention in surveys where Etruscan art is the main focus.

The past decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in our understanding of the Etruscans and their neighbors in and around Italy. Voluminous publications, beginning especially with the Year of the Etruscans (1985) when nine Italian exhibition catalogues prompted a major impetus in the field, have continued to appear annually. Three major Italian exhibitions, in Venice, Bologna and Rome,1 were mounted and their accompanying catalogues appeared too late to be utilized by Haynes, but she appears to have synthesized almost everything else published in recent years. Her goal to present the results of the most current research in the field is admirably accomplished. Students, especially those who have difficulty reading Italian and German, will be grateful for her concise summaries of numerous archaeological discoveries and debates.

Etruscan women, like their sisters in many other ancient societies, have been the focus of special interest in recent years. Although there is much that is still unknown about them, a better understanding of their influence on Etruscan culture is gradually emerging. Haynes reports on the many advances in this area, frequently offering short syntheses within the framework of larger chapters (e.g., “Representations of Wailing Women,” “Women and Wine,” “Women’s Clothes,” “The Status of Women,” and “Female Worshippers and Priestesses”). There are also good discussions of female divinities and, of course, provocative comparisons between Etruscan women and their Greek or Roman counterparts. An area that I had expected would receive more attention because of its critical role in the lives of wealthy women, Etruscan engraved mirrors, is treated only briefly. Other areas too, for example Etruscan pottery—both bucchero and the various painted wares—do not really engage the author’s interest, despite many excellent studies published in recent years, especially by Italian scholars.

Most of my criticisms center on (apparently) the publisher’s decision to exclude footnotes. At the end of her introduction, Haynes states, “In order not to confuse the nonspecialist reader, footnotes in the text have been avoided” (xviii). In fact, their exclusion confuses all readers. As just one of many examples, Haynes presents an admirable synthesis of the important discoveries of an early ritual center on the Pian di Civita at Tarquinia (25-29). It is very difficult for anyone, specialist or not, to follow a description of a complicated archaeological site without a plan or reconstruction. If one wishes to consult such a plan in one of the excavation reports, one has to attempt to divine the name of the archaeologist. (For some strange reason, almost all references to archaeologists are anonymous. One often reads, “According to the excavator…” but he or she is almost never named! This makes it very difficult to find the relevant source in the lengthy bibliography.)

Similar difficulties occur with the illustrations. At the outset, I should say that the illustrations, in general, are of excellent quality. The author’s editorial collaborators at the Getty, especially Mary Louise Hart, deserve accolades for their efforts in this regard.

The problem is that one often reads lengthy descriptions of unillustrated objects (with no citations to direct one to published illustrations) or cursory mentions of objects that are illustrated. At the same time, many captions do give museum accession or inventory numbers, especially those arcane and unwieldy ones used by the British Museum. Ultimately, this is the only way to track down some of the less familiar objects.

No one expects every object mentioned in such a book to be illustrated. However, one does expect that extensive descriptions of complicated sites or objects should be accompanied by either an illustration or a citation to an illustration. Otherwise, the reader is lost. How difficult would it have been to add short parenthetical citations to published sources listed in the extensive bibliography? (Admirably, Haynes does this for almost every ancient literary source quoted in her historical summaries.) It would have helped to have short chapter or sub-section bibliographies and to identify excavators or authors by name in the text when discussing their interpretations. Instead, if one ventures to locate a specific source, one must wade through a lengthy bibliography hoping to spot a keyword or phrase in one of several languages. I suspect that most readers will not take the time to do this. Even as a specialist who could usually identify the anonymous sources, my desire to verify or learn more was often frustrated.

Despite these criticisms, I believe that this book is among the best general surveys of the Etruscans currently available in English. It is certainly up to date. It treats a wide variety of complicated and diverse subjects in an articulate and polished manner. I hope that it will find a wide audience and that the publisher will decide to produce, perhaps in a few years, a revised paperback edition. At that time, it would be prudent to add some helpful illustrations and to consider incorporating either footnotes or parenthetical citations within the text.


1. M. Torelli (ed.), Gli Etruschi (exhibition held at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2000), also available in English as The Etruscans (ISBN 88-452-4738-4); Principi etruschi tra Mediterraneo ed Europa (exhibition held at Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, 2000); A. Carandini and R. Cappelli (eds.), Roma: Romolo, Remo e la fondazione della città (exhibition held at Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, 2000).